More than two-dozen students dedicated their summer to research and graduate school preparation as part of the Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program Summer Research Internship.

The program began two decades ago with the goal to promote diversity at Virginia Tech, particularly in the study of science, math, and technology. The program provides students with academic and financial support.

The summer research internship is open to undergraduate students from any two- or four-year college or university in the United States. In addition to working on a research project, students also participate in a Graduate Record Exam course.

Jamaica Sykes of Portsmouth, Va., a sophomore majoring in biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, successfully applied for the program in her freshman year. She says a friend encouraged her to apply for the summer research internship, and she is thankful for the push.

"When you are learning in the classroom during the school year, I know as a freshman, I struggled. I understood everything and got good test grades but I wasn’t really making connections among concepts,” said Sykes. “But during my summer of hands-on experience in a research lab, I began to connect a lot of things. I’ve just learned a lot in the past two months."

For 10 weeks, Sykes has been studying how plants respond when put under stress – in this case, withholding water. Sykes found that key genes are activated during the stress period. In addition, the reproductive fitness of the plants was affected by the stress, as witnessed by a decrease in the number of mature seeds produced by the plants under stress.

“Next would be to create plants that already have this specific gene so they are able to deal with stress before they are even exposed to it,” said Sykes. “We could create our own plants that are not as prone to drought, flooding, salts, pathogens, and other stressors. This will help us to create plants that could grow in places where crop failure is normal now.”

Sykes will continue her current research this fall with her faculty mentor, Ruth Grene, professor in the Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology and Weed Science. “There is no reason why you shouldn’t do undergraduate research,” explained Sykes. “Not only do you learn from it, it’s a great experience – you get to know people, you make professional contact with professors for recommendations later on, and it improves your resume, especially if pursuing graduate school.”

For Sykes, those benefits may be important as she looks to apply to medical school in a couple of years. “I want to be a pediatrician. I love children.”

Sykes and 27 other Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program Undergraduate Summer Research Interns will present the results of their summer research at the Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program and McNair Research Symposium.  The interns represent the following 16 colleges and universities:

  • Belmont Abbey College;
  • Bluefield State College;
  • Christopher Newport University;
  • Concord University;
  • Duke University;
  • John Hopkins University;
  • Norfolk State University;
  • Old Dominion University;
  • Saint Augustine's College;
  • The College of William & Mary;
  • University of Arkansas;
  • University of Maryland, Baltimore County;
  • University of North Carolina at Pembroke;
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill;
  • University of Pittsburgh; and
  • Virginia Tech.

In addition, 16 McNair Scholars will participate in the symposium, which will be held on Friday, Aug. 3 from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Graduate Life Center at Donaldson Brown. Students from both programs will make oral and poster presentations. The symposium is open to the public.

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