Mentoring the Next Generation of Scientists


This summer the faculty of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular & Cellular Biology (BCMB) spent ten weeks hosting a group of students in their research labs as part of the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Site Grant funded to the department by the National Science Foundation. The program’s goal is to encourage the participation of under-represented minorities, women, and first-generation students in undergraduate research.

The 2014 summer research experience was BCMB’s fifth REU for students interested in biological sciences research. The focus of the research experience was the same as the past four years—Sensing and Signaling in Biological Systems. Although the program attracts hundreds of applications every summer; the department can host only ten each year.

The focus of REU program is to give students experience with cutting-edge, hands-on research. The ten lucky students selected this year had a broad choice of research areas to explore with faculty research mentors representing the disciplinary diversity of the department which includes molecular biologists, biochemists, cell biologists, biophysicists, and computational biologists.

The REU students worked in individual labs for ten weeks learning the techniques and background needed to carry out independent research. Additionally, they had lectures on topics such as molecular structure and function, model systems, and the basics of signal transduction.

REU students also participated in various workshops that informed their knowledge and understanding of careers in science.  These included a lab safety workshop conducted by Brian Ranger (Director of the Biological Safety Office); a mentoring and diversity workshop led by Ernest Brothers (Assistant Dean of the Graduate School and Associate Director of Diversity Enhancement); a workshop on Responsible Conduct in Research by Robert Nobles III (Assistant Vice Chancellor for Research); and, a training session on the use of databases and bibliographic software presented by Donna Braquet (Biology Librarian). There was also a roundtable discussion with graduate students about graduate life and another discussion about career paths with faculty holding doctoral degrees in various disciplines from diverse backgrounds.

Although the program activity was intense, the students took occasional breaks to enjoy social and recreational opportunities. At the end of ten weeks the program concluded with a final symposium and dinner open to the UT community where each student presented their research in a twelve-minute talk followed by questions.

The main target audiences of REU Site Grants are at institutions without research opportunities for their undergraduates. The 2014 cohort came from schools from Drury University, Mercer University, Marlboro University, Earlham College, University of Wisconsin, Misericordia University, University of Arkansas, Clemson University, and the University of Maryland.

Participating in an REU research experience and having a high quality mentored research experience gives the students an important credential for undergraduates applying for graduate school. In such experiences students learn important knowledge and skills that institutions seek in their graduate students—the ability to think critically and independently, to formulate the questions that can be addressed through research and scholarship, and to gather evidence in order to make an argument or draw a conclusion. In some cases, demonstrated ability to engage successfully in research may actually be valued more by graduate admission committees than standardized scores.

According to Brad Binder, Project Investigator for the REU Site Grant, a total of sixty-seven students have now participated in the BCMB REU program. “We recently surveyed former participants and were pleased to find that most reported that this research experience influenced their career choices,” Binder said. “That’s what makes the effort worthwhile for us.”

This is the third and final year of the current REU Site Grant. The BCMB faculty are already working on a proposal to the National Science Foundation for funding for three more years.

More details about this year’s projects, mentors and students can be found at the departmental website ( under the undergraduate studies tab.

Student feedback

“My REU experience was a wonderful chance to join a lab that was very different than my home lab and gain a large amount of knowledge in plant biology, molecular biology, and genetics.  It introduced me not only to new laboratory methods and new techniques for conducting research but also new ways to think about biochemistry.  I feel that this experience has given me a good taste of my approaching graduate school and prepared me for a future in research.”

Kaylee Kotwis, REU student from Clemson University

“Overall, I would say that this REU was one of the most incredible, fun things that I have been a part of. That summer was the first time I gained significant research experience in biochemistry. It was also great meeting and befriending other undergrads from all over the country, and being able to do all of the fun things we did together like trips to the Smoky mountains and to Nashville.”

Elisha Segrist, REU student from Drury University