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First-year Researcher? Why Not!

Lynn Lee’s pathway to her future started with one email. Then a high school senior from Diamond Bar, Calif., Lee was leaning towards attending the University of San Diego where she’d been accepted. But hearing about USD’s Pre-Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE) program cemented her decision.

“My sister is a junior at another college and she's dying to do research there. When I told her about (PURE) she said she’d not heard about other schools having this kind of opportunity, especially for freshman," Lee said. "So when I heard about this, she told me ‘you have to do it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’”

PURE Opportunity

Actually, for nearly 10 years, PURE has been a USD staple to introduce selected students to a research environment.

“PURE at USD is a unique opportunity for incoming students to acclimate to the campus the summer before the start of their first fall term,” explained Office of Undergraduate Research Director Sonia Zarate. “Specifically, the PURE program matches students interested in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine (STEM/M) with a USD faculty mentor who guides them in an independent research project over the course of eight weeks.”

Lee expressed interest in STEM, but she had no previous research experience. She saw PURE as a great barometer to know if being in a scientific research environment was what she wanted and if she’d want to pursue a major in it or not. PURE students are part of USD's growing summer scholars’ community. PURE students receive a stipend, funds for research supplies, an on-campus housing allowance and access to academic and professional development workshops. Zarate said PURE helps diversify STEM disciplines by targeting incoming students who are traditionally underserved in both academia and the scientific workforce.

“Thanks to the generosity of the Carrie Estelle Doheny Foundation, 73 aspiring scientists have benefitted from participation in USD's program. As of summer 2014, 38 participants — 63 percent — had declared a STEM major. The expectation is that 11 current students that have yet to declare a major will declare in STEM, too.”

Supportive Learning Environment

Lee was selected and she joined veteran Biology Professor Hugh Ellis, PhD, who routinely has new-to-research students involved in his lab projects. Lee also had mentoring support through Chyna Gray, a junior Biology major and Ellis’ 2013 PURE student, who could answer Lee's questions. Also, Emerald Dohleman, a senior biochemistry major, was Lee's summer on-campus roommate. Lee said they bonded right away, going to dinner and grocery shopping on the first night. Their mutual love of science strengthened their connection and they talked and learned about each other's research.

Lee's research tasks involved analysis of basal metabolic activity through enzymes to understand Eared Grebes' migratory patterns and physiology as well as studying oxygen stores by using tissues of these birds through spectrophotometric analysis. Working closely with Ellis, who has studied the diving waterbirds from many perspectives, Lee appreciated his insight and genuine interest in her adjustment to college.

"He's got a lot of knowledge and experience," Lee said. "I think Dr. Ellis is one of the most generous faculty members. He wants to teach as much as he can and loves being around students. I learned so much from him, not just doing the research, but also about managing my time, helping me figure my way around a science program. He really wants to help you and goes out of his way to make sure things go smoothly."

Ellis enjoyed seeing Lee's "transformation" process and the launch of her passion for science.

"What you see is people pursing happiness," he said. "You need to think about what makes you happy. If not, you're not preparing yourself for the future. You have to find what you are passionate about. Students who have succeeded in my lab have found their passion. I've had summer scholars, PURE students, SURE (Summer Undergraduate Research Experience) students and McNair students. These students have found a way of relating to nature, they see a future direction and they're intellectually engaged. All I do is guide them."

Sustained Success 

Gray is a prime example. The local first-generation college student also received the USD email about PURE while in high school. She applied, got accepted and had a great experience. It translated well, too, as she worked in Ellis' lab her sophomore year through SURE and is currently a USD McNair Scholar. She's a student employee in the Biology Department, is Ellis' lead student researcher and is currently using her knowledge to apply it to a project she’s doing in the lab of Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor Joseph Provost.

"PURE definitely influenced my decision to come to USD," Gray said. "It was an amazing opportunity and I don't know of any other college with this type of program. In high school I didn't have a research opportunity at all. I thought I'd come here and see where it takes me. I knew I wanted to do biology, but (PURE) was a good opportunity to learn more about it."

Lee said the research, faculty advising and interaction with student mentors delivered a completely wonderful PURE experience.

"When I started the program, it was definitely something different. I'd never been in a lab or a research environment. But I soon found that it's so practical and applies so well to everyday life. It's really good for a student if I'm applying and I want to continue doing research after I graduate. It helps you gain perspective for your major, your career path and it opens up opportunities to know more people. Working in the science building has helped me understand this is the path I want to follow and, in terms of the research, that this is what I can expect. I definitely like it."

— Ryan T. Blystone

Contact Information

Office of Undergraduate Research
UMO Room 100N
5998 Alcalá Park
San Diego, CA 92110

Phone: (619) 260-7840
Fax: (619) 849-8390
ugresearch@sandiego.edu