Health and Life Sciences Undergraduate Research Program Hosted at Eastern

Eastern Connecticut State University was the host of the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP), which ended on July 2.  This marks the third and last year of the summer program, which is a component of the Connecticut Health and Life Sciences Career Initiative (CHLSCI). This three-year program of the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education is coordinated by Norwalk Community College, and has focused on preparing Connecticut’s workforce for the growing health and life sciences sector.

Eastern plays an important role in CHLSCI by hosting the hands-on summer research component of the program. By offering its facilities to students from Connecticut’s two- and four-year public colleges and universities, Eastern is able to open students’ eyes to new and exciting possibilities within the health and life sciences career fields.

“This is the first exposure to health and life sciences for many of the students involved,” said Lesley Mara, project director of the initiative. “Prior to the program, many of them weren’t aware of career opportunities in this field.”

“SURP has given students hands-on research experience and many opportunities for personal, career and academic development,” said Board of Regents President Gregory Gray. “The program will help our students be competitively positioned for health and life science careers in Connecticut.”

The initiative enrolls both traditional and nontraditional students, but focuses on veterans and unemployed or underemployed workers. This summer, 20 students — mostly from community colleges — participated in SURP. “Participating in this program was definitely worthwhile,” said Sharon Turcotte of Middlesex Community College. “The faculty was so helpful as well! The teaching assistants even had experience with SURP, so they could sympathize with what we were going through and help us through it.”

Participants took part in one of two tracks, either “Bioscience: Search for Clues,” or “Building Healthy Communities.” The bioscience track gave an experiential look into how the study of plants is important for identifying potential medicines and how the study of stem cells could lead to cellular therapies for traumatic brain injury and stroke. The other track focused on understanding the components of creating a healthy community by conducting field research and applying the practices studied in the classroom in the real world.  Both tracks entailed conducting research alongside Eastern faculty.

SURP provided students the means to conduct research and helped introduce them to the methods they would use to formulate and apply their own research in the field. Since students conducted their own research for their presentations, they were able to explore an area of personal interest.

For Sonya Conrad of Manchester Community College, who is a student and a mother, that area was childhood obesity.  She wanted to explore some of the leading causes of obesity among children so that she could better monitor her own children and ensure that they remain in good health. “As a parent, the health of our children is important to me,” she said. “Finding better methods to keep kids healthy will benefit everyone in the long run.”

Research topics for the biosciences included the medicinal effects of dandelions, anti-microbial activity of local fauna and lab-made stem cells for cardiac regeneration. Topics for the “building health communities” track included childhood obesity, the effects of school lunches on children, a geospatial analysis of the effectiveness of substance treatment centers, and the use of geographic information systems (GIS) to study the health of a community.

Research was conducted in Eastern’s state-of-the-art Science Building. “Having access to a lab allowed me to pursue a research topic that really interested me. I would have never had the opportunity to conduct this research without SURP,” said Brendan Kelly, a student from Manchester Community College, whose research focused on the antimicrobial properties of local plant life.

Many students chose to live on Eastern’s campus during the program. “In addition to benefiting from the research experience, community college students had the opportunity to experience what it is like to live in a dorm,” said Mary Ann Affleck, former dean of academic affairs at Capital Community College.

The initiative involves Eastern and six other Connecticut state colleges. Five of these schools, Norwalk, Gateway, Middlesex, Capital and Manchester Community Colleges, are developing new programs as well as revising current ones in order to better prepare students to meet the workforce needs of the health and life sciences field. The sixth, Charter Oak State College, also provides prior learning assessments to ensure students get credit for military service in addition to other learning done outside of traditional classrooms.

The Connecticut Health and Life Sciences Career Initiative also aligns with Eastern’s Health Sciences major. Both of these programs are meant to address the rapid growth of the health and life sciences field over the coming years.

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