In the laboratory, Benjamin Kornegay, ’17, uncovered more than experimental data — he also rediscovered a love of science.
In high school, Kornegay says, “I actually lost all interest in science, and somewhat math too.” But the University of Richmond Integrated Science Experience (URISE) changed all that: today, he is hard at work in Dr. April Hill’s lab and is considering a major in biology.
“[URISE] gave me a very positive outlook on science,” says Kornegay.
Supported by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and launched in summer 2013, URISE offers a comprehensive approach to the sciences, bridging multiple disciplines and emphasizing a spirit of inquiry through the laboratory, while encouraging traditionally underrepresented students to enter the field.
“One of the things that is important on the national level right now is that we would like to have more students in this country that graduate with degrees in science and math and engineering,” says April Hill, a biology professor and director of the HHMI Undergraduate Program. “In particular, there are some groups of students that are present in the U.S. population who are underrepresented in STEM.”
URISE accepts 15 students a year on the basis of their interest in science and math, their future goals, and their academic record. These students participate in a five-week laboratory-based summer program prior to their freshman year; enroll in either the Integrated Quantitative Science (IQS) or Science, Math, and Research Training (SMART) course during their freshman year; and work for 10 weeks as a paid researcher in a professor’s lab the summer after their freshman year.
For many students, their experiences in the laboratory were eye opening. Rosanna Thai, ’17, who is considering a psychology major with a neuroscience concentration, was placed in the lab of Professor of Psychology Craig Kinsley.
“It made me experience what college is really about,” she says. “Dr. Kinsley wants you to make mistakes, and he wants you to learn from them. It made me really excited about doing research.”
But the laboratory is only one way URISE exposes students to real-world science. The other way is through an interdisciplinary approach that combines chemistry, biology, mathematics, and, for students who enroll in IQS, physics and computer science.
“Real-world science is interdisciplinary,” says Hill. “Almost all the real problems that we face in the world have to be approached from a multidisciplinary perspective. And while it’s true that we end up being trained very specifically in a discipline, your ability to cross disciplines ... opens up all kinds of doors.”
Santiago Espinosa de los Reyes, ’17, who is considering premed, concurs.
“In the end, science isn’t one subject,” he says. “Sooner or later, you’re going to have to encounter one of the other disciplines, so the earlier you’re exposed to this, not only are you better at solving real-world problems, ... but the more you’re prepared for solving advanced problems.”
Espinosa de los Reyes should know. As a high school student, he held internships in the department of anatomy at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and a stem cell biology lab at the National Institutes of Health. This winter, he was awarded a prestigious Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP) fellowship through HHMI, which will allow him to study under Dr. Von at the Boston Children’s Hospital this summer.
“There’s so much research out there, and if I really want to fine tune to one thing, I want to first get exposed to a lot to see which I like the best,” he says.
At the end of the day, though, URISE isn’t just about studying — it’s also a chance for students to build community. URISE students have the benefit of forging relationships with faculty and upperclassmen in the lab who can become both friends and mentors.
“Knowing the upperclassmen meant a lot, because I could ask them for advice — questions about registering for classes, what to expect in the first semester,” says Kornegay.
And for students apprehensive about starting a brand-new life at college, URISE offers a chance to meet peers with mutual interests before the first day of school.
“Coming into a new environment,” says Kornegay, “I had 14 friends that I might not have had had I not come into the program.”
Photo: The URISE class of 2017.