Crystal Richardson, ’10, first arrived at the University of Richmond in the summer of 2006, fresh from her high school graduation. As a Howard Hughes Medical Institute scholar, Richardson had the opportunity to complete a month of research on campus before beginning her studies as a freshman in the fall.

Now, four years later, Richardson is completing a fifth summer of research with biology professor April Hill, and will head to the University of Virginia in August to begin work on a doctoral degree in biomedical sciences.

The pre-freshman summer research program Richardson took part in is funded by a $1.4 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, awarded to the University of Richmond to integrate teaching and research across the undergraduate science disciplines. Every summer a handful of newly accepted students are given the opportunity to come to campus early and perform hands-on experimentation under the guidance of a Richmond science professor.

As a first-year student, Richardson was paired with Dr. Hill, and after a few weeks together in the lab, she knew that she wanted to continue working with Hill throughout her college career.

“I came in unsure of what type of research I wanted to pursue, but after shadowing [Hill] and talking to a few professors, I was sure that her’s was the kind of research I wanted to be involved in,” Richardson said.

Hill’s research focuses primarily on the genetics and development of marine and freshwater sponges. By studying the simple sponge, Hill hopes to improve the scientific understanding of early animal evolution.

Richardson says she was immediately impressed by Hill’s vast knowledge of the topic.

“That summer we had a week with no other students in the lab, and I had the opportunity to work with her one on one,” Richardson said. “She knows exactly what she’s talking about. Any question I could ask — if she doesn’t know the answer, she knows where to find the answer. That’s really important to a scientist.”

Over the next four years, Richardson had the opportunity to work with Hill on several research projects. One involved isolating bacterial agents on marine sponges that are often useful in developing pharmaceutical drugs.

Working with Hill on these projects inspired Richardson to pursue a future in medical research.

“She’s really helped me develop into a good scientist and helped me figure out what I want my career path to be,” Richardson said. “I know that whatever I’m doing, I want to be doing research, preferably medically relevant research that makes a difference.”

This fall at UVA, Richardson will have 150 labs from which to select her research rotations.

She says she’s thrilled to be part of such a prestigious program, and that her “well-rounded” Richmond education gave her an edge over other applicants.

“In the scientific classroom we learn how to write and read the literature,” she said. “In every single one of my interviews, I asked them what the biggest weakness of their students were, and they always said their writing skills.

“I know how to write scientifically and I know how to write in general to convey a point. I can present my research very well and I feel comfortable talking in front of a group of Ph.D.s. That really helped me.”