The Charger Blog

Students Reflect on Opportunities Created through Faculty-Mentored Research

The University’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program has enabled a dozen students from diverse majors to collaborate with faculty mentors while gaining meaningful hands-on research experience.

October 1, 2021

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Image of a Student doing research in a lab.
The University’s SURF program enables students to gain meaningful hands-on research experience.

When Allison Santoli ’22 read A Lesson Before Dying, a novel by Ernest J. Gaines, it became her favorite work of literature. She says she was fascinated by its insights. The book would eventually help connect her with her mentor at the University and inspire an in-depth research project.

Santoli learned that Diane Russo, Ph.D., a distinguished lecturer of English at the University, had written her dissertation on Gaines’s work. Under the mentorship of Dr. Russo, Santoli conducted her own research project, titled “Narrative Voice and Cultural Memory in Ernest Gaines's A Gathering of Old Men,” as part of the University’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program.

Allison Santoli.
Allison Santoli ’22, an English major.

As part of her research, Santoli closely examined several sets of Gaines’s handwritten manuscripts, tracing narrative changes. She tracked the evolution of the narrative structure and story from the earliest versions to the final published version of his work. Most interested in whether there are certain voices best suited to expressing certain stories or experiences, Santoli hoped to best determine which voices should be prioritized when unlocking and expressing particular human experiences.

“My research findings have centered around two related discoveries upon exploring and analyzing Gaines’s manuscripts,” she said. “There exists a mutual reciprocity between cultural memory and narrative voice, and the realization of cultural memory is an endeavor best executed with an attention to and a thoughtful development of narrative voice. Who is speaking impacts not only what is said, but how it is said.”

Santoli is one of a dozen students who conducted research projects this summer as part of the University’s SURF program. SURF is open to students of all majors, enabling them to work closely with a faculty mentor to develop a research proposal, conduct an intensive research project, and, then, present their findings to the University community.

‘The giddiness and excitement we felt was wonderful’

Paul Manzi ’22 focused his research on finding viruses in the environment that can target antibiotic resistant bacteria. Using seven different strains of drug-resistant bacteria from hospitalized patients, he grew the bacteria strains so that they could be tested. He also collected more than a dozen samples from local wastewater treatment plants, as well as mud and water samples.

Working with his mentor, Anna Kloc, Ph.D., he tested different combinations of samples, bacteria, and chemical reagents, eventually finding viruses that could target and kill the drug- resistant bacteria MRSA.

Paul Manzi.
Paul Manzi ’22 collected samples from the local environment as part of his research.

“This is a wonderful result because it enables me to isolate these viruses and grow them on their own,” said Manzi, a biology major. “Once this is done, I can test the effectiveness on other strains or types of MRSA. Depending on the results, these viruses may eventually be able to be developed into therapies that could treat infections from these bacteria in people.”

Manzi says getting to experience hands-on research was invaluable, as he learned how to troubleshoot along the way, summarize and present his findings, and explored research as a possible career path. He says that Dr. Kloc’s mentorship was especially critical to his research experience.

“I had such an amazing experience working with Dr. Kloc over the summer because I was able to develop a good relationship with her while enjoying doing research and collecting samples,” he said. “I learned so many things from her, but I think the most impactful one was learning how to enjoy the lab work and manage my expectations.

“When we did find results from one of the sewage samples, the giddiness and excitement we felt was wonderful because we worked so hard all summer and actually found something,” he continued. “Being able to trace back all of the individual steps, adjustments, and setbacks really made the excitement we had even more impactful. This translated to my presentation, and it will translate to when I continue this work for my Honors thesis.”

‘I hope it will spark more discussion and research’

Manzi’s classmate Sophia Gambale ’22 studied behavioral changes in crayfish as part of her SURF project. She explored whether a synthetic estrogenic compound – a primary constituent in birth control pills that can make its way into waterways – can impact crayfish behavior when they are exposed to it. While learning how to maintain a healthy colony of crayfish, she discovered that female crayfish are naturally more aggressive than males.

Working under the mentorship of R. Christiopher O’Brien, Ph.D., over the summer, Gambale is continuing her research this fall. She will be testing the effect of another anthropogenic stressor on crayfish as part of her Honors thesis.

“I hope my research will bring the issue of anthropogenic stressors to light and the impacts that they have on the natural expression of behavior in freshwater species,” said Gambale, who is majoring in forensic science with a minor in environmental science. “I hope it will spark more discussion and research to expand upon my findings. Climate change is a direct result of our actions, and the effects add additional stressors to the environment. I want my research to draw attention to the various impacts of these stressors on parts of ecosystems that may be traditionally overlooked.”

Sophia Gambale explaining her research to High School Students.
Sophia Gambale ’22 (right) explains her research to West Haven High School students at the University’s Center for Wildlife Forensic Research.
‘An opportunity to explore my own existing passions’

One of several faculty-mentored research opportunities offered at the University, SURF enables students to gain a competitive advantage when applying to graduate programs and jobs. Santoli, the English major, says the entire program – from the research to presenting her findings to the University community – has been a meaningful and inspiring experience.

“Presenting my research to the University community has solidified in my mind the notion, ‘I can definitely do this,’” she said. “The SURF Program is like taking a leap into uncharted waters, except there is an absence of danger. Seemingly the entire open world is in front of you, yet there is nothing to be feared. It has been an opportunity to explore my own existing passions with the guidance of mentors who in very concrete ways uplift, encourage, and provide students the tools for success.”