Hometown U: UAA offers undergrads NSF-funded research

Kathleen McCoy
Ted Kincaid

In summer, University of Alaska Anchorage research activity picks up. Scientists and students do fieldwork as far away as Toolik Lake, the Aleutians and Greenland, and as close as Portage and Girdwood.

Another little-known fact: Students from top U.S. universities come here just for the summer research opportunities. A sizeable award from the National Science Foundation sustains 10 undergraduates working alongside some of UAA's top academics.

In the program, Research Experiences for Undergraduates, more than 600 U.S. colleges and universities -- including state schools like the University of California Berkeley and private institutions like Stanford University -- vie for the award so they can entice the best and brightest to their campus. (We'll meet three of this year's crop in a minute.)

UAA has won the award three times. Each award covers hosting expenses for three summers. Two locals won slots in this summer's cohort.

"It's highly competitive, both for the institution and the students selected," said Khrys Duddleston, a microbiologist who oversees the program with comparative physiologist Jonathan Stecyk. Both teach in the Department of Biological Sciences at UAA.

About 300 applicants review a list of potential UAA mentors and available projects, then make first, second and third choices. They file transcripts, recommendation letters and a personal statement. Professors select them if the fit looks good.

"The program is important for two reasons," says Duddleston. "Research opportunities for bright students who might not have them at their home institution. And it puts UAA on the map, increasing our visibility to top-level graduate students and faculty."

So, who are the lucky ones who get round-trip airfare to Alaska, room and board and a $5,000 stipend?

Hometown girl

Chloe Cayabyab graduated from Dimond High but attributes her love of science to Wendler Middle School.

There she got her first peek through a microscope. Best of all, "Mr. Hepler shot a potato cannon in class ... I've been a science geek ever since."

The journey hasn't been smooth. High school was easy, so when Cayabyab arrived as a UA Scholar with an additional scholarship from her Native corporation, she overloaded her class list and worked part-time.

Suddenly she was getting grades she'd never seen, and they didn't begin with an "A." After a short detour to part-time status to regroup, she got better advising and selected classes more strategically.

It's paid off. Not only did she win the REU opportunity to work with Duddleston on the gut microbial community of Arctic ground squirrels but she earned an Alaska Heart Institute Fellowship to fund research next year.

Military school at age 11

With shoulder-length, curly black hair and a muscled physique, Marcus Burwell looks like a local, maybe a Pacific Islander living right here in Anchorage. Not so. He was born and raised in Philadelphia until, at age 11, his parents decided military school might be a good alternative to the distractions of city life.

He spent seven years away, with family visits only five times a year.

"I hated it," he admits. But a football coach and a drill sergeant turned it around for him. Getting up at 4:30 a.m. for the intense physical exercise required for an elite team transformed him.

"It gave me the mental drive to do anything I want," he says.

This summer, he's working in Stecyk's lab, testing how different drugs affect contractions in turtle hearts. He's on schedule to graduate next spring from Huntingdon College in Alabama, which had its historic beginning in the post-Civil War south. What he wants is a future in biomedical engineering, plus a program that will help him pay for it.

"My folks come from humble means," he said. When a zoology professor suggested the fully funded REU, he applied to UAA because Alaska was the farthest away and most exotic.

"I didn't expect to get it," he said with a broad smile. "This is something amazing!"

Marathon at midnight

Mauricio Barreto, born to Venezuelan parents who now live in the U.S., misses seeing stars in a dark night sky. Other than that, Alaska has been more than he expected.

A junior from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he was so set on securing a summer research opportunity that he applied to eight REUs. Alaska was his top choice.

He's working in microbiologist Fred Rainey's lab, tracking a bacterium, hymenobacter, as it travels from freshwater glaciers through melt and runoff to salty Turnagain Arm.

"We want to see if it adapts to this environment or just survives," Barreto said.

But beyond the lab work, Alaska adventure has captured his imagination: "We were in Seward for the summer solstice. We started climbing Mount Marathon at 10 p.m. OK, now it's midnight, I'm on the top of a mountain, and the sun is still setting -- this is really weird!"

Kathleen McCoy works at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.

Kathleen McCoy
Hometown U