Support is key: students and faculty achieve successful research through mentorships

With invaluable faculty support, one undergrad found her calling through research

Sarai Smith came to the University of Maine in Orono from the small town of Amesbury, Mass. Shy, homesick and lonely – she struggled academically her first year of college. Then, she found something she was passionate about: research.

Computer technology comes easily to Smith. In the spring of her freshman year, she took Phage Genomics, a two-semester course offered to first-year biology, microbiology, biochemistry or molecular and cellular biology majors and to STEM majors in the Honors College.

“Immediately, everything just clicked for me,” said Smith, who is double-majoring in microbiology and biochemistry.

The combination of computer work and the encouragement from faculty turned her academic career on its head. Looking back, Smith believes that without this support, she may not have completed her undergraduate years. She improved academically and enjoyed her classes more.

Smith’s potential did not go unnoticed by Dr. Sally Molloy, assistant professor of genomics. She offered Smith the opportunity to participate in research in her lab – a pivotal moment for the timid undergrad.

“I had not even considered doing research at the time,” explained Smith. “But I couldn’t really say no when Sally asked me.”

Molloy holds up petri dish to light
Sally Molloy makes it her mission to give students the opportunity to perform research in her lab.

Struggle turned to success

According to Smith, Molloy’s mission is to inform her students about the many opportunities for research experience and their potential impact on their futures. The support from faculty like Molloy, who is associated with the Honors College and the Department of Molecular and Biomedical Sciences, is invaluable in Smith’s opinion.

“It’s just the best experience you could have,” said Smith. “You build your skills as a scientist, but even more you are building your confidence, learning to network with peers and how to reach out for help.”

With the support from faculty like Molloy, Smith pushed through comfort zones and presented her research findings to a panel of judges at the recent UMaine Student Symposium. Her presentation, “Understanding the Role of Prophage in Mycobacterial Host Fitness and Gene Expression,” won the top award for the undergraduate biomedical sciences division.

Variety of support for the entire research community impacts everyone

Molloy enthusiastically describes the work done by her students in the research lab with pride. “We have students characterizing bacteria that carry viral genomes within the bacterial genome, learning how to isolate RNA from bacteria for RNA sequencing and determining differences in gene expression patterns compared to bacteria that don’t these viral genomes,” said Molloy.

In order to support student-driven projects like this, researchers find financial support in the form of grants. Recently, Molloy was able to provide research opportunities for an entire team of undergraduate and graduate students as they work on “Investigation of the impact of mycobacteriophage EniyaLRS and BPs on mycobacterial host gene expression in pathogenic Mycobacterium chelonae,” a project that was initially funded by the Faculty Research Funds (FRF) program from the UMaine Office of the Vice President for Research and the Dean of the Graduate School.

Sarai Smith stands in lab
Sarai Smith found a passion for research in her work with Sally Molloy.

“It feels really, really good to be able to provide these opportunities and support for student researchers,” said Molloy. “We can now ask some of these bigger questions we wouldn’t be able to otherwise.”

Financial support also creates a structured research work environment for students who would otherwise have to find unrelated jobs outside of campus. They are able to continue their work in the lab and be paid while they learn. This provides beneficial work experience and skill building the students will take with them upon graduating.

Their work is paying off. Molloy plans to continue the research with her team of student researchers to find specific genes that could be causing antibiotic resistance. With the success of her research funded by the FRF program, Molloy was awarded additional funds to continue the research as an INBRE Investigator. Programs such as INBRE, offer financial support as well as professional development for junior faculty.

“This is an excellent example of the opportunities that the UMaine undergraduate students have in learning through the research experience under the mentorship of our dedicated faculty,” said Dr. Kody Varahramyan, Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School.

Positive impacts trickle down to future generations

Smith and Molloy both value mentorships. Molloy embraces the mentorships of fellow faculty members who have experience here at UMaine and beyond; and is a successful mentor to her own students, as well.

Smith is following in her mentor’s footsteps. She plans to continue her education on a graduate level in hopes of becoming a professor one day.

“Sally makes such a great impression of what it looks like to work in research and academia,” said Smith. “Her mentoring shaped my career goals and I’m so grateful for the experience.”

chart of FY17 external funding

Media contact: Christel Peters

More information on UMaine research funding opportunities can be found online.

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