If someone had told Oumou Toure ’18 last year that by June she would be injecting dye into fish embryos and screening the larvae, she might have been dubious.

After all, the rising junior had been put off by the way labs in her science classes were not only technically difficult, but progressed at a breakneck pace from subject to subject.

Still, Toure decided to apply to a special Amherst program—Summer Science Undergraduate Research Fellows (SURF)—that would give her another shot at finding more enthusiasm for a laboratory’s complexities. 

"What I wanted is to get an idea of whether or not I wanted to do research at all," she explained recently during a break from her work in Professor Josef Trapani’s neuroscience laboratory. "I feel like it's very important to actually do the research before you say, 'Research is not for me.'"

As a SURF student, Toure learned techniques such as how to use complex microscopes to take images of fluorescence in fish proteins and found herself much more comfortable in the lab setting.

“I find that I actually like research and I'm not as scared of it as I was in the beginning," she said. “It’s up to me how long I take to learn, so it’s less stressful.”

Toure is one of the lucky ones. Out of a record 140 applicants this year, only 32 received SURF fellowships to do hands-on scientific work. Additional students stayed on to do summer laboratory work with support from eight other grants.

“There’s a growing interest in the program,” said SURF Program Director John-Paul Baird, who is also a professor of psychology and neuroscience and the chair of the psychology department. Baird said students find SURF helpful in guiding them toward subjects they want to study further. 

This year, psychology was added to the list of departments participating in SURF, joining biology, chemistry, geology, neuroscience, math and statistics, and physics and astronomy.

“We want to expose students to a range of options out there,” Baird said. “I really just want to help students understand more about career opportunities and know more about science.” 

While SURF students spend most of their time on laboratory research, they also participate in a range of social and educational programs, such as lab tours, an ethics luncheon—which focused on common dilemmas scientists face—and workshops on public speaking, programming and computer skills.

This year, SURF kicked off in June with a series of “data blitz” lunches where students in the program offered five-minute presentations on their research topics. There were talks by a self-described “laser lady” and by gumboot-clad students working with tree swallows. Students explained how they were tracking the way DNA folded inside sperm, mapping the routes of New York City taxi drivers, and working with children to explore their undersanding of advanced concepts. 

Trapani, Toure’s mentor this summer, agrees with Baird, that more funding could give additional students access to labs like his. Trapani accepted four undergraduates—two through SURF and two through other grants—to work with the two senior thesis students in his lab. 

“I feel very strongly that if students don’t get a research opportunity really early on in college, that can turn them off to research for the rest of their lives, potentially,” he said. “As many opportunities as I can give students to get into the lab, then I’m looking to have that happen.” 

As for Toure, the summer program has completely changed her perspective on hands-on laboratory work. Hungry for more, she’s declared neuroscience as her major.