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Guest Article: UC Santa Cruz MCD Biology launches Curricular Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs) Initiative

Professor Jeremy Sanford launches new approach to increase undergraduate research experience

Molecular Biologist Jeremy Sanford wants to expand opportunities for students to engage in meaningful, hands-on research projects at UC Santa Cruz. To overcome the limited number of student-researcher positions, Sanford is bringing his research into the laboratory classroom, where undergraduates can contribute.

Sanford’s Curricular Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs) Initiative is a pilot program launched this year with 35 students. CUREs provides three quarters of research experience while fulfilling laboratory course requirements for majors in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental (MCD) Biology. Students will work on projects directly connected to faculty research: Sanford’s research is focused on disease-causing genetic mutations.

“We’re taking them out of the cookbook-style lab classes and putting them in a research lab where they can do hypothesis-driven experiments,” said Sanford, an associate professor of MCD biology. “It’s going to be an outstanding opportunity for the students – and it’s what the Biotech industry is telling us they need.”

The benefits for undergraduates participating in research work are well documented, and UC Santa Cruz offers numerous opportunities for undergraduate research. However, limited available positions means not all students have access. Expanding those opportunities will help train a larger group of highly diverse young scientists. Of MCD Biology’s 2,000 declared students, half are the first in their family to attend a university and 35 percent are under-represented minorities.

“We want to make it easy for all students to get research experience,” said department chair William Saxton. “It’s important for undergraduates to go beyond the kind of learning they do in regular classes. The CUREs labs are a way to pass on high-level skills such as critical thinking and data analysis, and provide the training students need to get a job.”

A UCSC alumnus provided initial funding, with the goal of engaging Biotech companies to provide ongoing support to expand and sustain the program, according to Sanford.
“I’m working to build a consortium of companies to provide funding for CUREs, internships for the students, and to start the conversation on how we can improve our curriculum so it better aligns with industry,” he stated. “The companies are interested because competition for talent is fierce and these students will be able to hit the ground running, already trained to think like scientists and work in a lab. Currently more than 75% of our MCD undergraduates go into Biotech.”

Sanford studies proteins that regulate gene expression, the roles such proteins play in cancer, and disease-causing mutations that disrupt their normal activities. Students in his lab class will be working to characterize mutations that Sanford’s lab has identified in previous research.

“These kids could make some important discoveries, and that’s exciting,” Saxton said. The goal, he noted, is to expand the course offerings to integrate other faculty research with CUREs.
“We have the equipment, the students, the lab-space, and the need,” Saxton said. ”With industry support the CUREs Initiative will provide significant benefits to both the students and the biotech industry.”

To learn more about the UC Santa Cruz CURE Initiative and our biotech industry-university engagements, please contact Tim Bensch, Director of Development for the Physical and Biological Sciences, at tbensch@ucsc.edu.

<Pictures and content Copyright 2018 UC Santa Cruz>

Students in Sanford’s CUREs lab work on projects directly connected to his research on disease-causing genetic mutations. Shown here are students Alena Bellue (left) and Yasmine Elshenawi (right). (Photos by Yin Wu)
Sanford, shown here with student Clint Jennings, works with the students to teach them laboratory research skills.