The Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship: 3 Questions With Alumna Courtney Malo

Dec 17, 2015

Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows

Each year, the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) provides approximately 130 undergraduate students a summer opportunity to work at the Mayo Clinic. During the fellowship, students conduct a small research project or work on part of an ongoing research investigation for 10 weeks. Mayo Clinic states that a career in biomedical research is not for everyone, but if you love science, enjoy tough challenges, and are interested in contributing to new medical breakthroughs, this might be the right opportunity for you. It is also a chance to learn more about obtaining a postgraduate degree at the Mayo Graduate School (MGS). MGS provides stipends and full-tuition scholarships for all Ph.D. and M.D.-Ph.D. students.

To learn more about the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, which made our list of the Top 10 Summer Fellowships of 2016, we interviewed former fellow Courtney Malo. Courtney developed a passion for biology in high school and completed a B.S. in the biological sciences at the University of South Carolina.

1. What inspired you to apply for the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship?

I found out about the Mayo Clinic Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship from another student at my undergraduate institution, the University of South Carolina. I heard he had been a part of the SURF program the previous summer, and I was baffled that such a program existed. As a biology major with a strong interest in research, I immediately applied. I remember telling my college roommate, “if I get in, this will set me up for graduate school.” At the time, I wasn’t planning on going back to Mayo Clinic for graduate school, only because I didn’t know that Mayo Graduate School (MGS) existed! When I found out that I was accepted into the SURF program, I was thrilled. I knew that I would have an opportunity to work with some of the top researchers in the biomedical field. I was excited to learn what the life of a graduate student was actually like.

2. How has the fellowship shaped your career aspirations?

The SURF program is designed to teach undergraduate students what it is like to be in graduate school. You really live the life of a graduate student, from going to seminars to planning experiments. Specifically for me, I joined an immunology laboratory for the summer, which set me on the path to become an immunologist. I had little knowledge of the field prior to that summer, but 10 weeks was enough to convince me that immunology is the coolest topic ever! While in the SURF program, we had several opportunities set up for students to prepare for graduate school. These sessions included a “Meet Mayo Graduate School” and “Meet Mayo MD/PhD program”. Both of these sessions were designed to help the SURF students learn how to be competitive in applications and why MGS is an excellent graduate school. We also went to sessions where we learned how to give a scientific presentation and poster, which were immensely helpful, as communicating your science is often the hardest part of being a scientist. Between the time spent in lab and with faculty and the sessions provided to us to learn about being a graduate student, the SURF program really sets students up to be successful scientists right from the beginning. The SURF program impacted me even further. I decided to come back to Mayo Clinic to complete my graduate studies in the same lab that I spent the summer in. Mayo Clinic’s research community has a way of bringing people back, which shows how excellent the environment here is.

3. What tips would you give others applying to the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship?

My first suggestion would be to start the application process early. It takes a while to get through everything, especially letters of recommendation. I would also highly recommend that students applying to the SURF program ask everyone they can find to read their personal statement. The personal statement and letters of recommendation are important for both fellowships and graduate school applications, and getting those perfect is key. Also, the SURF program doesn’t have interviews, so your paper application really needs to sparkle to set you apart. There isn’t the opportunity to win people over with an interview. From what I’ve gathered, the main thing that the faculty involved in the SURF program are looking for is enthusiasm. They really want to take on students that truly want to be in the lab learning. I think that really helped my application. Rather than stressing where I’ve been successful, I tried to make it a point to explain just how much I love science and how ready I was to be in a lab. Passion goes a long way, and that’s true for any career.

Courtney Malo grew up in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. She is now a pre-doctoral student at the Mayo Graduate School, where she joined the same lab that she worked in as a SURF student, a neuroimmunology lab led by Dr. Aaron J. Johnson. Now a second year student, Courtney’s main project is focusing on a viral vaccine to a mouse model of glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive brain cancer.

© Victoria Johnson 2015, all rights reserved