Abby Delapenha holds a Falcon tube in her gloved hand. Her lab partner, Meghan McLees, gingerly taps in a chemical compound to create a buffer solution as Assistant Professor of Biology Josephine Antwi looks on.
Fresh out of high school, these incoming undergraduates haven’t even started classes, but they’re already conducting cutting edge scientific research, thanks to Jepson Scholars.
Funded by a National Science Foundation grant, the UMW program gives future science majors for whom finances may be a challenge a four-year scholarship and the priceless experience of doing research alongside faculty mentors – and seasoned upperclassmen – the summer before their freshman year.
Jepson Scholars is the brainchild of professors Dianne Baker and Nicole Crowder, who said studies have shown that science students are more successful when they don’t have to work to pay tuition. The five-year NSF grant of nearly $1 million gives scholarships averaging $7,500 annually to a total of 20 students who started classes in 2018 and 2019. The grant also covers two research opportunities while the students are enrolled at UMW.
The youngest daughter of Mary Washington alumni Kim Holcomb ’85 and and Liz Brown Holcomb ’88, rising sophomore Grace Holcomb was concerned about how she was going to pay for college until she learned of her acceptance into the program last year.
“I didn’t want to have that financial burden because I knew I was going to pursue further learning,” said the biochemistry major who discovered an interest in scientific ethics during the program and hopes to attain a law degree and work with pharmaceutical patents.
Baker, a biology professor, said students were selected based on a combination of need, high school GPA and standardized test scores. But above all, she and Crowder, an associate professor of chemistry, looked for students who displayed a passion for research with a creative approach to solving real-world problems. “We wanted students who have a curiosity spark,” Baker said.
For Delapenha and McLees, their real-world problem is the Spotted Lanternfly, an invasive species indigenous to Asia that has spread to Northern Virginia. While these plant-hopping pests prefer Chinese sumac, they’ll also snack on grapes, stone fruits and apples – a grave threat to the agricultural industry.
McLees and other members of Antwi’s research team are extracting the insect’s DNA to determine if phytoplasma, a plant pathogen that can cause crop failure, is present. Other topics Jepson Scholars are researching include how plants adapt to climate change and the reproductive and stress hormones of fish.
During the five-week summer Early Active STEM Experience (EASE), pairs of Jepson Scholars are assigned to teams led by a faculty mentor. Each team also includes two students from the Summer Science Institute (SSI), a 10-week program for rising juniors and seniors. The NSF grant also gives the scholars the opportunity to participate in SSI as upperclassmen.
Jepson Scholars combines several components designed to prepare students to succeed in their future majors and careers, such as enrolling as a cohort for their first-year seminars and science intro courses and taking part in peer-assisted study sessions to support classroom learning. Baker and Crowder said the cohort model has long been considered a best practice for student retention in STEM undergraduate programs, and they are eager to learn what impact the summer program has had on these students.
An aspiring pediatrician, Delapenha believes EASE will give her an edge in her classes, especially Phage Hunters, a hands-on biology intro course in which she’ll get to isolate her own unique virus in the lab. “At other schools, you usually don’t get to do this kind of research until you’re a senior or a graduate student.”
One of last year’s Jepson Scholars, Rina Murasaki, said the program taught her to explain her research, thanks to a weekly meeting in which all summer science participants update their peers on their progress. An environmental and political science dual major, Murasaki hopes to work on climate policy and says she learned the importance of simplifying complex ideas to communicate with those outside the scientific community.
This year’s Jepson Scholars will showcase these skills when they share the results of their studies on Monday, July 22 at 3 p.m. The SSI students will present their research at the Summer Science Symposium on Wednesday, July 24, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Both events are scheduled to take place at the Digital Auditorium in the Hurley Convergence Center.
“By incorporating these elements of doctoral programs – including the strong emphasis on writing and speaking – we are teaching our students how to present themselves as scientists,” Crowder said. “The fact that we can get them into the lab this early, we think will make a huge difference in their experience at Mary Washington.”