Episode 11: An Inside Look at the SURF Experience


In this episode, I (Ivy Haight) interview two sophomores who participated in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program this summer (who happen to be two of my close friends). They discuss what they researched, why they decided to participate in SURF, the advice they have for students considering SURF, and what Amherst is like over the summer.


0:01 Podcast Intro

0:39 What did each of you research?

1:51 Why did you each decide to do SURF?

3:03 What did a day in the life look like over the summer?

4:40 Is living at Amherst over the summer boring?

6:58 Have each of you continued to work in the lab this year?

8:39 What were each of your favorite parts of the summer?

11:32 Do you have any advice for students considering SURF?


Ivy Haight  00:00

Welcome to the Amherst stem network podcast. My name is Ivy Haight, your host for today’s episode, I will be interviewing two sophomores who participated in the summer undergraduate research fellowship SURF program this summer at Amherst, who happen to be two of my close friends. They discuss what they researched, why they decided to participate in SURF, advice they have for students considering SURF, and what Amherst is like over the summer.

Ivy Haight  00:39

Okay, I’m here with Lilia and Ruth, first, thank you guys for being here. Both of you did surf over the summer. And I was also on campus over the summer. But I wanted to talk to you each a little bit about what surf was like, because I know the deadline for applications is coming up soon. So first, why don’t you each talk about what you did research on over the summer?

Lillia Hammond  01:03

Definitely, yeah. So I did research in the Hanneke Lab, which is part of the physics department. And our main question was trying to measure the proton electron mass ratio to a more specific number. Pretty cool stuff.

Lillia Hammond  01:23

Ivy Haight  01:23

Nice. And Ruth?

Ruth Zurraw  01:25

Yes. So I was in working in the geology department for Professor Nicholas Holschuh, who studies glaciers, which is pretty cool. And I was basically using radar data and Python and MATLAB to understand these formations that appear in the base layers of glaciers that are pretty mysterious to scientists right now.

Ivy Haight  01:51

Awesome. And a lot of surf students have different topics. But it’s really fun to learn about what everyone else is doing. So, question for both of you. Why did you each decide to do surf?

Lillia Hammond  02:04

Well, I decided to do surf because it’s a great first step into research, if that’s something you’re considering as a career. The whole program is made to support you and teach you. So yeah, it’s good time.

Ruth Zurraw  02:22

I decided to do surf because I was also curious about research. And I also hadn’t decided to major yet. So it was a way for me to explore geology that I was interested in before kind of reaching my sophomore year and needing to make a major decision. Also, I didn’t really know what else to do over the summer. And campus was like a semi comfortable place where I knew some people and I didn’t have to find a place to live. Or like, making my own food, even. So it was a really nice way to get a first experience of being not home over the summer and working without being completely out of my comfort zone.

Ivy Haight  03:03

Both both very good answers. And I feel like I felt the same way about Amherst being a semi comfortable place that that was a step away from home, but also not into a crazy new world. All three of us were hanging out a lot over the summer, so our day-to-day lives looked relatively similar. So I’ll just ask Ruth, what did a day in the life look like during the summer?

Ruth Zurraw  03:25

Yeah. So the time that you have to come in is sometimes variable in your lab, but you’re supposed to be working nine to five, cough cough at biology people. So I would get up around eight, I would meet these guys at Val for breakfast around 8:30. And then I would pretty much work through the day with an hour lunch break where I joined my coworkers for lunch. usually I would have a meeting at the beginning of the day with my professor. And then maybe there was something where we had a meeting as a group, but often because of the type of work that I was doing, I was alone for most of the day, which is okay. And then around five, I would go back to my room and put on my sports clothes and play volleyball because there’s a beach volleyball court here and it was actually nice weather, which we don’t often have during the year so we got the opportunity to play a lot of volleyball and be outside a lot. And then we would eat dinner together. A perk is that you’re off the job at five and you’re free. So the rest of the evening was kind of up for whatever you wanted to do.

Ivy Haight  04:40

I really enjoyed our late night target runs. Target turns into the coolest place ever sometimes. Now okay, Lilia, the most important question that everyone considering surf is wondering: is living at Amherst over the summer boring? 

Lillia Hammond  04:57

It is not boring. You find things do – you go to the Yankee Candle factory. You know, you go to Target for fun. You don’t buy anything, sometimes. But in all seriousness, there’s actually stuff to do because there’s a lot of people on campus that you can make friends with and make new friendships. There are social gatherings on campus on weekends. What else? Oh, we did a lot of weekend trips, so you can explore the greater northeast/New York. So that was fun. Especially being from California, I don’t really know a lot of places on the east coast. So it was fun to see them. Yeah, I don’t think that Amherst is a bad place to be over the summer, because I think the people you’re with matter more than where you are.

Ivy Haight  05:54

That’s true. And I would definitely say that I got a lot closer to people who I’d known before, but hadn’t necessarily  been super close with. And we hit a lot of a lot of the Northeast cities. We went to New York, Boston, Marthas Vineyard. There are a lot of things within driving distance or even Peter Pan distance.

Ruth Zurraw  06:24

Yeah. And campus is a completely different place when it’s warm outside.

Ivy Haight  06:28

Definitely. And when the sun setting at 9pm.

Lillia Hammond  06:37

Oh, also, all the watering holes are like, what are they called? The ponds around Amherst, they’re really cute. So you can get a friend with a car to take you. 

Ivy Haight  06:47

Puffers pond.

Ruth Zurraw  06:48

Don’t swim in there.

Ivy Haight  06:50

Well, okay. No, check the E. coli levels first. But in the beginning of the summer… it’s just, it’s perfect. 

Lillia Hammond  06:57


Ivy Haight  06:58

Just not when the e coli levels are high. So yeah, lots of lots of fun little finds. Okay, and then a more more lab related question. Have each of you continued working in the lab you worked in over the summer? Like, are you still working in the lab? Or did you work in it last semester?

Lillia Hammond  07:21

Um, yeah, so I kept working in the Hanneke lab throughout last semester, the fall semester, for maybe one or two hours a week, just because I was working other jobs. I had, you know, schoolwork to do. And then because I was part of the CBL program, or Clare Boothe Luce fellowship, I got two more weeks of paid research during January, so I stayed for most of January doing research full time, so it was also nice to come back after I’d been like, a lot more comfortable with lab.

Ruth Zurraw  07:59

I also continue doing research for in the Holeschuh lab for Nick. And it was definitely a strange transition to the semester because as Lilia said, with schoolwork and other jobs, and extracurriculars, there’s a lot less time to do research during the week. So that was an adjustment, but it definitely felt a lot easier to incorporate it into my schedule. Once I was comfortable with the type of work I was supposed to be doing. Since we did it for 40 hours a week over the summer. I also worked a bit of j term in the lab, but remotely, and it’s definitely a really nice way to start working with a professor Amherst and kind of maintain that connection.

Ivy Haight  08:39

Yeah, I think a lot of people have similar experiences where they they start working in a surf lab, and then they continue working it working in it throughout the year. Okay, so it sounds sounds like we enjoyed being here with the summer. So what were each of your favorite parts of the summer?

Lillia Hammond  08:56

Um, I think my favorite part of the summer, lab-related, was definitely taking the machine shop course. Because if you do a physics SURF program here working with the physics labs, you do a three week, half day course in the machine shop where you learn how to use lathe, mill, different tools. You get to make your own projects, and I liked it so much that I kept going back during the semester and made some pretty cool projects. So that was definitely my favorite part

Ivy Haight  09:30

How about non lab related?

Lillia Hammond  09:34

I think the first weekend after it started, we all went to Martha’s Vineyard, which was very exciting because we’re all like, you know, acquaintances/friends. Then we were like, okay, let’s go on this weekend trip together and then we all got really close. Yeah, made stuff happen. So yeah, that was fun.

Ruth Zurraw  10:02

I think my favorite part workwise was, first of all getting to know the professor who I had had only as a teacher for one semester. And then my coworkers, we got really close. I felt like I was learning a lot about a subject that I had no experience in. And then I liked basically put coding to work, I’d only taken one computer science class, and now I feel pretty competent. That was definitely frustrating at first. But by the end of the summer, it was really rewarding to get to a point where I felt that confident. For friends or socially non-work related: I think my favorite part was meeting, or not meeting, completely new people, but actually becoming friends with people who you like wave to on the path, but you don’t actually talk to, and then you’re the only people on campus. It’s actually really fun. Also, we did a lot of jigsaw puzzles. And that was like a very chill, but very fun way to spend the summer.

Ivy Haight  11:08

I mean, imagine an Amherst where you have time to just do puzzles. People found their ways to fill that after 5pm slot. But I think we had a lot of fun ways – Ruth got us to play badminton occasionally. Which none of us have ever done.

Ruth Zurraw  11:29

It’s really fun. You guys should come to badminton club.

Ivy Haight  11:32

It was it was very fun. So just little things like that. Okay, and then, do each of you have any advice for students? Considering surf?

Lillia Hammond  11:44

I guess, don’t let the fact that you’re on campus deter you from applying to surf. Yeah, I think that’s the biggest turn away people experience but it’s actually a lot more fun than you would think.

Ruth Zurraw  12:07

I think I would say similar to Lilia, I was kind of, like, I should go adventure, somewhere completely new, or I should stay at home. And I’m really glad that I didn’t do either of those things. And also, my other piece of advice is reach out to whatever professor you want to do research with, whether you hear this before or after the application deadline, you can always do it. Because often, if you’re a student who they already know, you’re a lot more likely to get a position or get a position that you like, in a lab that you actually want. And they can be super flexible with the amount of people they can take on and that sort of thing. So I highly recommend it.

Lillia Hammond  12:47

Yeah, I think adding onto that, professors want to show you their lab, like they get excited about showing you stuff. So if you reach out, talk to them in person. Yeah, Amherst is a place where you can actually talk to a professor, that’s why you go to a small school. So yeah, if you show them that you’re excited or interested, that’s the key part. Also in your application, you should be writing about like, I actually asked my professor about this to help other freshmen out, but if you write about how you’re actually excited/interested, that’s all they care about. They don’t care about if you have previous research, or any of that. Just be excited. 

Ivy Haight  13:26

I would second all of that advice, especially the enthusiasm part. You’re going to be sitting near or next to someone for 40 hours a week for eight weeks. So they want you to be excited about what you’re doing, and also be a fun person to be around. So those are all my questions for you guys. It was really fun over the summer. I will say that. And definitely fun doing a podcast too. So thank you guys.

Ivy Haight  13:58

I really enjoyed being able to reflect on this summer with my friends, and I hope this provides a useful resource for students considering surf. Thanks for joining us today on the Amherst stem network podcast. And remember, stay curious, stay informed and stay tuned for more