Every summer, Amherst College hosts the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, or SURF. The program aims to provide a strong first research opportunity to Amherst students who are interested in STEM but lack much formal experience in the lab.
To apply, students must submit an unofficial transcript, brief personal statement, and their mentor preferences before the March 2 deadline. (The application can be found at https://www.amherst.edu/academiclife/support/funding/students/amherst-student-research-funding-opportunities/summer-research-opportunities-at-amherst/surf-application.) SURF researchers receive a weekly stipend of about $500, free on-campus housing, and a full meal plan. In 2019, there were 180 SURF applicants seeking to fill just 56 positions.
Jess Martin, the program’s Administrative Director, reported that 60 positions would be offered this summer. To better their chances, Director Martin strongly encouraged students to reach out to mentors whose work they find interesting, whether that entails stopping by during office hours or even asking to sit in on a lab meeting to better understand their field of study.
Ruminating on the skills that she believed SURF students develop, Director Martin emphasized personal progress. “There’s this idea of creating a full-research-scientist experience,” she said, noting that students can learn to collaborate with others and fully pursue a research question, on top of lab techniques. With these experiences under their belts, she hoped that students would have a much stronger grasp on what aspects of a research career best suit them.
Last summer, Mayesha Ahmed ’22 worked in Professor Christopher Durr’s lab, studying polymer chemistry. She reflected on how participating in SURF helped strengthen her self-confidence in her potential for a career in science. “I felt like I wasn’t good enough to be part of a research lab when I first got in,” she said, noting how she, like many others, struggled at first in her introductory Chemistry classes. After successes in the lab, however, she overcame any self-doubt and developed a true sense of belonging.
Sam Schulz ’22 was another SURF researcher in the summer of 2019. He worked in Professor David Hall’s physics lab, building an optical device that would help to trap Bose-Einstein condensates.
Unlike other student researchers, who occasionally found themselves working into the evenings, Sam found his schedule more relaxed. However, he discovered that he could not spend his free time as he might have during the school year. “It was a little weird just being here with a tenth of the school,” he said, “because it’s the same place, but it has a very different feeling.”
Nevertheless, Sam appreciated SURF for enabling him to get directly involved in research and work closely with a professor, an advantage that he credits to Amherst’s undergraduate focus.
In regards to the social scene over the summer, Director Martin pointed to a number of activities dedicated to community-building. She believes these group events, which include frequent outings, distinguish SURF from similar programs elsewhere. She said, “I think it’s nice to be able to provide the opportunities to get off campus, just enjoy the Valley in the summer, and hopefully deepen friendships.”