Research Ready

Julie Phin behind a microscope working in a lab

Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow Julie Phin

Photo credit: Nora Lewis

Scientific laboratories were a little intimidating to Julie Phin when she first arrived at the University of Rhode Island. No more.

As a participant in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow (SURF) program, the chemical engineering major quickly gained confidence in her abilities and has made fast progress in her 10-week summer research project in URI’s NanoBio Engineering Lab.

She’s not alone. Phin, now a senior, is one of hundreds of undergraduate students who gain valuable hands-on experience every year conducting research at URI.

Working in collaboration with grad student Moein Safaee and Assistant Professor Daniel Roxbury, Phin is spending the summer investigating how carbon nanotubes can be used to detect and monitor the progression of diseases. She describes carbon nanotubes as “super, super tiny cylinders of carbon that are really strong and really stable.” Under certain conditions, they will fluoresce in different colors when observed under a microscope.

“A lot of disease cells have a high fat content, so we attach a surfactant to the nanotubes that interacts with the lipids, and as the lipid concentration grows, it causes the nanotube to change color,” Phin said. “When it changes color, it tells us how far the disease has progressed and if it’s getting worse.”

Phin spends her days culturing cells, reading research papers, and learning procedures for conducting complex chemical experiments. “It’s very meticulous work, you have to be very careful, and there’s always concern about contamination, so I’m always working under a biosafety hood,” she said. “The first time I cultured cells was rough, but now it’s a breeze.”

Undergraduates like Phin have plenty of opportunities to conduct research early in their URI careers. The University’s Idea Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, which sponsors the SURF program, has provided mentors and guidance to hundreds of undergraduates interested in conducting hands-on biomedical research in recent years. URI’s Coastal Fellows Program and its Science and Engineering Fellows Program provide many more research opportunities for undergraduates interested in the environment, energy, engineering, and many other disciplines. So does the EPSCoR program—the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. And faculty in numerous other disciplines also provide undergraduates with exciting research opportunities.

“I’m using this experience to figure out my future career plan,” said Phin. “I’m using it to test the waters to see if this is the route I want to take in the future. By the end of the summer, I’ll have a much better idea of whether I want to go to grad school or go to work in industry or do something else.”