From SURF to Turf

Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship launches a research career spanning from aquatic algae to organic agriculture

Fledgling Research

Collecting algal field samples for a Delwiche lab expedition in Wisconsin

As an undergraduate majoring in Biology at the University of Maryland, I was excited to explore the research opportunities that my school had to offer. My grandfather had taught as a plant physiology professor at Loyola University Maryland, so plant biology had always been of particular interest to me. Serendipitously, Dr. Charles Delwiche offered me a position in his lab studying the evolution of the ethylene-signaling pathway after I served as a TA for one of his courses. Critical to the success of this project was the involvement of my other undergraduate mentor, Dr. Caren Chang, who is an expert on the molecular mechanisms of ethylene signaling.

It was great working with Jay. He has a rare mix of intelligence, industry, and a modest good humor that makes him a pleasure to work with. Any lab would have been thrilled to have him, and I’m proud that he decided to spend his undergraduate time with us.
– Charles Delwiche, University of Maryland

Applying for SURF

After a year of working on the ethylene project, promising preliminary results from sequence data had been collected and it was time to start work on generating functional genetic and molecular evidence. Dr. Chang recommended that I apply for the ASPB-Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), which would not only provide funding for my project but also provide me with the opportunity to present my results at a national conference. Being awarded a SURF fellowship was an exciting step forward in my research career; the fact that a national society was willing to provide funding and travel support demonstrated that my enthusiasm in the project was well placed.

“Jay was the main driver responsible for getting our project off the ground. He also helped to forge the bridge between my lab in ethylene signaling and the Delwiche lab in evolutionary genomics.”
-Caren Chang, University of Maryland

The ASPB Meeting

Jay presenting his poster at Plant Biology 2012 (Austin)
Presenting the SURF poster at Plant Biology 2012 (Austin)

One of my best experiences during my SURF fellowship was the ASPB meeting. A delayed flight and a night spent on a cot in an airport terminal added some unforeseen adventure to my voyage to Austin for the Plant Biology 2012 conference, but I only arrived seconds late to the poster session with my unwieldy poster-tube in hand. I received excellent feedback from the poster session, and left with many new ideas for experiments and improvements of my project. The meeting itself was enormous, and it was fascinating to network with scientists from all over the world. If it weren’t for SURF, I wouldn’t have been able to attend a major research conference until my second year of graduate school. I wrote about some of my experiences at the ASPB meeting in my personal statement for my graduate school applications and for my NSF graduate research fellowship application.

Plant Biology Abroad

Following graduation, I was interested in experiencing the less scientific side of plant biology, namely organic farming. Several of my friends had been involved in the World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) program, which provides organic farming education opportunities across the globe. As a long-term student of French language, I decided to move to France for several months to immerse myself in French language and organic agriculture through the WWOOF-France program. I shared some of my ethylene-signaling expertise with my host family, and they taught me all about the practical side of farming.

Planting seedlings in an organic greenhouse near Nice, France

Long-term Rewards

The repercussions of my SURF fellowship keep rolling in, even several years down the road. The most concrete benefit is the publication that resulted from my SURF-funded project, on which I am a co-first author. A link to the article and a summary of the findings can be found here ( I am also certain that the SURF fellowship contributed to my receipt of the Appleman-Norton award for excellence in Plant Biology from the University of Maryland Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics, an NSF-graduate research fellowship, and many successful grad school applications. Less tangible but equally important are the experiences I had during my SURF tenure, which helped prepare me for my career as a scientist. I am currently in my second year of grad school at Johns Hopkins University, and looking back I have nothing but gratitude for all of the people who helped me get here.

 “It was great fun working with Jay as he launched into the world of science, and I’m looking forward to watching his career trajectory.”
Caren Chang, University of Maryland

SURF 2015 is open through February 11. Apply, serve as mentor, or just spread the word now! Info & application

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