Laura Nell Walker has a passion for workers’ rights and a vision for a future career blending creativity and policy advocacy.
“Public opinion is the most powerful political force there is, and artists have such a major influence over public opinion,” she said. Walker traces her interest in labor rights to an inspiring high school teacher; at UAB, the sophomore is majoring in political science. This spring, Walker enrolled in Michele Forman’s course in Ethnographic Filmmaking to learn about documentaries. “She is a genius,” Walker said of Forman, who directs UAB’s Media Studies Program and was an associate producer for Spike Lee’s documentary “4 Little Girls,” about the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. “I can bring her a mass of footage, and by the time I leave it looks like a movie.”
Walker is from Bessemer, home of the massive Amazon distribution center that became the focus of worldwide attention early this year when its workers voted whether they should become the company’s first warehouse to unionize. “My mother suggested I make my film about that,” Walker said. “She knows me really well and realized I would be instantly invested.”
Walker drove over to the distribution center one day and ended up meeting Darryl Richardson, the worker who sparked the unionization effort. “He became the focus of my film,” Walker said. But after the Bessemer Amazon workers voted not to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) in April 2021, Walker figured her “Bamazon Union” documentary, like the workers’ efforts, was over. “I was at union hall [located on the edge of UAB’s campus] the day they heard the news, and it was absolutely devastating,” Walker said. But then the RWDSU appealed the decision to the National Labor Relations Board — and Walker got an investment that helped her keep the film project moving over the summer.
Walker was one of 26 students selected for the 2021 Honors College Presidential Summer Fellowship program. While she worked on the fine points of video editing with Forman, Michaela Philip dug into the health effects of redlining, Luke Jaskowski used the 90-ton cyclotron in the basement of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center to track invisible environmental contaminants, and Grace Ham built regression models to map the effects of social phobia on teens’ eating behavior.
“It was an amazing experience to be paid to research a topic that I have had a personal interest in for a long time. I was stressed about finding a summer job while trying to enhance my resume, and the program solved both of these problems.”
Job? Or high-impact experiential learning?
Other students in their cohort studied mental health among college students, genes and aging, drug targets for COVID-19, diversity programs for nursing undergrads, and synaptic activity in Parkinson’s brains, among other projects. “It was an amazing experience to be paid to research a topic that I have had a personal interest in for a long time,” one participant wrote on a post-program survey. “I was stressed about finding a summer job while trying to enhance my resume, and the program solved both of these problems.”
Resolving the conflict between passion and finances is at the heart of the fellowship program, says Honors College Dean Shannon Blanton, Ph.D. “Many students lack the financial resources to be able to allocate significant time and effort to these types of projects during the summer,” Blanton said. “Most of our Honors College students receive scholarships during the fall and spring; but without a program like this, it would not be an option for them to concentrate on research during the summer.” Blanton led the launch of the program in 2017 with a vision to allow students to “engage in high-impact experiential learning for a concentrated period of time,” she said.
Recipients receive $2,500 stipends, “the opportunity to focus on a topic of particular interest to them and benefit from the expert guidance of UAB faculty,” Blanton said. The fellowship program quickly drew the enthusiastic support of UAB President Ray Watts, M.D., whose interest and financial backing led the program to add the designation “Presidential” in 2017. (Parents and supporters of the Honors College also donate to make the fellowship program possible, Blanton notes.) Recipients dedicate at least 20 hours per week over nine weeks to their projects. Faculty mentors also receive professional support funds. The students present their work to Watts and Provost Pam Benoit, Ph.D., at a concluding breakfast, and at the annual UAB Summer Expo for undergraduate research.
“Dr. Watts is always so interested in the students’ projects and will ask detailed follow-up questions about their research,” Blanton said. “To have the president of the university take such an interest in their work is empowering to our students.”
“Most of our Honors College students receive scholarships during the fall and spring; but without a program like this, it would not be an option for them to concentrate on research during the summer.”
— Honors College Dean Shannon Blanton, Ph.D.
Experiential learning helps students chart their paths
Blanton says the summer funding acts as a sort of pilot grant that lets students pursue research, scholarly activity or a creative interest and get a better understanding of whether they would like to focus on that area in graduate school or the workforce.
“I am so grateful for the opportunity the fellowship gave me to pursue a project I was passionate about and facilitate the research process, both financially and through mentorship,” said Michaela Philip. The rising senior from Madison, Alabama, is majoring in public health with minors in economics and math. Her current goal is to pursue a doctorate in economics and study “health disparities and the role that economics plays both in perpetuating and in rectifying those disparities,” she said. In a freshman seminar for the Honors College’s University Honors Program, Philip learned about redlining, a widespread policy of refusing loans to Black borrowers and other marginalized groups that was practiced by banks in American cities for at least a century. “You can see how the impact of this compounds over time,” Philip said. “Entire areas of a city can be negatively impacted because generations of families are being barred from home ownership, one of the biggest pathways that U.S. families utilize to generate wealth.”
Philip had read about specific poor health outcomes associated with redlining; but she hadn’t come across any “large-scale analysis on health in general, and it seemed like a really interesting topic to learn about,” she said. She originally proposed it as her semester project for her class in econometrics with Joshua Robinson, Ph.D., associate professor in the Collat School of Business Department of Marketing, Industrial Distribution and Economics. “But it seemed like it would be a bit too big to tackle during the semester, and the PSF was the perfect opportunity to look into it,” Philip said. Robinson encouraged her to take on the project and agreed to serve as her mentor. “He helped me break this project down into manageable chunks and was there to help with every challenge I encountered,” Philip said. She charted the death rates from selected chronic diseases in redlined versus non-redlined areas, broken out by race. Philip believes the work will help as she applies for graduate programs in spring 2022. “It signals to graduate schools that I have some idea of what I’m getting myself into,” she said. “I hope that it shows I have a strong interest and a realistic understanding of what graduate school is going to require of me.”
“I am so grateful for the opportunity that the fellowship gave me to pursue a project that I was passionate about and facilitate the research process, both financially and through mentorship.”
A culture of openness in UAB labs
Luke Jaskowski is a rising senior majoring in chemistry and a member of the Honors College Science and Technology Honors Program. He has a longstanding interest in the fate of environmental contaminants, so he used his fellowship to take on a project in the lab of Suzanne Lapi, Ph.D., professor in the departments of Chemistry and Radiology and director of UAB’s Cyclotron Facility. Using radioactive fluorine-18 isotopes produced in the cyclotron, Jaskowski was able to tag and track particles of perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), contaminants that are found in everything from pizza boxes and fire extinguisher foam to electronics and nonstick cookware. Due to their widespread use, they also are present in most drinking water. Jaskowski passed PFAS-contaminated water through commercially available filters, determining that the filters trapped more than 90% of the particles and that less than 1% were washed off the filters with each use.
“With these results, we hope to not only draw attention to the issue of toxic PFAS in drinking water, but also promote household filter use as a simple and accessible method to effectively divert PFAS from your tap water,” said Jaskowski, who plans to pursue a doctorate in chemistry. “Dr. Lapi has given me the opportunity to more deeply explore my passion, and I’m grateful to continue to work with her.” Jaskowski has completed data with one molecule in the family of PFAS compounds, “and I am now studying another, hoping to get a publication by the end of the year,” he said.
“Luke is enthusiastic and picked up many techniques in our lab quickly,” Lapi said. “We have several other undergraduates currently in our group from chemistry and biomedical engineering and have hosted a number of students in the past. They always bring new ideas and points of view and contribute to the many projects ongoing in our group.”
“There is a culture here at UAB where faculty are very receptive to working with undergraduates,” Blanton said. “That’s what we tell prospective students — there are lots of faculty who are willing to work with you as an undergraduate. We don’t assign students to faculty members. The students find them and talk with the faculty members about the projects they are interested in. I think it is wonderful that faculty across the university choose to take part in this.”
Anna Sorace, Ph.D., assistant professor in the departments of Radiology and Biomedical Engineering, said she “always has about five undergraduate students” in her lab, coming from majors as diverse as biomedical engineering, immunology, cancer biology and neurobiology. “Each student brings their own perspective and a fresh set of ideas to the table and is an integral component within our team of researchers,” Sorace said. Undergraduates often “provide key support and implement studies that are a part of large-scale research,” she added.
That was the case for Nandini Vobbilisetty, who is part of the Undergraduate Neuroscience Program and had joined Sorace’s lab in the spring semester of her sophomore year. “I wanted to gain more experience in learning lab techniques and breast cancer in general,” Vobbilisetty said. Dr. Sorace “gave me the opportunity to work with a graduate student who had started this project analyzing the potentially synergistic effects of two different treatments for breast cancer. I learned about different drug and radiation therapies and how to visualize treatments under the microscope, and he taught me lab techniques and how to process images.”
Over the summer, Vobbilisetty was able to continue that work under Sorace’s mentorship. “Nandini is a dedicated student who is excited about research discoveries, and working with her was fun,” Sorace said. “The concept of bringing research from idea to data acquisition and analysis, to presentation of your results is a wonderful experience for any undergraduate. This fellowship helped to facilitate that.”
“It’s intimidating at first to be surrounded by older students and professional researchers, but this experience allowed me to practice techniques and get more comfortable in my shoes as a researcher,” Vobbilisetty said.
“It really helped to talk to other students about my project and figure out how to explain my research in normal terms. That was a great experience and made me learn more about my project as well.”
—Nandini Vobbilisetty, a member of the Undergraduate Neuroscience Program
Multiplying ‘energy and enthusiasm’
Over the course of the summer, fellowship recipients take part in at least five workshops on topics both professional and personal. Over the years, these have included scientific integrity, interview skills, personal money management and mental health support. These gatherings also give students a chance to talk with classmates who share a common passion for new ideas and exploration. “I met amazing people every day,” Walker said.
“We want them to feel that they are part of a community, to feel that energy and enthusiasm you get when you are around people who are passionate about what they are doing,” Blanton said. “We also see these workshops as part of the holistic development that we offer to our Honors College students. The topics are designed to apply to the whole person — both mental health and personal finance are topics that college students can struggle with, for example.”
“It was really nice to meet everyone and to see the vast array of projects that people were involved in,” Vobbilisetty said. “It really helped to talk to other students about my project and figure out how to explain my research in normal terms. That was a great experience and made me learn more about my project as well.”
“There is a culture here at UAB where faculty are very receptive to working with undergraduates. The students find them and talk with the faculty members about the projects they are interested in. I think it is wonderful that faculty across the university choose to take part in this.”
Toward equity of opportunity
Grace Ham is a junior majoring in neuroscience and minoring in business administration. She also is a member of UAB’s Early Medical School Admission Program, with plans to be a child psychiatrist. In the summer before her sophomore year, Ham started working in the lab of Aaron Fobian, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry. “She is always so helpful and gave me great motivation and encouragement,” Ham said.
With the fellowship funding, Ham was able to devote the summer to a project examining the effects of sleep and socioeconomic status on body composition and eating behavior in adolescents — an outgrowth of an ongoing NIH-funded study in Fobian’s lab. “We found that increased social phobia and sleep-related problems significantly predict greater food responsiveness, emotional overeating and emotional undereating,” Ham said. These observations could guide weight-loss interventions in targeting specific sleep problems and social anxiety to change eating behaviors, she says. Another outcome for her summer project is that “I learned that I love clinical research,” Ham said. “I love the interaction I get to have with every participant and the little conversations that we strike up during each visit.”
“The concept of bringing research from idea to data acquisition and analysis, to presentation of your results is a wonderful experience for any undergraduate. This fellowship helped to facilitate that.”
—Anna Sorace, Ph.D., assistant professor in the departments of Radiology and Biomedical Engineering
“Grace is very motivated, and I think this experience gave her a really strong foundation for any research she would pursue in medical school and beyond,” Fobian said. “It is helpful, too, in preparing medical school applications.” In discussions with colleagues and other educators, Fobian has noted that the advantages of lab experience are not always equitably distributed. “If you volunteer in a lab, the amount of money you are giving up by not working a traditional summer job is considerable,” Fobian said. That generally restricts the benefits of summer lab experience to students from more well-to-do backgrounds. “Giving students this opportunity to focus on their research and compensate them for their time is very meaningful,” Fobian said.
Funding creative explorations as well
“We have many students who find great opportunities in UAB labs; but we also support social science research, arts and humanities, and even service projects,” Blanton noted. “In lab sciences, there is often structure and a culture of looking for funding for your research; but we want to provide opportunities for students pursuing other scholarly and creative activities as well.”
Bailey Dumlao is a senior majoring in theater performance from Germantown, Tennessee. He earned a 2020 Presidential Summer Fellowship to adapt James Baldwin’s novel “Giovanni’s Room” into a play. The novel “is a landmark work dealing with homosexuality,” Dumlao said. “It is a piece of literature with themes I like by an author I love. I had taken a course in playwriting and had a bunch of friends back home who do adaptations that are incredible and inspired me.” UAB Theatre Professor and Head of Performance Dennis McLernon agreed to mentor Dumlao through the process. “I was already working with Dennis as a stage manager on a show, ‘The Glass Menagerie,’ so we were in constant communication,” Dumlao said. “When I mentioned the idea in rehearsals, he was super excited.”
Over the course of the summer, Dumlao wrote and worked through issues of structure, framing and context. “If I had a problem, Dennis would offer a solution; but he spent most of the time making sure that what was going on in my head came out on the paper,” Dumlao said. “Dennis just wants to see you try it — he puts a huge emphasis on process over product, which is why I wanted to work with him.”
Fellowship funding was liberating, Dumlao says. “Performance is always about ‘pay to play,’” he said. “Even doing a show in college costs a credit hour. This opportunity was the first time that I was paid to play. I felt completely unbridled in the work I was doing, and as a creative, that is everything.”
Whether a student’s passion is research, scholarship, service or creative activity, the fellowship program is meant to offer exactly that freedom and support to break new ground, Blanton says. “This funding is like seed money,” she said. “It’s not a tremendous amount of money; but it’s enough to give students the extra resources to say, ‘I’ll give it a try.’ And that is invaluable.”