UConn’s Office of Undergraduate Research each year provides Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF) awards to support full-time undergraduate students in summer research or creative projects – an initiative that continues this year, despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
SURF awards are available to students in all majors at all UConn campuses. A faculty committee representing various schools and colleges reviews the students’ project proposals, and SURF award recipients are chosen through a competitive process. Each SURF award winner is supervised by a UConn faculty member.
This summer, UConn Today once again takes a look at various 2021 SURF scholars and their work.
Name: Mariam Zedan
Year: Rising Senior
Major: Pharm.D. program
Summer research project: Zedan is doing research examining symbiont activity in association with fungus-gardening ants in fungus gardens with faculty mentor Marcy Balunas, an associate professor of medicinal chemistry in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences.
Can you tell us about the research you are doing this summer?
The lab I am working in focuses on natural drug product discovery, chemical ecology, and host and microbe relationships, and what I am doing is a mix of all of that. There is a project in the lab that works with fungus gardening ants and a fungus garden. It’s a mutual relationship where the ants take care of the garden and clean it, and in return, the garden acts as a food source. From the garden, other students were able to pick out some bacteria, and now I am working on one of them.
This summer, I am running a bunch of tests to try to further understand what this bacteria does – things like gold biomineralization, the mineralization of gold that is soluble and anti-microbial activity. It kills pathogens that we tested, and we are trying to figure out what the bacteria is producing to do that.
What is the practical application of this research?
There’s constantly a need for new drugs to be discovered, especially antibiotics, because of an increase in bacterial resistance. Antibiotics aren’t working on a lot of bacterias anymore, so there’s been a need for new antibiotic discovery, and my research could lead to that.
How has COVID affected your work?
I’ve been in the lab since the summer of my freshman year and was starting my project for my honors thesis around the time COVID first started. I stayed at home but I was able to do a lot of literature-based study, but now I am back actually doing the lab work. Reading papers from home helped me with my proposal for a SURF grant and gave me ideas of what to work on next.
How is research different from classroom work?
Research is a lot more active, while the classroom can be a little more passive. In research, you have to do a lot of thinking on your own and figure out what steps to do next. Things don’t always work out, and then you have to think about which direction you are going to take. At the same time, I have resources available to me all the time. There are graduate students in the lab, and I also meet with my lab supervisor once a week. There is support, but there is a lot of freedom and room for creativity to do your own thing.
What are your future plans and how did you decide to study pharmacy?
Even though I am a senior, I have two more years of study because of the program I am in. I am a little unsure of what I want to do because I am interested in both research and clinical pharmacy. I might do a residency after I get my Pharm.D.
My high school guidance counselor thought pharmacy would be good for me because I like math and science. My mother (Zeinab) is also a pharmacist. I like the mix of research and patient interaction in pharmacy very much.