Science research in Rome

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Junior Sophie Gart, who attended the summer science program, enjoys a sunny day in Rome outside St. Peter's Basilica. Photo courtesy of Sophie Gart.

This past summer, the University of Dallas Biology Department offered biology majors a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do research as part of the Rome Research Experience in conjunction with the University of Rome Tor Vergata.

This was the program’s first year, and coordinators Dr. William Cody and Dr. Deanna Soper from the Biology Department hope to continue to offer it annually.

Under the guidance of Cody and Soper, five rising junior and senior undergraduates participated in the Rome Research Experience, which allowed each student to work in research labs at the University of Rome Tor Vergata.

Each student, assigned to a different biology lab at the Tor Vergata campus, spent 10 weeks in a laboratory setting, learning the methods of European scientific research from Italian professors.

“We wanted students to experience a different sort of lab structure, to be exposed to an R1 institution, a major research institution,” said Soper, enthusiastic about the work that her students accomplished in the summer of 2018.

According to Soper, undergraduates typically do not participate in research labs in Italy, where research is the work of graduate or Ph.D. candidates. This made the UD students unique amongst other scientists in their labs.

The Rome Research Experience offered the UD students yet another opportunity to spend time in the Eternal City. They were housed on UD’s very own Due Santi campus, and commuted into the city to work every day by taxi.

While the students paid for their own room, board, and transportation, the founders of this program hope that time will change the experience for the better.

Cody, chair of the Biology Department and associate professor, is applying for grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund the students’ work overseas.

Despite the lack of funding, the researchers spent a fruitful time abroad.

Ana Henriquez, a junior biology major, rediscovered her love for science as she transitioned to working at Tor Vergata, not even traveling back overseas after her time in Rome during the spring of 2018 came to an end.

“The juxtaposition of a purely liberal arts semester with science … was just what I needed,” Henriquez said. “It confirmed [for me] that I wanted to do research, and that I wanted to teach others how to do good research as well.”

Abigail Sequeira, a senior biology major, realized as she applied to the program that she would have to miss her sister’s wedding if she were accepted, because the costs of flying to and from Rome would be too extravagant.  

“I’m still glad I went through this experience,” Sequeira said. “Working in that lab basically put me on the path to see what I would like doing: [research]. I have a clearer idea [of what I want] in my career. After all, very few have this opportunity as an undergrad.”

The Biology Department plans to offer this program again next summer, and announcements about opening applications will be made to potential future participants in the upcoming months, according to Cody.

The program is competitive: only five students were chosen out of many applicants last year, and the number is sure to grow. But the department thinks that introducing science to the Rome campus, even if only during the summers, is well worth the outcome.

“We utilize the campus at the time of year where there is not a lot of use,” Cody said. “It’s a huge resource for the university.”

“Italy… has a superior reputation in the sciences,” said Dr. Peter Hatlie, director of the UD Rome campus. “Our UD interns got a great, first-hand experience of that, I am happy to say, and they also enjoyed the benefits of living in Italy in [the] summer.”

“The Rome program has undergone a developmental trajectory,” said Soper. “We’re excited to expand possibilities on that campus.”

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