NCI Grant to Expand Sylvester’s Summer Undergraduate SURF Fellowship

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has awarded Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine a five-year grant to expand the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, a 10-week fellowship that inspires and educates undergraduates who are considering careers in biomedical and cancer research.

Priyamvada Rai, Ph.D.

SURF was started by the Miller School’s Office of Graduate Studies (OGS) in 2014 with Sylvester co-sponsoring the program from 2017 onward, according to Priyamvada Rai, Ph.D., who directs the program and is principal investigator of the NCI grant. In the pre-COVID years, SURF fellows would live during the summer on UM’s Coral Gables campus and get hands-on experience working across research disciplines, including cancer biology, epidemiology, genetics and epigenetics, microbiology and immunology, pharmacology, public health and others.

“The NCI grant will allow us to expand and innovate the SURF program, which runs from mid-May through end of July 2022,” Dr. Rai said. “One of our programmatic goals has been for the SURF students to experience the world-class faculty, research and resources at the Miller School and Sylvester, so that we can recruit them back when they go to the next level of their training.”

Dr. Rai, who also is an associate professor of radiation oncology and is affiliated with the Tumor Biology Program at Sylvester, said the SURF program grew from two fellows in 2017 to 12, often out of a pool of 100 applicants.

When Dr. Rai and colleagues looked more closely at SURF candidates, most were interested in cancer biology, which motivated her to apply for NCI funding.

Recruiting Undergraduate Scholars

The NCI’s R25 Comprehensive Research Experiences to Advance Training and Education (CREATE) grant will be used to expand SURF’s cancer research component by recruiting 20 cancer-focused undergraduate scholars a year. The funding of more than $302,000 the first year and similar funding annually for the next four years also will expand the program’s scope, leveraging the NCI-designated Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center’s diverse research opportunities, which span tumor biology, cancer epigenetics and cancer control.

“We have started making changes to the curriculum to include specific training components in data mining and drug discovery, as well as cancer epidemiology, in addition to the existing strengths of mentored bench research, clinician shadowing and career development sessions,” Dr. Rai said.

The modules will be akin to mini boot camps.

“In one module, the students will learn how to analyze a single cell RNA seq dataset from a tumor, to characterize the specific molecular pathways that have been altered and to identify druggable signatures based on those changes,” Dr. Rai said. “We have planned field trips to Scripps Jupiter and to our local biotech companies to provide experiential exposure to drug discovery pipelines.”

Another module will offer hands-on experience in cancer disparities research, leveraging unique Sylvester-developed SCAN360 tool to identify existence of health and socioeconomic disparities in local communities, and their impact on disease and treatment burdens and outcomes.

Roadmap of Cutting-Edge Tools

“Most people do not get to this level of comprehensive understanding of oncology research at this early stage,” Dr. Rai said. “These are biomedicine-focused undergrads who are trying to decide which careers to pursue, and we are giving them a roadmap of the most cutting-edge tools and concepts in oncology through academic development and mentoring.”

SURF is an important part of the Miller School’s mission towards diversity, inclusion and equity in science and medicine, as typically at least 50% of the program’s fellows each year derive from groups that are underrepresented in science, according to Dr. Rai. SURF’s role in fueling a diverse, knowledgeable oncology workforce will also have a positive impact on patients.

“We are comprehensively educating the next generation of doctors, scientists and health care professionals about cutting-edge tools and technology for translational discoveries, as well as the most pressing problems in cancer,” Dr. Rai said.

Securing NCI R25 funding reflects on the Miller School’s and Sylvester’s strong commitment to undergraduate trainee development and their history of success in this area, as these grants are highly competitive and prestigious.

“This is a sign that Sylvester’s investment in training and education has paid off at a national level” said Kerry Burnstein, Ph.D., professor and chair in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology, and associate director of education and training for Sylvester. “Through this R25 grant, we will be able to enhance our efforts in building a pipeline for the future leaders of cancer research,”

Tags: Comprehensive Research Experiences to Advance Training and Education, Dr. Priyamvada Rai, SURF fellowship, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center