A Glimpse into Summer Research – Part 1

In this first of a series,  guest author Dr. Mary Konkle give you a profile of her summer research lab. Learn from her experience in managing a lab of undergrads!


I am excited to be asked to by CUR Chemistry to provide a few glimpses of a summer in our research laboratory. I’m Dr. Mary Konkle, a recently tenured biochemistry faculty member at Eastern Illinois University (EIU) in Charleston, Illinois. I have been at EIU since 2010 following a post-doctoral training at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX (Hunsicker-Wang Lab) and graduate training at Vanderbilt University and Medical Center (Marnett Lab), and undergraduate education at Ball State University (Pattison Lab). The Konkle Lab studies the structure/function of CISD proteins.

EIU is a comprehensive Master’s-granting public university located in the corn (seriously, look at Google maps). How is this relevant?

Our student population in the Natural Sciences is around 50% first generation college students and about 30% low-income students. We know Summer Research has a high impact and that it can be transformative. However, when thinking of recruiting students for Summer, the reality of their economic situation needs to be considered!

The Illinois fiscal year ends on July 1st, which also poses problems with the traditional 10-week model…these facts mean sometimes thinking outside of the traditional 10-week Summer Research box.

The internal funding for lab supplies, personnel costs (students and Faculty), and other spending (e.g. travel) is at the will of the government of Illinois. This has been a particularly challenging year from this perspective (here and in many other states, http://chronicle.com/article/Where-Does-the-Regional-State/236555). The Illinois fiscal year ends on July 1st, which also poses problems with the traditional 10-week model. This is because all orders have to be completed by around June 1st, all internal funding has to be spent down by July 1st, and no additional ordering/paying students can happen until after July 10th. Taken together, these facts mean sometimes thinking outside of the traditional 10-week Summer Research box.

My students this Summer (the Year of the Young)

Students in EIU Chemistry Research Labs typically fall into a couple of categories

1) Taking Research for credit – This counts towards their degree, they pay tuition, the faculty member gets paid a small amount of summer salary per student. The drawbacks to this model is that the students only do ~80 hours of research and there is no support for supplies.

Divya Nagendran (Pre-Med) and Ashton Wilson (Pre-Nursing) are both students who have completed General Chemistry II and this is their first Summer Research Experience.

Photo Jun 20, 7 27 55 AM
Audrey Rex balancing bacterial cultures for spin down after protein expression. Late night in the lab and still smiling!

2) Doing Research paid for by Internal grants won by the student – This is typically closer to the 10-week model. However, because of the lack of resources available (the stipend amounts, ability to find housing) this model is typically reserved for students with more means essentially cutting out half of our student population.

I have no students in this category this Summer due to budget restrictions.

3) Doing Research paid for by External grants – The Holy Grail. External money frees you from the state’s quirks. Notification of funding is key in this situation because many of our students need to know by Spring Break if they have a paid position so that they can secure summer employment elsewhere to make continuing their education feasible.

Audrey Rex is a rising sophomore (Biochemistry, Pre-Vet) who is supported by a grant she won and a separate investigator grant from the Mindlin Foundation. With this support, she was able to stay for one month.

Photo Jun 20, 7 27 59 AM
(From Left to Right) Jewel Kodavatikanti, Dr. Konkle, Ashton Wilson, and high school Chemistry teacher Casey Komal are learning how to purify protein. Not every research lab has a high school student and a high school teacher from different areas of the state working together!

4) Volunteer Research – This is rare, but occurs often enough to mention. We most often see this with local students. They rarely work 10 weeks and their reliability can be unpredictable.

Jewel Kodavatikanti is a local high school student who has finished her freshman year of high school. She has had no prior Chemistry classes or lab experience. I met her at an outreach event.

My general goals for the students this Summer (the Year of the Young):

  • The returning students (Audrey and Divya) – Since none of these students has any more than one semester experience, my goal for our (short) time together is to move them along the novice expert continuum from learning basic techniques (how to autoclave) to taking accountability for their projects. This means
  • Becoming proficient in techniques that everyone needs to do to keep the lab moving forward. This is primarily protein expression and purification. Since these processes take anywhere from 8-18 hour time blocks, learning them during a semester is tough
  • Becoming acquainted with software necessary to contribute towards project goals. In my lab this includes Chimera (molecular modeling software), ACS ChemWorx (reference management system), and Google drive for depositing all data.
  • Read and discuss literature relevant to their projects.

If she can stay excited about science, find a student mentor, and become proficient at making buffers without hurting herself, others, or anything expensive then I will call it a win!

  • The new students (Ashton and Jewel Ashton has only committed to one summer in the laboratory (at this point). He will start learning basic biochemistry techniques Jewel is fourteen. Fourteen. If she can stay excited about science, find a student mentor, and become proficient at making buffers without hurting herself, others, or anything expensive then I will call it a win!

My Goals for the Summer

It is unusual to have a lab that is so young. However, since I had maternity leave in 2014-2015 I don’t think it is that unusual. Because of the state funding issues, this is the shortest time I will have students in lab since starting Summer Research Programs in 2009. My faculty mentor, Dr. Kraig Wheeler, was helpful in pointing out to me in April that this could be advantageous….if I plan it right.

Publication Writing –

I have manuscripts at various stages with various amounts of responsibility to them (lead author or collaborator). I need to prioritize them and work diligently towards publication

  • Goal: It would be outstanding if three manuscripts were submitted by summer’s end. Two would be considered successful. One really is the minimum.
  • Collaborator Moving a collaborator at EIU is moving Institutions.
  • Goal: We have one joint undergraduate finishing her Honor’s Thesis to get finished. We also have to sort out new project plans and materials prior to July 1st.

Teaching Planning –

I am teaching a new (to me) Honors Seminar course in the Fall. It will include grading a lot of writing assignment on material I have not yet read.

Goal: Read the materials and get excellent assessment rubrics for writing assignments from amazing colleague in the English Department.

Service Project –

Regaining my sanity and refilling my well after achieving tenure. There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that the semesters immediately after achieving tenure can be fraught with loss of direction and angst.

Goal: Start the semester like a vector, with both magnitude and direction!

Goal: Start the semester like a vector, with both magnitude and direction!

You will be able to read two more installments (not as great as Serial, but you know, pretty good for CUR Chemistry!) of how the Summer Progresses for the Konkle Lab. Hopefully, describing my experiences and situation can add to resources available to others on this windy road of mentoring Undergraduate Summer Research!


~Dr. Mary Konkle is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Eastern Illinois University where she works with undergraduates on making small chemical changes to elicit large biological impacts.

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