What Hunter believes sets the MAOP program apart is an emphasis on building community. “They’re in the lab, but they also live together,” she said, “and they are creating these friendships and networks for life. I’ve had participants that ended up getting married. “
On a sultry Wednesday in July, MAOP students wobbled through Venture Out’s high ropes Challenge Course at the edge of campus as a team-building activity. Cole Simon, a rising senior in biology at Hampton University, picked his way across some highly unstable steps, then pivoted on the platform to cheer for the intern behind him. “Let go and let God!” he told her.
The sheer-grit effort of the ropes course, its problem-solving and falls and bursts of success, offered a useful metaphor for his research internship in the lab of Richard Helm, associate professor of biochemistry. “You have to have the patience to fail, get back up, fail, and then get it right,” Simon said. It’s putting the “re” in research.
Simon’s internship investigating the structures in a particular microbe was similar to work he’d done in a lab at Hampton University, an HBCU, with a major difference: Helm’s lab is “very upgraded,” said Simon. Some equipment, such as the mass spectrometer, he’d never used before. “If anything, it’ll teach me to be more resourceful at Hampton and use everything that I have to get the most out of it.”
That can-do attitude makes Simon the kind of student who’s likely to succeed in graduate school, at Virginia Tech or elsewhere, said his faculty mentor, Helm. “Cole has an innate curiosity. He just wants to know, he wants to learn. “
Helm pointed out a jigsaw puzzle on one of the work tables in Steger Hall. “Cole did that one,” he said, adding, “Solving a puzzle would make a good test for new assistants coming into the lab, because research is just like solving a puzzle, but in a slightly different way.”
Having solved the puzzle of the lab, as well as the puzzle of how to clamber over the 6-foot-tall letters spelling “HOKIES” on the Venture Out Challenge Course, MAOP interns presented their research at Virginia Tech’s Undergraduate Research Symposium on July 28 . Then they headed home to prep for fall semester at their home universities.
Simon is working on a third puzzle: what do after he graduates from Hampton University in spring 2023. Perhaps grad school, perhaps medical school, but likely some form of higher education. Grayson is cheering for him.