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Freeman Hrabowski on Building Strength as a Research Institution

Power Surge: Michael Summers

Biochemist Mike Summers was just 32—only slightly older than UMBC itself—when he was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator in 1994. It was a defining moment for Summers—and for UMBC. The appointment made Summers one of an elite number of researchers nationwide hand-picked by HHMI for their “potential to make significant contributions to science,” and UMBC became the only public university in Maryland to have an HHMI researcher on its faculty.

Mike Summers’ research on the virus that causes AIDS may have been what caught the attention of the HHMI decision-makers, but the special chemistry that exists in his lab draws as much attention and acclaim now. In a field where a typical undergraduate “lab rat” might be just washing up test tubes, the undergraduates in his lab are getting hands-on experience in a world-class laboratory and opportunities to publish their findings in leading scientific journals such as Science and Nature.

Using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, Summers and his students are unraveling the building blocks of the HIV virus. Thus far they have solved three of the seven known proteins. What may be even more remarkable is that a majority of the undergrads vying for a coveted place in Summers’ lab are among the top minority students at UMBC. “Some of our undergraduates have trained graduate students,” Summers proudly explains. “I learn from them, too. They’ve conducted research in molecular biology I haven’t worked on yet.”

In 2000, then-President Clinton presented Summers with a U.S. Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring for his leadership in encouraging minorities and women to pursue careers in science.

Summers’ recent UMBC graduates have gone on to medical school and M.D./Ph.D. programs at Harvard, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and other elite schools. He also directs the Meyerhoff Graduate Fellows Program in the Biomedical Sciences at UMBC, which is modeled on the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. “While I’m very proud of our research,” Summers says, “it may be that in the end, what I do with these students is more important than what I do in the lab. Now I hope that what we do in the lab is really important and beneficial, but I know that what we do with minority students is right and good. I never thought I would be involved in a social movement like this.”

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