Smith College’s SURF program encourages students to dig deep  

  • Smith College student Abigail Edwards measures pulse wave velocity Aug. 1, 2018 as part of Effects of Exercise on Blood Vessel Health in a Multiethnic Population of Premenopausal Women, a study Edwards is working on as a summer undergraduate research fellow at Smith in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Smith College student Abigail Edwards measures pulse wave velocity as part of “Effects of Exercise on Blood Vessel Health in a Multiethnic Population of Premenopausal Women,” a study Edwards is working on as a summer undergraduate research fellow at Smith in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Smith College student Abigail Edwards explains pulse wave analysis as part of her study of blood vessel function in African-American women. STAFF PHOTO/SARAH CROSBY

For the Gazette
Published: 8/5/2018 6:17:38 PM

This summer, Abigail Edwards ’20 of Smith College brought together two of her academic interests — Africana Studies and cardiovascular physiology — through a research project made possible by Smith’s Summer Research Fellowship Program, also known as SURF.

The study looks at the way acute amounts of exercise affect blood vessel functioning in African-American women. Edwards explained that even though African-American women are the population at greatest risk for heart disease, previous studies have mostly used white men as the test subjects. “We’re studying particularly why this group is more at risk,” said Edwards. “When answering this question, it’s really broad. It’s been a formative time for me in practicing mixed-method research.”

Sarah Witkowski, associate professor of exercise and sport studies and the research advisor for the project, taught Edwards how to take measurements of pulse wave velocity, aerobic fitness, cholesterol, blood pressure, blood glucose and blood vessel health at the beginning of the summer. Since then, Witkowski has taken the role of a technical assistant as Edwards has spearheaded the research. “I’m here to support Abigail, troubleshoot and help her bring ideas together,” said Witkowski.

Edwards, an aspiring physician, is one of 144 students performing research alongside faculty advisors this summer as a part of SURF, which has been running for the past 50 years.

“This program allows a student a really authentic experience to learn new techniques, think differently, learn about the scientific method, and break down a big problem,” said Witkowski.

Witkowski also noted that SURF is an immersive program, meaning students work full time on their research project. Edwards says that during the school year, she juggles playing lacrosse, serving on committees, and a heavy academic schedule of humanities and science courses, so she has appreciated having 40 hours a week to devote solely to her research.

Professor of Chemistry Kevin Shea, who is serving as an advisor to three student researchers this summer, also emphasized how summer research is a great opportunity for undergraduates. “Students are able to focus on a project full time for 10 weeks,” said Shea. “Before that, you really don’t know if you like doing research.”

A study done by Smith faculty and staff based on the past 10 graduating classes show that SURF participants are more than twice as likely to perform advanced research, showing the impact of the program.

For Edwards, this experience has solidified her desire to perform clinical research and attend medical school. She will continue this research into the school year and hopes to expand her study to other minorities.

Edwards presented her research project to high school students in the Summer Science and Engineering Program at Smith last week. “I talked about why this research is important and how a lot more work needs to be done in this field,” said Edwards. “I also talked with them about pursuing what you love, being proactive about your interests and asking for help when you need it.”

African-American women between the ages of 18 and 45 who are interested in being a part of Edwards’ paid study may contact molecularcardiolab@gmail.com or 413-585-4555.




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