Gabino Junior Abarca, a third-year student in the University of Washington School of Public Health, may have found his calling in environmental health through the Supporting Undergraduate Research Experiences in Environmental Health (SURE-EH) program offered by the department of environmental and occupational health sciences.
The goal of the program is to increase the diversity of people studying and working in environmental health, particularly from traditionally underrepresented or low-income groups and who may be the first in their family to attend college. SURE-EH funds UW undergraduates to conduct their own environmental health research project with a faculty mentor.
With June Spector, an assistant professor in the department of environmental and occupational health sciences, Abarca is investigating the connection between working in the heat and kidney disease. He is studying data collected from pear and apple harvesters in Eastern Washington to determine whether early signs of disease are more common during harvest in warmer weather.
It is his first research experience and his first summer since eighth grade that he isn’t working alongside his parents harvesting fruit.
“For me, the transformative experience is the whole point,” said Lianne Sheppard, a professor of environmental and occupational health sciences and biostatistics who directs SURE-EH, which began in 2015.
She describes one student who did not have aspirations beyond a bachelor’s degree. Thanks to her SURE-EH-sponsored research experience, the student now talks about graduate school. The program helped her understand what research would be like and that she could be successful.
Funding for SURE-EH is provided by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences; Michael Humble is the program administrator. Students are paid up to 40 hours a week during the summer and up to 15 hours a week during the school year to conduct research for up to two consecutive years.
Students present on their research projects at the UW’s Undergraduate Research Symposium, where over 1,000 undergraduates participate and more than 3,500 people attend.
Rebecca Christ, the project coordinator for SURE-EH, manages the logistics of the program, which includes a weekly educational seminar and resources for other academic opportunities: course recommendations, seminars, training workshops, and other research symposia.