botswana summer undergraduate research experience

Undergraduates Gain Applied Research Experience in Botswana and at KGI

Some undergraduates come to Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) for the summer to gain exposure to applied research in the life sciences. Then there are those who choose to also acquire this experience in Botswana, joining KGI Professor and Dean of Research Larry Grill in a research program he created a decade ago.

Students participating in the Botswana Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (BSURE) program spend four weeks in the African country, conducting research at the University of Botswana and immersing themselves in the local culture. They start their days with two hours of Setswana language lessons and then head to the lab to help develop inexpensive vaccines for cattle in the country. In the second part of the program, the students continue the research at KGI.

“They’ve done laboratory research in class but not in practice. They learn how to apply it in the real world and see the impact,” says Grill. “When they return to Claremont, they carry on the same work but get a different feel for it, using a different set of facilities.”

Seven undergraduates—six from The Claremont Colleges and one from Skidmore College—participated in 2019, the first year KGI has served as the sponsor of the BSURE program, which Grill started at Pitzer College. Up to 10 students can enroll each year.

“The students get to see how developing countries have differences in their lab capabilities,” says Grill. “They also get a resume builder. They’ve been part of a program that involves making vaccines, and they were in a developing country.”

For John Christopher, who begins his senior year at Claremont McKenna College this fall, the BSURE program was an opportunity to try laboratory research for the first time as well as his first experience traveling outside the United States.

“I learned that lab research is more involved that I’d thought. I expected it to be more like a biology class, where everything is all set up for you. And it’s much more rigorous,” says Christopher, a biology major and premedical student. “I enjoyed the research, and it will definitely help me with my thesis.”

Another 2019 BSURE program participant, Jennifer Johnston, arrived in Botswana with more extensive research experience. A biology and music major entering her junior year at Scripps College, she had already spent a year in Grill’s KGI lab, where she is contributing to related research involving the development of affordable vaccines for infectious diseases affecting small goats and chickens, working under the guidance of KGI Postdoctoral Research Fellow and University of Botswana graduate Kelvin Phiri.

“I started working in the lab because I’d heard about the Botswana research experience,” says Johnston. “I liked that the program was a blend of lab research and a very direct humanitarian impact.”

Johnston had traveled to Brazil and Nepal during high school and will visit Spain next year as a member of the Pomona College Glee Club. But she had never been to Botswana.

“Southern Africa drew me because I’d never experienced it before. I learned how lives and cultures are similar and different, and it was fun to work with the students there. I didn’t feel like a tourist at all, which was great,” says Johnston. “The experience made me realize I can be a lot more independent than I thought. I definitely want to go back, and explore scientific opportunities in other countries.”

As Grill described, Johnston also saw differences between the lab environments in the two countries. She notes that obtaining reagents for experiments can take more time in Botswana, and that research at KGI is more convenient because all of the necessary materials and equipment are already in the lab or easily accessed.

“I’m glad that we went to Botswana first. When we came back, we had a good idea of what we’re doing and why it matters,” says Johnston. “It’s so much more of a gratifying process now that we have images and experiences to go along with our research.”