MDI Biological Laboratory
Press Release

MDI Biological Laboratory Hosts 2020 National Science Foundation Fellows

Shift to Virtual Format Due to COVID-19 Yields Unexpected Benefits

Six undergraduates from throughout the country studied at the MDI Biological Laboratory this summer under a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) whose goal was to engage students “in meaningful ways” in ongoing research projects.

Each NSF-REU research fellow (names are listed below) worked closely with an MDI Biological Laboratory faculty member on projects related to elucidating the basic cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying regeneration and aging in various animal model systems, including zebrafish, worms, salamanders and mice.

The 10-week program was funded through a three-year, $382,064 grant from the National Science Foundation that is now in its second year.

Due to the COVID-19 threat, the program was forced to abruptly pivot from a wet laboratory to a virtual format — a shift that yielded unexpected benefits that organizers plan to incorporate into future summer fellowships, after the threat of illness from in-person exposure is gone.

“We were very pleased to welcome our 2020 class of summer fellows, even if we didn’t  have the pleasure of meeting them in person,” MDI Biological Laboratory President Hermann Haller, M.D., said. “By hosting these talented and enthusiastic young people, we introduced a new generation to the many rewards of a career in science.”

In contrast to the broad scope of past programs, the 2020 program focused on the biology of regeneration and aging, which is also the focus of research at the laboratory. This year saw a larger-than-ever pool of applicants, which co-investigators Jane E. Disney, Ph.D., and Dustin Updike, Ph.D. attributed to the new focus.

The fellows worked with faculty members Sam Beck, Ph.D.Joel H. Graber, Ph.D.Jarod Rollins, Ph.D., and Updike, all of whom conduct research in these fields.

Because of the shift to a virtual format, the coursework for the 2020 group concentrated on the bioinformatics, or computational biology, aspects of research in these fields rather than on bench laboratory experiments, said Disney, who oversees fellowship programs as director of research training.

“A lot of people thought our NSF-REU summer fellowship program wouldn’t happen because of COVID-19, but it was a big success,” Disney said. “We wouldn’t want to be limited to a virtual format. But that being said, we learned important lessons about the value of virtual learning that we can incorporate into future programs.”

A new feature of the 2020 program was an expanded segment on bio-entrepreneurship and innovation that was highlighted by a workshop with Maine entrepreneurs, business counselors and economic development experts. Though the workshop was originally planned as an in-person event, it was successfully moved to the online format.

“Ultimately, STEM [science, technology, engineering and math]-based research can create commercial opportunities, but not everyone has the skills and expertise to bring their ideas to market,” Disney said of the new workshop. “Our NSF-REU program has always emphasized entrepreneurship, but this year we enhanced that focus with new offerings.”

Disney said that future innovation workshops will likely be a “mix and match” of in-person and virtual presenters, including representatives from Maine as well as those from other regions of the country.

In a mid-program focus group session conducted by a team of external evaluators, the summer fellows reported positive experiences with the virtual format despite concerns on the part of some that they wouldn’t learn as much as in a face-to-face setting. Here are some takeaways on the benefits of virtual learning from organizers and participants:

  • Improved orientation — In addition to a virtual tour of the campus, the summer fellows received virtual introductions to faculty and senior staff in Zoom meetings, which gave them a more detailed and intimate understanding of the institution than they might otherwise have had.
  • A relaxed opportunity” — The use of small, virtual breakout rooms during a program-long course in communicating science provided a “relaxed opportunity” for students to ask questions and receive feedback, compensating in part for the casual conversations that would have taken place in a face-to-face setting
  • Access to expertise — The virtual format frees fellowship organizers to tap into a larger and more diverse pool of guest lecturers and panelists — i.e., for future innovation workshops — instead of limiting the pool to those who can conveniently and economically travel to the laboratory’s location on the coast of Maine
  • Asynchronous learning — The symposium that capped off the program was held online over several days, offering fellows the flexibility of accessing the material when convenient (asynchronously), rather than at times that may not have worked with their schedules; they also delivered live presentations in an online environment

The MDI Biological Laboratory has hosted the NSF-REU program for more than 25 years. The program has been extraordinarily successful at achieving its goal of promoting STEM careers, with 67 percent of participants pursuing careers in science and 50 percent pursuing advanced degrees in the period from 2005 to 2016, Disney said.

List of 2020 NSF-REU research fellows at the MDI Biological Laboratory:

  • Angelica Aguilar — Sonoma State University
  • Elise Courtney — University of Vermont
  • Alexis Fiedler — Washington and Lee University
  • Meiling Miranda — University of Delaware
  • Celeste Nobrega — Wheaton College (Massachusetts)
  • Alexey Rizvanov – Colby College

About the MDI Biological Laboratory 

We aim to improve human health and healthspan by uncovering basic mechanisms of tissue repair, aging and regeneration, translating our discoveries for the benefit of society and developing the next generation of scientific leaders. For more information, please visit

Photo captionCeleste Nobrega, a student at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., participating remotely in the MDI Biological Laboratory’s 2020 National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates summer fellowship program from her home in Paxton, Mass.