At UMBC, a researcher and mentor

Challenge: Under the tutelage of Michael Summers, some of the university's brightest undergraduate science students quickly achieve extraordinary results.

May 23, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The gales of laughter ringing through the trees can mean only one thing -- somebody has taken a spill off a mountain bike and headed down the muddy hillside.

Though they look like a bunch of kids hooking school on a pleasant spring day, these dozen or so bikers are actually some of the brightest young scientific minds in the state.

Presiding over them is Michael Summers, a youthful-looking 41-year-old AIDS researcher at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. A couple of times a week, he and many of his students don helmets and head to nearby Patapsco Valley State Park.

The steep inclines and rocky trails might provide respite from the tedious work of bombarding molecules with radio waves and analyzing computer printouts, but the cycling also offers the type of challenge Summers wants his students to take on.

Just as these undergraduates never rode a mountain bike before Summers got them on the trails, so they never tried top-level scientific research until they came into his laboratory.

Now they can pedal up clifflike hills and splash through rocky streams with aplomb. And barely out of their teens, they have produced discoveries and research papers that would make veteran scientists proud.

"One thing I learned from my parents was to set your sights high," says Summers. "It's better to do that and fail than to set them low and succeed."

So he doesn't take his students for an easy pedal down a dirt road. And he gives freshmen who come into his lab problems that have stumped postdoctoral fellows.

But even as Summers has guided these students into the higher realms of research, the students have taken this soft-spoken Florida native down paths he never thought he would follow.

Nine seniors who have worked in his lab are graduating Tuesday. "What they have done is remarkable," says Summers. "I don't know if I'll ever see a group like them again."

Seven of the seniors are African-Americans, attracted to UMBC by its Meyerhoff scholars program, designed by school President Freeman A. Hrabowski III to bring more minorities to the sciences.

"I always saw UMBC as a steppingstone," says Summers, who came to the campus 12 years ago mainly because his wife had established a dental practice nearby. "I never thought I would be involved in a social movement like this."

And he never thought he would meet identical twins like Brian and Ryan Turner. Natives of Nanticoke on the Eastern Shore, the Turners are products of James M. Bennett High School in Salisbury, where they were the only blacks in their classes and co-valedictorians at their graduation.

Both have published extensively under Summers' tutelage. Brian had a cover article this year in Journal of Molecular Biology. Ryan is the valedictorian at UMBC's commencement, the first Meyerhoff scholar so honored.

They have identical transcripts at UMBC. "Except for that one `B' in biochemistry," Brian says, and they break up in laughter remembering a tough test on enzymes.

No language barrier

Ryan was one of about 20 UMBC seniors with perfect 4.0 averages. A faculty committee interviewed them to pick the valedictorian. One of the committee members asked Ryan about a summer he spent doing research in Paris and how he got around the language barrier.

"He answered in French, not in sentences, but in paragraphs," says Hrabowski, clearly pleased that a Meyerhoff scholar is valedictorian. "In paragraphs! I think that's what got it for him."

Says Ryan: "They did seem to be surprised that someone so science-oriented would be that familiar with another culture."

French, it turns out, has been among the twins' interests since childhood.

The Turners, who just turned 22 -- Brian is two minutes older -- are headed to Harvard Medical School for a highly selective program that leads to medical and doctoral degrees. They were accepted by similar programs at the Johns Hopkins University, Stanford, Yale and several other schools.

Full of energy and smiles, the Turners are effusive in their praise of Summers.

"He's become like a father figure to us," Brian says.

"In science and in everything," Ryan finishes.

Down on the farm

This did not seem to be in the cards that Summers was dealt growing up in St. Petersburg, Fla. He spent summers working on a Wisconsin farm owned by relatives, the warm Florida winters sailing catamarans around the bays.

After a tough exam in high school, he sailed out to sandbars and rolled out his sleeping bag. He got enough merit badges to make Eagle Scout.

He does point to the influence of an eighth-grade teacher, his first black instructor. The subject was science.

"My parents raised me to be open-minded and nonprejudiced, but I grew up in a white suburb, and all you know about blacks is what you read about, trouble at the high school," Summers says. "Mr. Cummings was so enthusiastic about science. It really affected me."

Still, he wasn't sure he even wanted to go to college. Farm life seemed more appealing.

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