Biological Interactions: Phenotype, Genotype, & Environment



How to Apply

Frequently Asked Questions

Historical List of Summer Research Projects


About the Program

2020 Program Dates: Program is moving online for Summer 2020

The application period will open November 1st, 2019 and close March 1, 2020. 

Interested in a research career? Experience the richness of the research environment at a premier research university with this hands-on summer program. You'll get an invaluable glimpse of what graduate-level study and research careers might entail, while being surrounded by a supportive community of peers and stimulated by extra activities that help add meaning, encourage critical thinking, and allow you to explore and prepare for your post-graduate future.

Biological Interactions is designed for undergraduates who might not otherwise have this kind of research opportunity. There is no cost for the program and participants receive a stipend, summer housing, and travel to and from Madison. Underrepresented minority, low-income, and first-generation college students are strongly encouraged to apply, as are students from smaller institutions without broad research facilities.

Program participants live close to campus and perform full-time research for 10 weeks under the guidance of trained research mentors. Weekly professional development seminars allow participants to learn from each other's experiences and contextualize their research projects within the overarching theme of predicting phenotype. Additional events and activities build community, support career and graduate school exploration, and help students build useful skills, such as science writing. Students present their projects at a final symposium and write research reports to summarize their findings.

The Theme: Phenotype, Genotype, and the Environment

There is a seemingly endless amount of variation found in living organisms which results in many and varied phenotypes. This variation allows individuals to adapt and thrive in ever changing, complex environments. Science has made great gains in cataloging the building blocks of diversity through genome sequencing efforts; however, an organism's phenotype is not always what scientists would predict due to the interaction of the genome and the environment. The NSF-REU Biological Interactions Summer Research Program seeks to help diverse undergraduate students to explore biology through observation of phenotype and to investigate the influence of genotype, environment and interactions of the two on phenotype.

Support and Benefits

  • $6,000 Stipend
  • $600 Food allowance
  • Housing in a shared apartment with a private bedroom
  • Travel to and from Madison
  • Health Insurance (if needed)
  • Access to campus libraries and recreation facilities 
  • Madison Metro Bus Pass

Potential Research Projects

* Note, once we have chosen students to participate in the program we work to find a research group that is aligned with the student's research interest. The projects below are a good representation of the type of research in the program, but additional projects may be available.

Faculty Mentor, Department

Area of Study

Example Student Research Project

Jean-Michel Ané, Bacteriology

Molecular mechanisms that allow for efficient symbiotic associations between plants and microbes



Students will test the role of candidate genes potentially controlling associations of plants with mycorrhizal fungi and rhizobia using reverse genetics (CRISPR/Cas), fast plant transformation techniques, and inoculation of transgenic roots with symbiotic microbes.

David Baum, Botany

Genetics basis of plant phenotypic evolution



Students will investigate the genomic architecture of unisexuality in meadow-rues by comparing genomic sequencing data for staminate (“male”) and carpellate (“female”) meadow-rues from two clades that each independently evolved dioecy (separate males and females) from a hermaphroditic ancestor.

Briana Burton, Bacteriology

Macromolecule transport across biological membranes



Students will use mutagenic PCR and classical genetic selection to identify mutants that affect the ability of bacteria to uptake DNA from the environment. Mutants will be further characterized using quantitative transformation efficiency assays and epifluorescence microscopy to confirm sub-cellular localization.

Claudio Gratton, Entomology

Impact of unmanaged lands in the agricultural matrix on ecosystem services, including the effects on the abundance and diversity of beneficial insects

Students will examine the response of bees within urban and agricultural areas to land management that affects flower diversity. Students will investigate how bees perform, given particular kinds of flowers, and how plants set seeds or fruit when they are visited by bees.

Melissa Harrison, Biomolecular Chemistry

Regulation of conserved developmental transitions

Students will use CRISPR/Cas9-genome editing to manipulate the Drosophila genome, to perturb specific gene products and determine the functional effects on early embryonic development.

Chris Todd Hittinger, Genetics

Yeast biodiversity, carbon metabolism, and evolutionary genomics



Students will isolate and phenotypically characterize new yeast strains from natural habitats. This research can lead to investigations into the ecology, molecular genetics, evolutionary genomics, or applications of the strains they isolate.

Hiroshi Maeda, Botany

Regulation of plant growth, development, and metabolism to maintain amino acid homeostasis



Students will use Nextgen sequencing-based genetic mapping and phenotypic and biochemical characterization of suppressor lines that restore a net-like reticulate leaf phenotype caused by both decreased and increased levels of the amino acid tyrosine.

Katherine McCulloh, Botany

Physiological strategies employed by plant species to deal with drought and temperature stress.

Students will compare the leaf anatomy of various species of cycads to inform conservation agencies about where best to focus restoration efforts for this ancient and extremely endangered group of gymnosperms.

Marisa Otegui, Botany

Membrane remodeling and protein sorting mechanisms during plant cell signaling and protein degradation

Students will investigate protein mis-trafficking in mutant plants by using one or more fluorescently tagged cargo proteins that are suspected to be sorted by factors affected in the mutant plants. 

Daniel Preston, Forest & Wildlife Ecology

Links between environmental change, species interaction, and ecosystem functioning in freshwater ecosystems



Students will investigate the phenotypic plasticity of two invasive snails, the Chinese mystery snail and New Zealand mud snail, in response to novel predators. Freshwater snails serve as a model for adaptations of morphology and behavior in response to local environmental conditions.

John Svaren, Comparative Biosciences

Genetic and epigenetic regulation of peripheral nervous system development

Students will analyze the function of candidate transcription factors to determine their role in Schwann cell development and responses to nerve injury in rats.

Michael Thomas, Bacteriology

Production of bioproducts by bacteria



Students will investigate how production of a targeted bioproduct, such as antibiotics or biofuels, is altered by changes to the amount of expression of particular genes and by compounds present in growth medium.

David Wassarman, Genetics

Role of genetic and environmental factors in determining phenotypic consequences of traumatic brain injury

Students will examine the influence of an environmental factor (e.g. diet) or mutations in particular metabolic genes on the behavioral consequences of traumatic brain injury across genetically diverse fly lines.

Jyoti Watters, Comparative Biosciences

Impact of early life exposures during fetal development on brain immune cells and neurodegenerative disease processes.

Students will investigate why male offspring are more susceptible to neural impairments than female offspring by evaluating the differences in chromatin structure or the genes expressed in brain immune cells from both sexes.

Eligibility Requirements

  • Strong career interest in biological science research
  • Undergraduate student status for Fall 2020
  • U.S. citizenship or permanent resident status
  • Grade point average of at least 3.0 (see Frequently Asked Questions for more info)

Students who are African American, Hispanic, Native American, Southeast Asian, Native Alaskan or Native Pacific Islander OR who are from low-income homes OR who are the first in their family to attend college OR who attend small liberal arts institutions without broad research facilities are strongly encouraged to apply.

How To Apply

The application for the next year's session will be available from this web site starting November 1st, 2019. The "Apply" button at the top of this page will take you to the online application.

During the application process you will need to provide:
  1. Name and email address for at least one person (faculty member preferred) who will provide a letter of recommendation. Two letters of recommendation are allowed.
  2. Electronic version of your college transcript (scanned hard copies if electronic transcripts are not available); unofficial transcripts are acceptable.
  3. Three short personal essays (3900 character maximum per essay)
  • How would your participation in a summer research program at UW-Madison contribute to your future goals and career plans?
  • Which area(s) of research are of interest to you and why?
  • Although previous research experience is not required to be considered for participation in our summer program, please describe any past research experience. This may include research experiences as part of a course if you do not have any other research experiences.

Selection and Placement

Selection and laboratory placement of students will take place in January, February, and March. Applicants who are not placed will be notified by the end of April.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why should I come to UW-Madison for a summer research program?

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has one of the strongest biological research communities in the U.S. It offers graduate training programs in over 40 areas of biological research. Participants report that this program has helped them determine whether graduate school is right for them, check out UW-Madison for grad school, and learn particular research techniques.

Housing costs are covered. What does that mean?

Participants in the summer research program are housed in the Regent apartment building, which is within walking distance of laboratories and State Street (i.e., downtown Madison). Participants from other summer programs are housed in the same building. 

I noticed there are other summer research programs in the biological sciences at UW-Madison. Can I apply to more than one?

All of the biological sciences summer research programs at UW-Madison share one application. When you apply, you will rank your choice of programs. You can be considered for multiple programs with one application.

How many students do you accept?

Each year the program accepts 12-20 students into the program from a pool of about 350 applicants. The size of the 2020 program is contingent upon funding.

Is the program open to minority students only?

No. The National Science Foundation (NSF), has endorsed opening Research Experience for Undergraduate (REU) programs like Biological Interactions to non-minority students who attend small liberal arts colleges as well as to minority students. Both minority students from all universities and non-minority students from small universities (without broad research opportunities) are encouraged to apply.

What are the ethnicity/gender ratios for the program?

~87% underrepresented minority and ~70% women

My grade point average isn't quite 3.0. Should I apply anyway?

We occasionally accept promising students whose GPAs are less than 3.0. Be sure to tell us WHY you are a 'promising' student in your essay, and if possible, make sure your recommendation letters indicate that this experience would be worthwhile for you and that you'll perform successfully.

I'm a UW-Madison student. Can I apply to the program?

Yes. Preference may be given to members of underrepresented minority groups (African American, Hispanic, Native American, Southeast Asian, Native Alaskan or Native Pacific Islander), low-income and first-generation college students, and other underserved groups, depending on funding requirements and other considerations.

How are applications reviewed?

An initial screen of applicants is made by program staff. Files from the best-qualified applicants are forwarded to particular faculty mentors based on research interests expressed by students in their applications. Each mentor reviews the applications and determines which student is the best fit for their research. The progam then contacts the selected student to confirm their interest in a specific project and offer them a summer research position.

Can I enroll in summer school or have a job while participating in the program?

No, participants do research full-time (at least 40 hr/week). The idea is to enjoy an intensive research experience when you are freed from the schedules and obligations of coursework.

Leadership Team

The Biological Interactions program is under review by the National Science Foundation for funding for 2020.

  • Amber Smith, PhD, PI
  • David Wassarman, PhD, Co-PI
  • Liza Chang, PhD, Program Coordinator

Contact us with any questions at or (608) 265-0850

Amber R. Smith

Associate Director of WISCIENCE & Director of Research Mentor and Mentee Training
Contact Info

(608) 265-0850


Room 118C

445 Henry Mall

Madison, WI 53706

I earned my PhD in Plant Breeding Plant Genetics from UW-Madison and continued my education with a postdoctoral experience centered on developing first-year transition programs for biology students. After working at the University of Michigan in the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, I joined the WISCIENCE staff as the Director of Mentor and Mentee Training.

I coordinate the Integrated Biological Sciences Summer Research Program, coordinate and instruct the Entering Mentoring and Entering Research courses, and oversee the research peer leadership students.

Outside of work, I love hanging out with family, cooking, and spending time outside.

Liza Chang

Research Mentor and Mentee Training Coordinator
Contact Info

Room 104E

445 Henry Mall

Madison, WI 53706