Finding confidence, a career path in a TU immunology lab

How mentorship, research shaped Hill-Lopes scholar Sumra Chaudhry’s TU experience

By Rebecca Kirkman on March 15, 2023

Two women in lab
Sumra Chaudhry ’24, left, a Hill-Lopes scholar and molecular biology, biochemistry and bioinformatics major works in the lab with associate professor Erin Harberts. (Lauren Castellana / Towson University)

Sumra Chaudhry ’24, a molecular biology, biochemistry and bioinformatics major and Hill-Lopes scholar, has always been interested in cancer research. 

At Towson University, she’s put that passion to work as an undergraduate researcher in biological sciences assistant professor Erin Harberts’ immunology lab, where they are studying how a piece of bacteria can stimulate an immune response that could be used to help the body fight off cancer cells.

More specifically, they are studying how to manipulate a component of Gram-negative bacteria, lipopolysaccharide (LPS), to skew cell death from apoptosis to necroptosis under ultraviolet (UV) exposure. 

So far, the experience has been transformative—for Chaudhry’s perspective on research and her career goals.

After diving into her first research experience in summer 2022 through a National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program in Missouri, Chaudhry left with a greater curiosity for cancer biology.

Since joining Harberts’ lab last fall, the curiosity has deepened. “I love research,” she says.

Chaudhry’s mentorship with Harberts was sparked by the Hill-Lopes Scholars program, which delivers dedicated, transformational support for STEM majors at TU to improve the advancement and retention of women in STEM fields. 

Mentoring is the foundation of the program. In their second year, scholars connect with a faculty mentor in their desired field. This one-on-one relationship builds on mentorship from program faculty leaders and peer scholars developed in the first year, before expanding to STEM professionals outside the university in the final year of the program.

Chaudhry says Harberts, whose bubbly, charismatic personality paired well with her own more quiet demeanor, has completely changed her enthusiasm for research.

“I really needed Dr. Harberts’ encouraging personality because she never dwells on the negative. Instead, she guides you to improve. And I’ve realized that’s the whole point of research.”

As a first-generation college student whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan, Chaudhry says having Harberts in her corner has had a big impact on her college experience.

“Having such an optimistic female mentor is everything I needed,” Chaudhry says. “Whenever Dr. Harberts encounters an opportunity, she motivates me to apply. I never had that until now.”

The Hill-Lopes Scholars Program supports, empowers and prepares the next generation of STEM professionals through community, professional development and career exploration.

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Harberts has a broad range of research experiences, from the National Institutes of Health and the University of Maryland School of Medicine to smaller colleges and universities, and she draws on those when working with students.

“Having all those experiences has prepared me to effectively mentor a diverse population of students,” she says. “I try to provide them with a good snapshot of what it might look like to work in different research environments.”

Harberts is motivated to work with undergraduates in her lab because a research experience played a pivotal moment in her own career path.

“During a summer research experience at the NIH, something just clicked for me,” recalls Harberts, who at the time was on track to be an elementary school teacher in rural New York state. “I got in the lab, and it just was so enthralling to be the first one to know something, even if it's minor. When you get results, you learn something that for a moment no one else in the world knows.”

Now, as a researcher studying host-pathogen interactions and the manipulation of immune responses in disease including sepsis, cancer and allergy, sharing the excitement of discovery with young scientists is a key motivation.

“Student researchers are the reason I keep going forward,” Harberts says. “When I see their faces and their excitement, it makes me want to come up with new ideas. I've been so fortunate to have students that follow through with the ideas.”

Two women pose in lab
Sumra Chaudhry ’24 and Erin Harberts, associate professor of biological sciences, in the Science Complex immunology lab. (Lauren Castellana / Towson University)

On a recent morning in the lab, before getting to work placing the samples of cells under an ultraviolet light to stimulate growth, Harberts and Chaudhry perch on stools chatting together.

It’s clear the two have an easy rapport and deep bond—next steps on their project and Chaudhry’s latest career goals are interspersed with laughter, smiles and encouragement.

Chaudhry reveals that while previously she had been set on becoming a medical doctor, she is now leaning toward pursuing a doctorate of philosophy or a doctorate of medicine and philosophy.

“This research experience has shaped my career goal. I love being in the lab and the trial and error process of research sparks my curiosity,” Chaudhry says. 

She also wants to pay forward the experience she’s had through Hill-Lopes and be a role model for other women in STEM fields. 

“I want to be that change,” she says. “That change was Dr. Harberts for me, so I want to be a Dr. Harberts for other students.”

Hearing this for the first time, Harberts is overcome with emotion. 

“This is why I’m here,” she says. “My goal is not to convert people to be Ph.D.s but to provide a space for them to figure out what they want to do. And I will support them whatever they choose. To know that providing that space opened that opportunity for someone is just—that's the goal.”

Since working together last fall, Harberts has seen immense growth in Chaudhry. 

“She has always been extremely capable and ready to go. But I think the most growth I've seen is in her self-confidence, her ability to advocate for what she needs and her trust in herself,” Harberts says.

Turning to Chaudhry, she adds: “Now the sky's the limit, all the doors are open for you. But it's important to have a support network, not just in your mentor but in your peers, your family and whoever you identify as people you trust to help navigate those decisions. And I think that she's cultivated that support network and will be very successful.”

The Hill-Lopes Scholars program plays a key role in providing these opportunities for young women in STEM fields at TU.

“It pulls people out of a place where they're indecisive. And it forces them to think about what the future is going to look like and take an active voice in their own path,” Harberts says of the program. “It's not always research, and that's fine. But to own your path is really an important thing for a young person.”