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michael burel (’12) cellular biology; goldwater scholar

When Michael Burel remembers New York City, he thinks of fruit flies. When he conjures up memories of Paris, he recalls mice.

Although flies and mice appear like unsavory memory objects for most of us, they fall right in line with Michael’s field of interest. The University of Georgia Honors student will graduate in May 2012 with a degree in cellular biology and a certificate in interdisciplinary writing.

Michael has spent the last two summers under the auspices of the New York University Summer Undergraduate Research Program, working in stem cell labs in both the City of Light and the City That Never Sleeps.

Asked if he preferred fruit flies or mice, Michael says, “I worked at Dr. Steve Stice’s lab at UGA before New York and Paris, and I worked with tissue culture, so I didn’t work with an animal model or an insect model. I’m most fond of tissue culture because I’ve spent the most time there, but I’m very impressed by the range and power of the things you can do with fruit flies.

“It’s a very flexible model and it’s really powerful, and even though they’re fruit flies, it’s surprising how much is connected with upper mammals like humans, even though they’re completely different. I didn’t care for fruit flies all that much until I got to New York. I decided to study them because it’s such a ubiquitous model for genetics. There isn’t a genetics class you take that doesn’t talk about fruit flies. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from doing this work.”

In April, Michael was one of three UGA Honors Program students to receive the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, a national award for college undergraduates who plan careers in mathematics, natural sciences, or engineering. After graduation, Michael says he’s considering enrolling at NYU, Stanford, and California-San Francisco to pursue a PhD in either stem cell biology or developmental biology.

“I would like to go on and get a PhD and continue stem cell research,” says Michael, who spent the past summer at New York’s Sackler Institute. “It’s a field that’s very exciting, fast-paced, and relevant. I’d like to teach at the university level and continue my research. It sounds like a cliché goal, but I’ve had great mentorship from professors and TAs, and I feel like I have a moral obligation to return what they’ve given to me.”

Interestingly enough, when Michael was accepted into the Summer Undergraduate Research Program in 2010, he was not only making his first sojourn to France, but he was also taking his first plane trip.

“Up until last summer, I guess my knowledge of the world existed in a very narrow geographic boundary,” he says. “I’d never left the Southeast before – I don’t think that I’d ever been to an airport before I went to Paris. You can imagine the paralyzing fear I had when I got off the plane in Paris and everything was in French. I had to find my way to my room by myself and had to do a lot on my own. It was an incredible learning experience. I developed a tremendous amount as a person and as a scientist while in Paris.

“And I subsequently used my trip to Paris as a source of strength for many things. I later had a genetics final, and I remember telling myself, ‘If I can survive eight weeks in Paris with a language I don’t speak, I can survive this three-hour genetics final.’ It was certainly life-changing.”

Michael says that his UGA experience was impacted his first week on campus when he was accepted as a CURO Apprentice in the Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities and immediately began research under Stice, the Georgia Research Alliance Scholar in Reproductive Physiology who is perhaps best known for his successful cloning experiments at UGA.

“CURO has been the most informative and transformative program I’ve ever encountered,” says Michael, who after his two-year apprenticeship served as a TA his junior year. “I came in as a freshman and began working in Dr. Stice’s lab my first week on campus, thanks to the CURO Apprenticeship. I had incredible advocates who would search for opportunities for me, which is how I found out about the NYU program. They walked me through the research process – I had great TAs who would share their experience with me.

“CURO was the reason I came to UGA. I was interested in doing research, and getting an offer to do research immediately is so unusual for a freshman. As a junior, I was a TA for the program, which was great because I finally got to return all the things that were given to me by my TAs. It was really rewarding to return that favor.”

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