Fargo Native And UND Alum Sam Ficenec Has A Definite ‘AURA’ For Career-making Science Thanks To A ND EPSCoR Program

Alum Sam Ficenec, a Fargo native, now is enrolled at Tulane University in New Orleans in the Master of Public Health program, heading toward a joint M.D.-MPH degree, thanks to the research background he established at UND.
Alum Sam Ficenec, a Fargo native, now is enrolled at Tulane University in New Orleans in the Master of Public Health program, heading toward a joint M.D.-MPH degree, thanks to the research background he established at UND.

Hawaii to North Dakota—that’s an unexpected turn for any young person, but for Sam Ficenec that move had just the right “AURA.”

The UND Biology alum now is a second-year medical student following a successful run at UND that included a research scholarship and a lot of bug work in UND Biology’s Grassland Ecology Laboratory.

“I transferred to UND from the University of Hawaii in 2011,” said Ficenec, a Fargo native who now is enrolled at Tulane University in New Orleans in the Master of Public Health program, heading toward a joint M.D.-MPH degree.

“Originally I went to Hawaii seeking adventure,” said Ficenec, “But classmates from Fargo South who went to UND told me about the smaller class sizes and the attention they got from faculty. So I transferred to UND.”

“I was looking at plant and insect ecology,” said Ficenec. “I was by then pretty sure that I wanted to go to medical school but I’d had no research experience, no understanding of molecular techniques.”

Then he found AURA (Advanced Undergraduate Research).

First exposure

That’s a North Dakota EPSCoR program that provides undergraduate students with opportunities to experience research in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines normally supported by the National Science Foundation at a point in their college careers when they need to make important decisions about their future.

Through AURA he connected with Kathryn Yurkonis and Brett Goodwin, faculty in biology, a department in the UND College of Arts & Sciences.

“That’s exactly what AURA is supposed to do—connect top students with an interest in science with top researchers,” said Mark Hoffmann, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and associate vice president for research capacity building; he’s also associate project director of the ND EPSCoR program, which sponsors AURA.

AURA is intended to be the first exposure to real research for particularly promising students.

“Students awarded AURA grants have done well in their courses and have talked with faculty members about doing research,” said Hoffmann, an internationally known researcher in the fields of theoretical and computational physical chemistry.

The very best

Through the AURA program, high-performing students get their first hands-on experiences with research.

“The outcome we’re looking for is to get students interested in research to the point where they continue to do research as part of whatever STEM career they choose,” said Hoffmann. “We also want to help these students become competitive for high-end national grants and awards, such as the Goldwater Scholarship, where you need the combination of outstanding activities in the classroom plus activities outside the classroom, such as early, significant research.”

In other words, AURA is an opportunity for the very best UND students who haven’t previously considered research as an option to have a yearlong experience with research. AURA focuses on an initial summer experience in research – with grants averaging $4,000-$5,000—plus two additional semesters with awards of about $1,500 per semester. The money can come from the federal NSF EPSCoR or state matching funds, depending on the particular year.

“The money is to encourage the students not to seek other employment and focus on research,” said Hoffmann, who is part of the review panel that selects both the students who are offered AURA awards and the faculty who offer students research lab opportunities. Students offered the AURA award can choose—based on their first, second or third pick – the faculty they want to work with.

At UND, the AURA program began funding student research awards in 2005 at a rate of six to eight outstanding students annually.

Big door to future

It’s a big door to the future for students who connect with AURA

“I started working in UND Biology’s Grassland Ecology Lab but wondered how that might apply to my medical studies,” Ficenec said. “I soon learned that the first principles of scientific exploration are universal to any scientific discipline. Plus in that lab, I was exposed to a lot of different disciplines, and I learned about the vectors of diseases, etc., in health care.”

Now heading into year two of medical school, Ficenec is focusing on tropical medicine. He says that’s a natural consequence of everything he learned about insects as disease vectors—bugs that carry nasty diseases such as malaria and ZIKA—through his AURA research.

No doubt, he says, his AURA experience was critical to his understanding of science and to his career tracks in medicine and public health.

“I think that the actual hands-on research, including in the lab sorting through bugs, really pushed me to understand more about the relationship of health to factors like that,” Ficenec said. “Kathryn (Yurkonis) and Brett (Goodwin) really helped me explore the field of global health. I don’t think that I would have applied to the MPH program here at Tulane—in addition to training as an M.D.—without that exposure.”

Global fellowship

Recently, Ficenec was awarded the highly competitive Gantenbein Global Health Fellowship through the DACOR Bacon House Foundation.

“I made it through a big national search with three finalists—me, a student from Duke and a student from Emory (University in Atlanta),” Ficenec said. “I was awarded the fellowship. They flew me out to (Washington, D.C.) and interviewed me; they asked me a lot about my UND research with bugs and how that related to medicine.”

Ficenec has an unequivocal reply to that question: “I basically said that the more we know about them, the more we know about interventions, and the more we know about how to interrupt the breeding grounds, the more we can change the environments that foster diseases.”

Ficenec was among the AURA recipients announced by the EPSCoR program for the 2012 cycle.

“We’re absolutely seeding the future with this program,” said Hoffmann.

Juan Miguel Pedraza, Writer/Editor
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