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WVU student finds future path through undergraduate research

Christopher Smith and Raphael Oladokun

WVU undergraduate student Christopher Smith and graduate research assistant Raphael Oladokun work together on a research project involving the detection of breast cancer cells in a blood sample in a lab run by Soumya Srivastava, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering. (WVU Photo/Brian Persinger)

With support from dedicated faculty and fellow students, a West Virginia University student has found his purpose in research, helping chart his life’s course. 

Story by WVU University Relations News
Photos by WVU Photo Brian Persinger


When junior biomedical engineering major Christopher Smith arrived on the WVU Morgantown Campus from his home in Point Pleasant, he had “no clue” what he wanted to do with his life.

He spent his first year thinking he would “probably end up in the sciences” and “feeling things out.” The summer before his second year on campus and curious about the research world, Smith, also a member of the WVU Honors College, sought out research labs willing to take sophomores. 

Soumya Srivastava, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, welcomed Smith with open arms. 

“When Chris joined me in 2022, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do and wanted to try a hands-on experience to see if he liked it,” Srivastava said. “I watched him blossom and become so much more interested in the work that we are doing. He began asking me for more work and even learned a piece of software over the summer without any course background. All of this has put him on an upward career trajectory.”  

The part of Srivastava’s research program that Smith works on includes a study exploring the development of a tiny medical device with the ability to detect breast cancer in a small blood sample using an electric field. The theory is that healthy immune cells in the blood would react one way to the charged environment, while immune cells from a patient with an active breast cancer would react differently. The device would be small, mobile and easily accessible to even the most rural patients who often don’t have access to the highest quality care.  

“This experience has opened my eyes,” Smith said. “I knew breast cancer was bad, but I genuinely had no idea just how bad it could be for those without access to modern diagnostic techniques. I really just fell in love with the research — the subject and the environment, and knowing that the work we’re doing might really help people one day. I love it so much that I’m adding a molecular medicine minor and applying for fellowships hoping to expand my research horizons for the summer.” 

Smith is one of nearly 50 WVU students who will be presenting research findings during Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol on Feb. 22 in Charleston. 

“Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol gives students the opportunity to communicate new ideas, technologies and creative solutions to the state’s policymakers,” Amy Hessl, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, said. “Very few undergraduate students have this kind of access to the state Legislature through an event like this and our students benefit from learning to communicate the relevance of their work with a broad audience.” 

Demonstrating the University’s commitment to undergraduate research, the WVU Foundation has invested $400,000 — to be administered through the Office of the Provost over a three-year period — to increase available positions and stipends for the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience. SURE provides students with paid research opportunities alongside faculty mentors. 

Since joining the Srivastava Lab, Smith has taken advantage of opportunities like SURE and was named the 2023 runner-up in the physical sciences and engineering category. Most recently, his abstract was accepted for presentation at the prestigious National Conference on Undergraduate Research set for April in Long Beach, California. 

Smith said it’s an advantage to have two mentors in the lab — Srivastava and Raphael Oladokun, a graduate research assistant and WVU Statler Fellow.  

“Raphael has taught me the technical aspects of working in the lab,” Smith said. “Soumya has shown me the ropes research-wise and exposed me to different opportunities and scholarships out there. I get both perspectives on things which is helpful — one of them has been through it all and is teaching me about all the opportunities ahead of me and another is living my potential future as a doctoral student now. It’s pretty cool to get to see both.”  

Oladokun said he believes undergraduate research opportunities provide invaluable training for future scientists like Smith.  

“When directly participating in scientific studies, undergraduate students develop key skills in problem solving, communication and hands-on research, which involves formulating methodologies, conducting experiments, collecting data and analyzing results,” he added.  

Both Oladokun and Srivastava encourage other undergraduate students to seek out similar opportunities early.  

“It is very encouraging when students start early and hang around for two to three years in the same lab. It makes it a very worthy experience,” Srivastava said. “It’s a time commitment, but the experience they will obtain is incomparable.” 

The WVU Research Apprenticeship ProgramMountaineer Undergraduate Research Review and four undergraduate research symposia throughout the academic year are additional enriching, research-centered opportunities available to students.  

Above all, Smith encourages his fellow undergraduate students to step outside of their comfort zones and to try new things in pursuit of their purpose. “Being involved in this research project, I’ve discovered a passion for the kind of research that will have a positive impact on people in rural areas like West Virginia. I’m so excited about doing this kind of work for the rest of my life,” he said.



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