Sanford Program for Undergraduate Research (SPUR)

Explore Scientific Research Careers

Sanford Research offers the Sanford Program for Undergraduate Research (SPUR), which provides opportunities for undergraduate students interested in research careers to participate in research.

This dynamic summer program allows you to apply your classroom knowledge by working in a laboratory under the supervision of a principal investigator and interacting with research teams that include graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

In addition to obtaining research experience in state-of-the-art facilities, you will attend weekly career and professional development workshops, as well as build your presentation and communication skills through scientific presentations. You will also benefit from the collegial and interactive research environment and enjoy the social community in Sioux Falls, a small city with an abundance of dining, shopping, sporting events and entertainment.

Summer Program Tracks
REU Site in Cellular and Molecular Biology: This National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded opportunity provides research experience in basic cellular and molecular biology. Students perform cutting-edge research in diverse areas, such as signal transduction, intracellular trafficking, cell proliferation and differentiation, organelle function and development.

Pediatric Biomedical Research Program: This National Institutes of Health (NIH) R25-funded opportunity provides research experience in biomedical areas directly and broadly related to pediatric health and disease. Projects range from basic studies of underlying disease mechanisms to translational research aimed at developing novel disease therapies.

Summer Program Details

  • The SPUR program schedule is 10 weeks from May 28 through August 2, 2024. You must commit to working the entire ten weeks and participate in all program workshops.
  • You will work under the direct supervision of a Sanford Research mentor as part of the mentor’s research team. 
  • You will prepare and present a short project proposal at the beginning of the program and a poster describing your research results in a symposium at the conclusion of the program.
  • You will attend an introductory laboratory methods boot camp and weekly workshops geared toward career preparation and professional development, including topics such as ethics in research, science career opportunities and applying to graduate school.
  • You will have the opportunity to attend regular research seminars and data clubs.
  • You will engage in outreach activities to bring science to the local community.
  • We organize social activities to enable casual interaction with other participants and mentors.
  • We provide an educational stipend of $6,000 to each student.
  • You can live free-of-charge on the University of Sioux Falls campus in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
  • Free daily shuttle is offered to students who do not have their own transportation. 

Student Eligibility

College students majoring in the life sciences or other STEM fields are eligible to apply for the SPUR program. Any students funded by federal grants from the NSF or NIH are required by the United States government to be US citizens or permanent residents. You should be in your freshman, sophomore, or junior year at the time of application and should be interested in exploring careers in research and graduate school opportunities.

You are encouraged to apply if you attend an institution that does not have substantial research opportunities or are underrepresented in the biological sciences. This includes underrepresented minority students, first-generation college students, individuals from lower-income backgrounds or rural communities, students with disabilities and veterans or members of the Armed Services.


How to Apply

All applicants will apply through the NSF REU ETAP system, and candidates will be considered for either the NSF-funded track in cell and molecular biology or the NIH-funded track in pediatric biomedical research.

Applications will require the following:

  • An official or unofficial transcript from the applicant’s college
  • Two letters of recommendation, at least one of which must be from a college professor

The application deadline is Wednesday, January 31, 2024. All materials must be received by the deadline. Late applications will not be considered.


Please click on the following link to access the application and apply to the SPUR program:


Program Application: The Summer 2024 application will be available starting November 1, 2023.

For questions about the program or the application process or for inquiries about research during the academic year, please email or call (605) 312-6590.

Program Mentors

Behavioral Sciences

Anna Strahm, PhD

Dr. Strahm is an Assistant Scientist at Sanford Research. Dr. Strahm received her PhD in health and social psychology at North Dakota State University in 2020 and her Master's degree in experimental psychology from Washington State University in 2016. She is a Postdoctoral Scholar with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and The Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research.

Learn more about the Strahm Lab.

Cancer Biology & Immunotherapies

Pilar De La Puente, PhD

Pilar De La Puente is an assistant scientist in the Cancer Biology and Immunotherapies Group at Sanford Research. She received her BSc in biology and master’s in animal medicine and surgery with a focus on biomedical engineering (BME) from University of Leon (Spain). During her PhD, she received a fellowship to perform research at the University of Salamanca and Tissue Bank San Francisco Clinic Foundation in Spain with a focus on tissue engineering. After being awarded her PhD, she continued her postdoctoral training in cancer biology at Washington University in Saint Louis School of Medicine in the laboratory of Dr. Azab, developing tissue-engineered cancer pre-clinical models and investigating localized drug delivery systems for hematological malignancies including multiple myeloma, lymphoma and breast cancer. In June 2018, she joined Sanford Research. Her lab’s interests are focused on the role of tumor microenvironment (TME) in cancer progression, drug resistance and cancer immunology.

 Learn more about the De La Puente Lab.

Keith Miskimins, PhD

Dr. Keith Miskimins is a scientist in the Cancer Biology and Immunotherapies group at Sanford Research. He is the PI on the NIH funded Cancer Biology Research Center of Biomedical Research Excellence. His research focus is the protein inhibitor of cell cycle progression that is commonly down-regulated in cancer cells. He holds a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Wyoming, and earned his master’s degree in genetics and doctoral degree in cell and developmental biology from the University of Arizona. He also completed post-doctoral training in cell and developmental biology at the University of Arizona and biology at Yale University.

Learn more about the Miskimins Lab.

Jianning Tao, PhD

Dr. Jianning Tao received his doctor of philosophy degree in biochemistry/developmental biology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, TN, where he performed his dissertation work in the laboratory of Dr. John Cunningham at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Subsequently, Dr. Tao performed postgraduate work in the laboratory of Dr. Brendan Lee and Dr. Dennis Roop at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX, in the departments of Molecular and Human Genetics and Molecular and Cell Biology, first as a postdoctoral fellow and then as an assistant professor. Currently he is a principal investigator and primary faculty member in Cancer Biology and Immunotherapies group at Sanford Research and an assistant professor at the Department of Pediatrics of the University of South Dakota School of Medicine.

Learn more about the Tao Lab.

Paola Vermeer, PhD

Dr. Paola Vermeer obtained her BA in biology from Brandeis University in Waltham, MA, in 1991, her PhD from Columbia University in New York City, NY, in 1998. She did a post-doctoral research fellowship at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Iowa with Dr. Michael J. Welsh. She stayed on as a research scientist with Dr. Welsh and then Dr. Joseph Zaber until 2008 when she joined the Cancer Biology Research Center at Sanford Research, Sioux Falls, SD.

Learn more about the Vermeer Lab.

Cellular Therapies & Stem Cell Biology

Kevin Francis, PhD

Dr. Kevin Francis received his bachelor’s in biology from Marshall University, a master’s in anatomy from the University of Georgia and a doctorate in neuropathology from the Medical University of South Carolina in 2009. He completed his postdoctoral training at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in the laboratories of Heiner Westphal and Denny Porter (NICHD). There, Dr. Francis developed induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) models of pediatric disorders of cholesterol synthesis and metabolism, including Smith-Lemli-Opitz Syndrome and Niemann-Pick disease, Type C1. In 2015, Dr. Francis joined the faculty of Sanford Research, where he continues to use patient-derived iPSCs as a tool for modeling rare pediatric disease and identification of targets for therapeutic intervention.

Learn more about the Francis Lab.


Alexei Savinov, MD, PhD

Dr. Alexei Savinov has been studying diabetes pathogenesis for more than 20 years. He is passionate about understanding how different checkpoints in adaptive immunity are affected during development of autoimmunity. After graduating from The 1st Leningrad Medical Academy (Leningrad, USSR) with an MD and specialization in surgery, he obtained a PhD in biochemistry and cell biology at the Institute for Experimental Medicine, Academy of Medical Sciences of USSR (Leningrad, USSR). Dr. Savinov completed two postdoctoral fellowships: first, in the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics at the University of Maryland, School of Medicine (Baltimore, MD) and second, in The Jackson Laboratory (Bar Harbor, ME). Later, he worked as a staff scientist at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute (La Jolla, CA) before joining Sanford Research as an assistant scientist.

Learn more about the Savinov Lab.

Enabling Technologies

Indra Chandrasekar, PhD

Indra Chandrasekar obtained her master’s degree from Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani, India. Her passion for cell biology took her to cytoskeletal research pioneer Dr. Brigitte M. Jockusch’s Lab in Germany, where she received training in basic cell biology concepts and techniques. After receiving her PhD (Dr.rer.nat) degree from Technical University of Braunschweig in Germany, she moved to the U.S. Dr. Chandrasekar performed a short postdoctoral fellowship in the laboratory of renowned actin biologist Dr. John Cooper at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis to continue her training in cytoskeletal research. After a baby break, she joined the lab of Dr. Paul Bridgman, an expert cellular neurobiologist and EM specialist at Washington University, where she received training in neuronal cytoskeleton, mouse models and advanced microscopy techniques. She is currently an assistant scientist in the Enabling Technologies Group at Sanford Research, establishing her lab that will study membrane trafficking in vertebrate systems.

Learn more about the Chandrasekar Lab.

Kyle Roux, PhD

Kyle Roux received his BS in Biological anthropology/human biology at Emory University in 1998, and his PhD in neuroscience at the University of Florida College of Medicine in 2004. Subsequently, Kyle performed postgraduate work at the University of Florida College of Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, first as a postdoctoral associate and then as a research assistant professor. Currently he is a faculty member in the Sanford Enabling Technologies Group and principal investigator in the Roux Lab.

Learn more about the Roux Lab.

Environmental Influences on Health & Disease

Michelle Baack, MD

Dr. Michelle Baack obtained her BS in pharmacy from South Dakota State University (SDSU) in 1991, her MD from the University of South Dakota-School of Medicine (USD) in 1995, and her pediatric residency training from the University of Nebraska Medical Center-Creighton Joint Pediatric Residency Program in 1999. She practiced as a general pediatrician in rural South Dakota for 10 years and later returned to academics to obtain her fellowship in neonatal and perinatal medicine at the University of Iowa in 2008. She completed her neonatology training in 2011 and joined Sanford as a physician – scientist. She is board certified in pediatrics and neonatal and perinatal medicine. She is a clinical neonatologist at Sanford Children’s Hospital; an assistant professor through the Sanford School of Medicine of the University of South Dakota; a principal investigator at the Sanford School of Medicine of the University of South Dakota; and a principal investigator in Sanford Research’s Environmental Influences on Health and Disease Group in Sioux Falls, SD.

Learn more about the Baack Lab.

Genetics & Genomics

Mike Kareta, PhD

Mike Kareta is an associate scientist in the Genetics and Genomics Group at Sanford Research. He earned his bachelor of science in molecular and cellular biology at Texas A&M University where in the lab of Dr. Flora Katz he investigated the role of Abelson in the development of retinal neurons is Drosophila. He earned his PhD in the lab of Dr. Frédéric Chédin at the University of California, Davis where he investigated the biochemical mechanisms which underlie DNA Methyltransferase (DNMT) function. He then completed his postdoctoral studies at Stanford university in the labs of Drs. Julien Sage and Marius Wernig. It was at Stanford that he utilized iPS reprogramming to investigate Rb function and identified Sox2 as a key player in tumor formation. In September 2016 he joined Sanford Research.

Learn more about the Kareta Lab.

Pediatrics & Rare Diseases

Francisco Bustos, PhD

Dr. Bustos received his PhD in cell and molecular biology at Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile under the supervision of Hugo Olguin where his work focused on the regulation of muscle stem cells by ubiquitylation. His postdoctoral work was carried out in Greg Findlay’s laboratory at the MRC Protein Phosphorylation and Ubiquitylation Unit at the University of Dundee in Scotland. There, his research identified a signaling module that is disrupted in developmental disorders with intellectual disabilities involving SR-rich protein kinases (SRPK), which regulate the E3 ubiquitin ligase RNF12/RLIM to control neurodevelopmental gene expression. 

Dr. Bustos is an assistant scientist at Sanford Research and an assistant professor at the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine, where he studies the role of ubiquitin system in developmental disorders, including but not limited to Tonne-Kalscheuer syndrome and Dyskeratosis congenita. Via a combination of stem cell biology, proteomics, gene editing and transcriptomic and biochemical approaches, the Bustos Lab seeks to understand how the disruption of signaling pathways involving ubiquitylation underlies human development disorders”. 

Learn more about the Bustos Lab


Kurt Warnhoff, PhD

Dr. Warnhoff is an Assistant Scientist at Sanford Research and his work focuses on the role of molybdenum cofactor in health and disease. He has broad training in genetics, genomics, molecular biology, and biochemistry with specific expertise in gene discovery and characterization using the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. During his PhD research at Washington University he used C. elegans genetics and biochemistry to elucidate novel pathways promoting zinc tolerance and homeostasis. As a Damon Runyon fellow, Dr. Warnhoff worked in the lab of the world-renowned geneticist Gary Ruvkun (Harvard Medical School) to establish C. elegans as a premier animal model for discovery of novel molybdenum cofactor biology. 

Learn more about the Warnhoff Lab

Abdelhalim (Halim) Loukil, PhD

Dr. Abdelhalim (Halim) Loukil is an assistant scientist in the Pediatrics and Rare Disease group at Sanford Research. He received his master’s and PhD in biology and health at the University of Montpellier 2 in France. He then moved to the United States to pursue his postdoctoral training at the University of California, Irvine and Duke University. Dr. Loukil has broad training in cell and molecular biology, biochemistry, mouse genetics and cutting-edge microscopy.

Learn more about the Loukil Lab

Jill Weimer, PhD

Jill is an associate scientist in the pediatrics and Rare Diseases Group and assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the Sanford School of Medicine at USD. Before joining the Pediatrics and Rare Disease team at Sanford, Dr. Weimer completed a BS and PhD in neuroscience at the University of Rochester and a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in the Neuroscience Center.

Learn more about the Weimer Lab.

Lance Lee, PhD

Principal Investigator Lance Lee obtained his bachelor of science in biochemistry from Boston College in 1995, his MS in genetics from the University of Connecticut in 1997, and his Ph.D. in cell and developmental biology from Stony Brook University in 2004. He then did a postdoctoral fellowship at Children’s Hospital Boston/Harvard Medical School, where he studied genetic causes of primary ciliary dyskinesia in mouse models. He is currently a faculty member in the Pediatric and Rare Diseases Group at Sanford Research, where he oversees the research projects in the Lee Lab with ongoing interests in cilia biology and primary ciliary dyskinesia genetics.

Learn more about the Lee Lab.

Ikuo Masuho, PhD

Dr. Masuho has a broad background in molecular biology, with specific expertise in biochemcia, pharmacological, computational and cell biological research on physiological and pathophysiological aspects of G protein – coupled receptor (GPCR) signaling and its regulation. Using a systems biology approach, his study aims to understand the principle of the GPCR signaling system. He earned his PhD from Chiba University in Japan. 

Learn more about the Masuho Lab:


LJ Pilaz, PhD

Dr. Pilaz received his PhD in Lyon, France, and then moved to the United States where he trained as a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Duke University. He studies the cellular and molecular mechanisms that regulate the development of the cerebral cortex and how their disruption can lead to neurodevelopmental diseases such as autism and microcephaly.

Learn more about the Pilaz Lab.

Kamesh Surendran, PhD

Kamesh is an associate scientist in the Pediatric and Rare Diseases Group at Sanford Research, and assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the Sanford School of Medicine, University of South Dakota. He has been involved in studying the Wnt, TGF/BMP, and Notch signaling pathways, three evolutionarily conserved signaling pathways, in various aspects of kidney development and disease during his doctoral thesis and post-doctoral work at Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis. His current research interests are: (i) to understand the cellular and molecular abnormalities that result in childhood cystic kidney diseases and (ii) to determine the molecular regulators of cell fate patterning in the collecting ducts of the kidney.

Learn more about the Surendran Lab.

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