A new approach to university research


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Having to turn down lab students didn’t please Professor Emily Bell.

“We know that participating in research is a really valuable and important experience for students,” she said. “It changes the way they think about science, the way they interact with their other classes. And that’s very important for their career preparation and their ability to compete and get the jobs they want.

Bell, a research associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State, has worked to place as many undergraduates as she could in independent study. But there just weren’t enough posts.

“I was turning down at least 20 students per semester,” she said. “There is just more demand than supply.

So Bell said she had the idea of ​​creating a new two-course research program, the first of its kind, to serve these undergraduates.

Resolution result

“No one has done anything like this before, at least not at the wet bench, which I found,” she explained. “But with the resources a course has, I could integrate a lot more students, get a group of 20 and do it as a team. And it’s a realistic experience to do research. It’s not that lonely thing that you do; it’s interactive. So doing it as a team seemed more authentic to me. “

Each cohort would start in the fall with a whole new project: formulating a hypothesis, reading the scientific literature, designing and conducting experiments, analyzing the data, and then in the spring writing their results into a publication and presenting them.

“A start to finish experience,” said Bell. “They do everything a professional researcher does.”

And the program would target students who change campuses entering first year at University Park and give them first priority in the application process.

“The reason is,” Bell explained, “that many incoming students have not yet had the opportunity to connect with faculty at University Park, which can make it difficult to find an internship. in the research laboratory. Also, by bringing together a team of students who are all new to campus and all interested in research, you automatically give them a community, so I was hoping that would make their transition here easier as well.

Bell has also made the application process as easy as possible, with just one prerequisite.

“I want to reach students who have not had experience, who may not know if it is for them because they have not had the chance to explore it”, he said. she declared. “I don’t want to put up barriers. I want people of all experience levels and walks of life to feel like this is something they could be involved in and benefit from. “

Without the benefit of a research experience, Bell added, students might not have the chance to pursue a career path that they otherwise might have had, “so it’s really important for me to give opportunities for these students, to promote the diversity of people who progress. In science. I want to help open doors for students who otherwise would not have even considered applying because they would feel like they are not competitive.

After more than a year of preparation, Bell was finally ready to launch her new program – in fact, her first time teaching a lab course – in the fall of 2020.

And then the pandemic struck.

Resilience rewarded

“This program is something that really excites me,” she said. “I felt like it would be so precious to the students, and I didn’t want to cancel it. I didn’t want them to lose this opportunity.

Bell has therefore taken the necessary measures for social distancing in the laboratory, as well as for hybrid and distance education: new security protocols have been established; students rotated around the lab in small groups and teams, and some participated entirely online.

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