A new approach to university research

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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 made an effort to place as many undergraduates as she could in independent studies. 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: formulate a hypothesis, read the scientific literature, design and conduct experiments, analyze the data, and then in the spring write their results into a publication and present them.

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

And the program would target students who change campuses and enter 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 might otherwise 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.

BMB 490 students Ofure Akhigbe and Xianzhen Zhou learn cell culture.

IMAGE: Emily Bell, Penn State

With a focus on mentoring, she worked closely with each of her students to develop their skills and interests, also discussing internships, graduate studies, and various STEM career paths in academia, industry. and the government.

“I really care about student success,” she said, “and I’m very supportive of whatever they want to pursue, I write reference letters for them. And they feel like someone knows them very well, knows their strengths, and is helping them achieve their goals.

Keaton Chapman, a junior specializing in pharmacology and toxicology, said the program was “beyond any lab experience I’ve ever had. It gave me a huge boost in confidence to apply to graduate schools and advance in a research-based career.

Juniors Khushi Kiran, a major in biochemistry and molecular biology, and Andrea Esposito, a major in genetics and developmental biology, highlighted the skills and experience they gained through the program, which Kiran described as “an opportunity. really unique. It provides hands-on research experience with real-world applications. “

“By developing my communication and lab skills,” Esposito said, “I think this has prepared me for a scientific future.”

Andrew Basht, a junior specializing in immunology and infectious diseases, noted how “on a smaller campus it feels a bit like you’re missing some aspects of real lab settings.” But his experience in the program, he said, “has given me a better understanding of what’s going on in research.”

Junior Mina Halimitabrizi, a major in Immunology and Infectious Diseases, said that despite her limited knowledge of research initially, participating in the program “helped me understand different aspects of research and put everything in a better perspective. “.

And Michael Lapioli, a senior specializing in biochemistry and molecular biology, said: “More than lab work and technical writing, this program has given us a hunch of what it means to be a good scientist. “

“I’m really proud of these students,” said Bell. “They were resilient, reliable, motivated, and they definitely put their best face forward and rose to the challenge. I feel like they are better prepared to pursue higher education than any of the students I have supervised for independent study, so I’m really happy with that.

As they move on to the next step in their journey, Bell’s students know she has high hopes for them.

“I realize that when they graduate here, they go out into the world as ambassadors of science,” she said. “They will be responsible for interpreting and explaining information relevant to people’s livelihoods and health. The past year has been rich in examples of challenges and failures in the way we communicate scientific information to the public. But I hope if they do a good job they can influence people in a positive direction. “

More information about BMB 490/491: Undergraduate Research in Cellular Dynamics is available on the Penn State Eberly College of Science website.


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