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FEATURES: Making Bigger Better
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Holli Duhon was one of hundreds of freshmen at University of Texas who did original research. She learned science involves creativity—and a tolerance for failure. Early exposure to research, says Sarah Simmons, is a powerful way to move beyond the status quo.
After spending her first semester learning basic research methods, she chose a project from 20-plus research “streams,” ranging from biofuels to nanomaterials. Duhon decided on the nucleic acids aptamer stream aimed at examining the interactions of certain nucleic acids with an eye toward drug development. She spent two semesters searching for short DNA sequences called oligonucleotides that could bind a target protein from the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei, a pathogen that causes an infectious disease common in Southeast Asia called melioidosis.
The search was like looking for a needle in a haystack, but that needle had the potential to be very valuable. A tightly binding oligonucleotide could lead to a diagnostic test for melioidosis. Meanwhile, Duhon’s fellow aptamer stream students looked for oligonucleotide sequences to bind target proteins linked to Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s—all before wrapping up their sophomore year.
“We needed to engage in the experiments and learn what it feels like to personally contribute to legitimate academic discoveries. I learned that I was willing to fail 99 times for one successful moment.”
Duhon soon realized that real-world research didn’t look much like the clean, streamlined labs she’d experienced in high school. “There are so many times you try out a protocol thinking it will work out brilliantly, only to find out that something fails on the first step. Or the last step. Or anywhere in between,” she says. “I was not aware that science involved such creativity.”
University of Texas at Austin Freshman Research Initiative student Holli Duhon describes her research.
Duhon didn’t find the oligonucleotide magic bullet, but she developed critical thinking skills, tenacity, and an appreciation for the challenges and joys of science in a way that more traditional courses don’t often allow. More important, she wasn’t one of a privileged few having this type of powerful experience; she was one of hundreds.
The University of Texas (UT) is one of many major research universities—along with dozens of smaller colleges—experimenting with classroom-based research opportunities for undergraduates. Sarah Simmons, director of UT’s FRI, which is partially funded by HHMI, acknowledges that there are challenges to upending the traditional “lecture and lab” model for introductory science courses. Moving toward a research-based approach requires creating appropriate projects, for example, as well as staffing labs for longer hours.
Those issues get even trickier as student numbers climb from dozens to hundreds. But compared with a group of similar UT students, FRI students have better graduation rates—67 percent compared with 53 percent—and a higher likelihood of pursuing advanced degrees in science—32 percent compared with 9 percent.