PAGE 4 OF 5
See an infographic comparing five undergraduate research programs.
About 10 percent of the students in each group produce something that Ellington describes as “interesting” and worth pursuing. Those who don’t might team up with students who have had success, and the best—those who are sharp, enthusiastic, and have the “good hands” that are essential for lab work—often end up working in Ellington’s lab a year or two later. Many of them go on to publish papers on their work. But it all starts with a very simple project.
At UCSB, Rothman, Christoffersen, and Bush learned quickly that they couldn’t work with novice students the way they could with postdocs, who are typically much more proficient at the physical manipulations required for research. A procedure that a postdoc could perform on C. elegans in two minutes might take an undergrad just learning the process 20 times longer. That kind of time lag can confound findings.
Instead of trying to get students to do more, Rothman and his colleagues redesigned the experiments so students were less likely to introduce errors—or injure the animals they were studying. “It’s like asking a student who has never been on a bicycle to enter a race,” says Rothman. “We’ve had to build a bicycle that students can stay on without falling over and killing themselves.” Adapting the teaching module required time and creativity, but students were better able to complete their research successfully.
For classroom-based experiences, researchers and instructors must navigate one of the most difficult parts of the research process—frequent failure. Most traditional labs are designed so that students who do everything correctly will succeed; in individual research projects, a positive outcome is never guaranteed. Instructors have learned to offer students early research experiences that give them the taste of success before they delve into unknown territory.
At the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), for example, classes of 20 to 25 students work in the lab of HHMI professor Utpal Banerjee on a range of projects studying the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. In one project, students learn a clever genetic trick called “lineage tracing.” They fluorescently label a group of cells in early Drosophila development and watch to see what tissues those cells eventually become part of.
The lab work is difficult, says Ira Clark, the academic administrator for the UCLA minor in biomedical research, and while failure is common, he, Banerjee, and instructor John Olson did their best to make sure it wasn’t inevitable. Instead of designing projects in which only a tiny portion of Drosophila lines would yield a positive result, they were able to design one in which positive results were more common. “It is the nature of the project that if you do the experiments on 10 random lines, you are likely to get at least one—and in many cases several—positive results," he says. While some students may still see all negative lines, it's quite rare. “We wanted to give every student that discovery moment,” he says.
As students move forward, however, there is no guarantee of success. Instead, they must find different ways of feeling accomplishment, whether it’s creating new approaches to solving a problem or discovering something unexpected in a failed experiment. Duhon realized early on that she might be well-suited for research. “In most lab classes, you pursue an A and put the experience second,” she says. “But in [the research course] the priority was not the grade. 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.”
An Infrastructure for Growth
Many large-scale research programs, including Banerjee’s Drosophila projects and Hatfull’s bacteriophage work, are showing significant progress, but translating those successes to other schools—different sizes, different cultures, different goals—is a tall order. Faculty from successful institutions are sharing individual successes and best practices to create a framework that others can use to adapt existing programs and build their own.