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Scott Strobel (right) and his father, Gary Strobel, joined forces to bring their complementary styles and expertise to a discovery-based science course for undergraduates.
A recent journey took Strobel, an HHMI professor at Yale University, and 15 undergraduates from a New York City airport to Lima, Peru, followed by a two-hour flight to Puerto Maldonado, a town in the Upper Amazon rainforest. Then they motored six hours by boat down the Madre de Dios River. A final two-mile slog through knee-deep mud, swarming insects, and pouring rain brought them to the base of an iboga tree (Tabernanthe iboga), an immense succulent whose upper branches disappeared in the dense canopy overhead.
Once there, student Daniel Vekhter, a wiry Yale junior from Buffalo, was near his prize. But it was up to him to do the climbing—more than 30 feet overhead and out on a limb stretching from the iboga's thick vine-draped trunk. He was after microorganisms that he planned to spend the coming summer and next school year studying, and that, he hoped, would form the beginnings of his career. With a wary Strobel and his classmates watching, the 20-year-old slung his collection bag over his shoulders, took off his boots and socks, grabbed a dangling vine, and began his ascent.
Vekhter's and his fellow students' Amazon adventure was a bioprospecting trip, the first offering of an experimental discovery-based science education program Strobel created for Yale undergraduates. The concept for the course won Strobel an HHMI professor's award, which provides him and Yale with $1 million in support over four years. Few undergraduates ever get the opportunity to learn by doing like Strobel's students. When they applied for the course, they knew they'd be trekking far from home, but they may not have realized just how far—as scientists—the experience would take them.
According to Strobel, most scientists can trace their professional start to a rewarding college research experience. But too many undergraduates who take on research projects abandon science after getting their diplomas. "Students grow discouraged because they have not experienced enough of science's excitement or opportunities," Strobel says. He asserts that some of the blame rests with the types of projects offered to undergrads. "It's the problem of ownership," he says. "All too often, we give undergraduates too small or too technical a piece of the scientific question to figure out how it fits into the equation." Instead of firing the student's imagination, such experiences often extinguish the desire to pursue science as a career.
Strobel wanted to see what he could do to change that outcome at Yale. "The idea is to give students control of scientific decisions," he says. "That's critical to the success of any research experience, regardless of the student's academic level." He devised an experiment in undergraduate scientific research for which, as he explained in the course description, "There is no lab manual." Students choose plants and microbes that interest them, pluck small samples from an untouched part of nature, and then bring them back to a campus laboratory for analysis using a variety of available techniques—many of which Strobel uses in his own research program, which focuses on basic biological processes including how RNA catalyzes protein synthesis and RNA splicing in the genome.
He drew inspiration from a program launched in 2002 by HHMI professor Graham F. Hatfull at the University of Pittsburgh. After collecting local soil samples, Hatfull's undergraduates and high school students isolate, sequence, and annotate mycobacteriophages—viruses that infect bacteria and are used by researchers to learn about the genetics of numerous diseases. "These students' projects give them a sense of intellectual ownership and project control," says Strobel. "It inspires them to see science as something they can do."
Photo: Lisa Kereszi