As a college student in India, Utpal Banerjee spent his summers working in research laboratories, and those experiences were pivotal in his decision to become a scientist. Ever since he became a professor himself, Banerjee has been trying to provide the next generation of undergraduate students the same kind of hands-on, inquiry-based education that he received. "Undergraduates can achieve a lot when shown the right way to think about problems," he says.
Banerjee's commitment to mentoring undergraduates started early. The first research to emerge from his newly formed molecular biology lab at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in 1991 was led by an undergraduate. As his lab grew, Banerjee added more undergrads and strengthened their initial training. "But all this was limited to my lab," he remembers. He thought there must be a way to reach more students.
With funding from the HHMI Professors Program in 2002, Banerjee scaled up his efforts, and UCLA's Undergraduate Research Consortium for Functional Genomics (URCFG) was born. A 10-week course enabled up to 30 undergraduates per academic quarter not only to learn their way around Banerjee's expanding laboratory but also to do real science. A few of those students were then offered the opportunity to do more advanced research over several years.
Using the fruit fly Drosophila as a model, Banerjee's molecular biology lab studies the patterns of gene expression that give rise to the development of organisms. The fruit fly is relatively easy to work with, and this kind of genomics needs hands-on attention—two factors that make the research well suited to a large team of basic trainees. In the first four years of the URCFG, more than 250 first- and second-year undergraduates helped produce two major papers—and an online database—detailing the effects of myriad gene deletions on the Drosophila eye.
Since then, Banerjee's teams of young scientists have moved from cataloging gene-deletion effects in Drosophila to recording gene-expression changes in various cell types as fruit flies develop—a project that yielded another massive database as well as a major paper in Nature Methods. Banerjee has put the latest groups to work on a new genomics project aimed at detailing the development of fruit fly blood cells.
So far, more than 500 students have been trained under the URCFG, and the program has expanded beyond Banerjee's lab to become an official biomedical research minor, which should make it possible for more students and UCLA faculty to participate. The URCFG also includes a new summer program for high school students.
Despite the program's success, Banerjee wants to reach even more students. He hopes to do that through a new course called Biomedical Research: Concepts and Strategies, which teaches students how scientific knowledge is gradually built from experimental evidence. Undergrads in this program listen to a scientific presentation and then, over eight weeks, learn to dissect and actively analyze the information they were given, through a guided process Banerjee calls "research deconstruction." "The idea is to impart the inquiry-based, critical thinking skills needed for research," he says. Over the past two years, more than 500 students have taken the course. Banerjee plans to expand it at UCLA, and he hopes to persuade other academic institutions to adopt it too.
To Banerjee, the research deconstruction idea is an inexpensive, scalable way to expose students to the culture of science and thereby nudge many of them toward a research career. But it can also be a valuable tool for educating all undergraduates. "Even if these students ultimately choose not to become scientists, learning to think like a scientist should help them in whatever profession they choose," he says. "Arguably, our society would be better off if more people had this as part of their education."