When she was an undergraduate at Bethel College, Bonnie Bartel was aware of only two things she could do with her biology degree—go to medical school or teach five college classes a semester. She had already taken her medical school admission test when she realized that "if I continued on this track, I would be a doctor, and that did not sound like a fun job to me," she said.
Bartel took the next year off, worked in a lab, and applied to graduate schools, thinking that doctoral studies would provide a respite while she decided what to do for the rest of her life. "Then I realized all these guys were doing research for their jobs. What could be more fun than that?" recalled Bartel, whose brother, HHMI investigator David Bartel, also found his calling in research.
Undergraduates at Rice University might be a little more informed about their career options than Bartel was, but the professor of biochemistry and cell biology does not want to leave that to chance. "Sometimes students do not figure it out until they are seniors," she said. "No one should be a doctor just because they don't know there are alternatives."
Bartel plans to develop mini-seminar courses for freshmen, to find and encourage those with an untapped passion and talent for research. Ten groups of approximately five students each will discuss a recent research article by a Rice faculty member or one from nearby Baylor School of Medicine. A postdoctoral fellow or graduate-student mentor will teach them how to read a scientific paper and explain the science and techniques.
Then the groups will tour the labs where the science they've read and discussed was done. They will have the opportunity to meet the study's authors, look through their lab notebooks, and observe their research organisms and equipment. "The idea is to give them some context for how things get into textbooks, and to get them to think about how we know what we think we know," Bartel said.
She also plans to offer an open-ended functional genomics research project for sophomores. They will use molecular biology and chemical analyses to characterize a member of a family of enzymes that makes an unknown variety of triterpenes—small molecules that regulate plant growth. Triterpenes may be better known to the students as the plant sterol additives in orange juice, believed to lower cholesterol. "Plants are probably not making triterpenes so we will eat them," Bartel pointed out. She hopes students inspired by the research will go on to spend the summer in the lab, investigating what triterpenes do in plants.
"It's hard to start something new without a push or boost," Bartel said. "One of the fun things about writing the HHMI professor proposal was thinking about what I would do if I had a million dollars to change how students discover the fun of research."