Students may spend years deciding whether to pursue a career in science. But Yale University biophysics and biochemistry professor Scott Strobel says he can determine with pinpoint accuracy what they'll decide to do by listening for a single word during their research presentations. "Students who use the word 'I' or 'we' to describe their research are typically more engaged than those who distance themselves from the research by talking about what the postdoc or PI wanted them to do," he explains. "It's as though the work is anyone's but theirs." Students who own their projects tend to stick with science; the rest can't seem to find the exit door fast enough.
Strobel—who nearly abandoned biology himself after an unimaginative high school teacher forced him and his classmates to memorize the scientific names of tapeworms—believes the best way to retain good students in science is to give them control of their research and make it relevant.
It was the idea of project ownership that drove Strobel to develop the Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory (REAL), which first received HHMI funding in 2006.
Through REAL, 16 students each year do research on endophytes—fungi that live on plants and have the potential to serve as everything from medicines to biofuels. Because endophytes remain relatively unexplored by the scientific community, students know that their work has a real chance of breaking new ground, says Strobel. "It's not beyond the scope of possibilities that every student will discover a new genus of fungi." By taking students to one of the most biodiverse rainforests in the world, he provides them with almost endless opportunities to unearth something new.
The program, which starts during the spring semester and lasts through the summer, takes students from New Haven to the jungles of Coca, Ecuador, and back. Students work their way through a series of increasingly challenging objectives. They begin by creating a plant collection list for their travels; then they identify and collect samples during a two-week trip to Ecuador's Yasuni National Forest. After returning to Yale, they isolate and characterize the organisms through DNA sequencing, phylogenetics, and bioinformatics techniques.
During the first four years of the project, some 70 students have isolated several hundred microbes, about 10 percent of which are novel at the genus level. Strobel and his students have given scientific names to some of the organisms and have published work in a number of journals. But Strobel says that publishing is just one measure of success. "One student has gone on to isolate endophytes in Borneo with the help of a fellowship and others have decided to pursue Ph.D. and M.D./Ph.D. degrees in related fields. One entrepreneurial student wants to start a company based on his work," he says.
More important, such diverse and promising outcomes suggest that students see science as more than a body of facts to memorize, says Strobel. "Students develop confidence in their abilities. They realize that science is a way of thinking and approaching problems."
When he's not working to grow the REAL program, Strobel does research that explores the links between chemical and structural biology. His work focuses on RNA splicing and ribosome-catalyzed peptide bond formation as well as biofuel production from some of the organisms isolated by the students.
With HHMI's most recent renewal of funding for REAL, Strobel plans to expand its reach. While the program will continue to fund 64 students from Yale over the next four years, Strobel will also work to build partnerships that will give other schools the tools they need to set up similar programs to study endophytic biodiversity in nearby forests or parks. "We've got one partner now, Johns Hopkins, but we'd like to set up a program that will allow other schools to do this, too," he says.
In the end, Strobel says the students' REAL work is far more challenging—and important—than anything they could learn in a textbook. "With REAL each student starts at the beginning," he says. "They literally pull out things from the field that nobody has ever seen before—new organisms, new species, new genera. Everything is theirs to observe for the first time, and they're the ones making discoveries. It's great to see students get excited about what they're learning."