Snakes are a source of fascination—or disgust—for many people, but they hold a special place in the hearts of some researchers and students at the University of Colorado at Boulder (UCB). Pythons fast for long periods of time and then eat a huge meal that can be equivalent to half their body mass. To do this, pythons quickly ramp up their metabolism and double the size of their organs. But not much is known at the genetic level about how the snakes accomplish this feat.
For the past three years, undergraduate students at UCB have been studying the python genome in order to answer some of these questions. They are doing this research as part of an undergraduate laboratory class called the “Python Project,” which was developed three years ago with HHMI support. “The thing that makes it different from the standard laboratory class is that it’s real research,” says Leslie Leinwand, an HHMI professor who developed the course. “It’s not cookbook, with outcomes already known.”
The course is just one way undergraduates actively engage in research at UCB. Through the university’s Biological Sciences Initiative (BSI), with HHMI support, more than 60 students do research in faculty labs each year, and more than 250 K–12 teachers engage in workshops that include cutting-edge research coupled with lab activities they can learn and take back to their classrooms. “The common denominator of the university’s BSI programs is providing access to the tremendously exciting scientific enterprise here at UCB,” Leinwand says.
A new HHMI grant will allow the university’s BSI programs to continue to build on this success. With the python course as a springboard, new interdisciplinary research courses will be offered, ranging in topics from microbiomes in health and disease to vaccine development. Each will ask students to tackle a research project that draws from collaborative work already being done in labs at the university -- from tissue engineering to molecular biology. “The idea is to make these research classes representative of translational interdisciplinary research,” Leinwand says. “It is quite representative of where the field of biomedical research is moving.”