Learning to Think Like a Scientist
Utpal Banerjee's undergraduate degree is in physical chemistry. He
has never taken a biology class. Yet, "this curiosity was always there
about how to do biological research," he recalls.
In India, where he grew up, he received a series of fellowships that
enabled him to work summers in a lab. "That made a huge difference," he
He wants to make the same kind of difference for undergraduates at
UCLA, where he is a professor and chair of molecular, cell and
"There is a major lack of explicit training of what research is all
about," he says, lamenting the current state of undergraduate science
education. "It's not just a curiosity, but a way of life, a way of
investigation. You read Shakespeare because it will improve your
aesthetics. You do research in order to develop a certain way of
thinking about life. I'd like to see a system where undergraduates
start doing research in science very early in their careers."
As an HHMI Professor, Banerjee will bring undergrads to work in
large laboratory courses in close cooperation with his lab, where his
team studies the nature of cell-cell communication among pluripotent
cells in Drosophila, the fruit fly. "How does one cell talk to
another, and how does it lead a cell to take on a certain fate?"
Banerjee asks. "How does it know what it is to become? Cells must have
some way of deciding who is going to do what. In order for them to take
on a specific fate, they must rely on signals they get from their
neighbors. Those signals have a molecular basis."
The fruit fly is the perfect model because its two-week reproduction
cycle makes it easy to produce large numbers of flies very quickly.
Also, all of its genes are known, while all of its gene functions are
Banerjee's lab is studying the fly's developing eye and its blood.
His undergraduate students will create mutant flies, removing one gene
at a time in the developing eye or the blood. They plan to do this for
a large number of genes. By seeing what results, "you can figure out
the gene's function and how the different gene functions relate to one
another," he says. "You will see what it was supposed to do because you
will see an eye defect, or a blood defect."
"They will do good work that will actually produce publishable
results with implications for human gene function and disorder," he