At the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), hundreds of sophomores take the introductory biology course each year. Soon, each one will get a taste of doing original research on the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, a widely used genetic model.
The inspiration for the new curriculum came from biology professor Joel Rothman’s experience as director of a summer embryology course at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. In the MBL course, graduate students and postdocs would spend three days conducting original experiments on C. elegans. Despite the time limitations, students were able to make interesting discoveries and came away with an appreciation for this area of research. Back at UCSB, Rothman and fellow professors Kathy Foltz and Rolf Christoffersen began thinking about whether such an approach could be adapted to undergraduate lab activities that might kick-start college students’ interest in research.
“If advanced students could make original discoveries in only three days,” Rothman says, “we wondered, might it be possible—over several quarters—to do this for six to eight hundred Intro Bio students who are just starting their training?”
As part of the new effort, called the Large-scale Undergraduate Research Experience (LURE), each introductory biology student will use RNA interference to knock down one of the worm’s 20,000 genes in an effort to identify genes important for specific aspects of development or physiology. C. elegans is easy to grow, and the techniques are standard, making it ideal for such a large-scale undergraduate project, Rothman says. It will be true research, as the outcome of each experiment will not be known beforehand. In fact, some students may not find anything. That will be an important lesson, too, Rothman says. “Failure is a perennial part of the research experience,” he notes.
The university plans to share the students’ results with the worldwide C. elegans research community by publishing their data on the web. Those results could stimulate new directions for researchers around the world. “There are elements in science in which 600 pairs of eyes and hands are very valuable,” Rothman says.