One way to fundamentally change the perspective of what a college science education is all about is to have high school students and undergraduate students interact with faculty, graduate students, and each other in a research laboratory. Many students still believe college-level learning is simply sitting in a lecture class or attending a laboratory class and doing a “canned” project that may or may not work. In many cases there is no ownership on the part of the students—if the project does not work either due to poor design, materials, or technical expertise, there is little consequence to the students or their laboratory partners—they still get the “right” answers from the teaching assistant at the end of class. That perception completely changes when students join a laboratory and are involved in scientific discovery. They then realize that the success of their work depends on their respect for the questions being addressed, their ability to perform techniques correctly, and their responsibility to other team members.
My research program went beyond the typical research laboratory experience and comprised a series of experiences for a diverse group of students who worked together as a research team alongside faculty and graduate student mentors. For the youngest members (about 20 high school students and freshman students each year) this involved a summer research experience as part of a team doing discovery science. The freshman began a research course during the summer, before their first fall semester, which was then followed during their freshman year by mentoring preparation for entrance to the HHMI research program their sophomore year. For the sophomores (20 students each year), this program was a one-year research experience that coupled discovery-based research in an active laboratory with three formal classes. The classes included a one-week summer workshop on modern research techniques coupled to a laboratory research experience where students spent 10 to12 hours each week in a research lab and 2.5 hours a week in lab meetings where the basics of being a scientist were taught. Topics involving academic honesty and ethics of research, basics philosophy of science, data collection and notebook keeping, and basic skills in science communication were discussed and practiced. This was followed in fall with “lab meetings” and a course titled “Communicating the Life Sciences.”
For the graduate students (eight to ten students per year), the program involved a summer course titled “Mentoring the Next Generation” and a research mentorship component. The program also targeted new faculty mentors with a fall workshop titled “Science Mentoring.“ The mentoring course and workshop was open to all interested faculty and graduate students.
I believe that a mentoring program in the freshman and sophomore years of a student's undergraduate career, which involves inquiry based learning in the research laboratory, gave students an early appreciation of the difference between studentship (i.e., being a passive student and being taught) and scholarship (i.e., an individual's or group's pursuit of new knowledge). It also helped students establish a personal mentoring network, comprising fellow students to graduate students and faculty, which could then be drawn upon during their academic careers. Finally, the graduate students involved in this program were more likely to continue to mentor undergraduate students during their years as students and also were more likely when they become faculty, to open their laboratories to students of all backgrounds and experience levels.
My research examines the evolution of the reproductive system in vertebrates and the role of various environmental factors, including environmental contaminants, in modifying the development and functioning of this system. A special feature of my work involves examining environmental effects on the reproductive biology of nontraditional research organisms, from population level endpoints to the molecular endocrine mechanisms that underlie the functioning of the reproductive system. My students and I work on a variety of organisms from alligators and fish to frogs and humans. This research examining the role of environmental contaminants as inducers of birth defects in various wildlife species, and its implications for children's health, has drawn international attention.
Last updated September 2006