Cell Biology, Plant Biology
Bonnie Bartel is Ralph and Dorothy Looney Professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Rice University.
From Reading to Research: Introducing Undergraduates to Research from the Outside In
As an undergraduate at Bethel College, Bonnie Bartel was aware of only two things she could do with her biology degree: go to medical school or teach five college classes a semester. She had already taken her medical school admission test when she realized that "if I continued on this track, I would be a doctor, and that did not sound like a fun job to me," she said.
Bartel took the next year off, worked in a lab, and applied to graduate schools, thinking that doctoral studies would provide a respite while she decided what to do with her life. "In graduate school I realized that the faculty were primarily researchers. What could be more fun than that?" recalled Bartel, whose brother, HHMI investigator David Bartel, also found his calling in research.
Undergraduates at Rice University might be a bit more informed about their career options than Bartel was, but the professor of biochemistry and cell biology does not want to leave that to chance. "Sometimes students do not figure it out until they are seniors," she said. With HHMI support, Bartel developed seminar courses for freshmen, to find and encourage those with an untapped passion and talent for research. Multiple groups of eight students each discuss a recent research article from a Rice lab. A postdoctoral fellow or graduate-student mentor leads them in learning to read scientific papers and explaining the underlying science and techniques. Then the groups tour the labs where the science they've read about occurred and discuss what was done. They meet the study's authors, look through lab notebooks, and observe the research organisms and equipment.
"We hope to give them some context for how things get into textbooks, and to get them to think about how we know what we think we know," Bartel said. Students inspired by the course often get an early start in faculty research labs. "It's hard to start something new without a push or boost," Bartel said. "One of the enjoyable things about writing the HHMI professor proposal was thinking about what I would do with a million dollars to expedite our students’ discovery of the fun of research."