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 says.
He wants to make the same kind of difference for undergraduates at UCLA, where he is a professor and chair of molecular, cell and developmental biology.
"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 not known.
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 predicts.