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An Interdisciplinary, Hands-On Undergraduate Laboratory Course on Light, Pigments, and Organisms

Research Summary

Richard Zare's research interests focus on nanoscale chemical analysis. His HHMI project includes a laboratory course in the life sciences for undergraduates that will examine light and photosynthesis in an interdisciplinary way and a biochemistry course aimed at motivating students to pursue a research career.

We have developed a laboratory course that introduces 15 to 20 entering undergraduates to research in the life sciences with an emphasis on combining physics, chemistry, and biology to solve problems in a hands-on manner. The topic of light, how it interacts with molecules, and how organisms use light to produce nutrients through photosynthesis is well-suited for capturing the interest of students and for illustrating how research problems require knowledge of many different fields.

This course is primarily laboratory-based, but it will also include one lecture a week. At first, these activities will be very tightly planned, but as the course progresses, students will be able to follow their own curiosity to explore the behavior of organisms involved in photosynthesis. The Stanford University chemistry department offers a biological chemistry track, and this course has been developed for students who want to experience what research is like as soon as possible in their formal schooling.

Today, problems in the life sciences encompass numerous fields. This course emphasizes that research breakthroughs are built on applying knowledge acquired in many diverse disciplines. It also provides the hands-on experience that can motivate students to choose a research career path. By introducing students as early as possible to the research process, we hope that more of them will choose to follow studies leading to a PhD or MD or MD/PhD degree involving research in the life sciences.

Research in the Zare Lab

Our research area is in physical and analytical chemistry, and our research interests are wide ranging—from the study of elementary chemical reactions to chemical analysis of interplanetary dust particles. The major focus of these efforts is chemical analysis on the nanoscale. Our team has devised tools and techniques to examine molecules in extremely tiny volumes—the volumes characteristic of what is found in heterogeneous structures in mineral samples or in the contents of cells and subcellular compartments. We have also made contributions to the chemical analysis of liquid samples separated using a capillary format by electrophoresis or electrochromatography. Some “firsts” include the use of cavity ring-down spectroscopy for analyzing trace species in solution, development of detectors for capillary electrophoresis based on the techniques of laser-induced fluorescence, CCD imaging, and mass spectrometric imaging of tissue samples using desorption electrospray ionization.

Last updated May 2014

Scientist Profile

HHMI Professor
Stanford University
Biophysics, Physical Science