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Undergraduate adventures in research bring biology to life

By Mary Ellard-Ivey


Like learning to swim, learning to do science demands getting your feet wet. Our science students spend long hours in lectures and even longer hours poring over textbooks, but this is not what makes a science student a scientist. The hours they spend in the laboratory or in the field, immersed in real research, perform the transformation.

One of my undergraduate research students claims to have learned more in one summer doing research than in any class she has taken. Undergraduate research opportunities are the most valuable part of a student's training in biology, and mentoring these research students is one of the most rewarding parts of my work at PLU.

I became a scientist because I love all of biology; I cannot conceive of a topic more interesting than living organisms and how they function. I became especially intrigued by the tools and tricks plants have evolved allowing them to respond to their environment. In my discipline of molecular biology, my students and I try to understand changes that occur in small molecules within plant cells in response to external stimuli. At PLU I have shared the exploration of these processes with more than a dozen undergraduate research students. With them I have savored again the joys of my own early research experiences.

As a rookie researcher I saw quickly that laboratory work is not as glamorous as it may sound. Laboratory research is painstaking—typically slow, and frequently mundane. There are few “eureka” moments. There are, however, many small thrills and triumphs, moments in which the biology is much more fun in the flesh than it is in a textbook. I enjoy sharing these experiences with my students, seeing their satisfaction when they master a technique and their awe when they visualize in the laboratory biological processes and molecules they have previously only heard of in the classroom. I see them thrive when given the freedom to think independently—and when given the respect such freedom implies.

Progress in science is rarely made through astonishing leaps, but rather through small discoveries generated by the execution of many carefully planned experiments. Collectively, these small discoveries contribute to a body of knowledge that moves us inexorably forward. In their hands-on research experiences, students see this for themselves. Furthermore, they find that they can make meaningful contributions to this body of knowledge. In doing so they learn how to become scientists, acquire marketable laboratory skills, and have fun.

Yes, science in action is fun. My students and I see the laboratory as a playroom full of toys—the tools that let us pursue exciting adventures and solve challenging puzzles. Research students are surprised to learn that doing science actually generates more questions than answers. There is never a dearth of problems to address, and there is always the challenge of asking the right question with the right experimental tools.

Many of the skills I learned as a laboratory scientist have kept me in good stead for life in general. For example, as a scientist I am often reminded to keep an open mind. Most of the interesting scientific discoveries in which I have participated have been unexpected. Preconceived notions are dangerous, and being slow to judge is a good strategy. In the laboratory I have also learned the value of tenacity. Good scientists are always willing to refine, tweak and repeat experiments over and over. Few skills in life, be they baking bread or riding bicycles, come without repeated effort and determination.

Research can entail long hours in a laboratory where the interactions with professors, colleagues and peers allow you to get to know then them in new ways. Some of my most valuable friendships started in the laboratories where I spent long hours as a graduate student and a post-doctoral scientist. The shared frustrations and joys of research have made for strong bonds. I feel a unique kind of intimacy with those who have shared with me reagents, test tubes, ideas, experimental results and endless mugs of coffee.

No classroom experience can bring biology to life as can an adventure into research. I am encouraged to see that PLU is increasingly aware of the importance of undergraduate research experiences. This is evidenced by the development of the university-supported Natural

Sciences Undergraduate Research program (http://www.nsci.plu.edu/uresearch/home.html), which provides support for faculty and students to go on summer research adventures. My students and I cannot recommend these experiences highly enough.

Mary Ellard-Ivey is associate professor of biology. Ideas for this article include those from conversations with a number of my research students, including Elaine Lee'04 and Katie Thonstad '04.

 

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© Scene 2004  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Spring 2004

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