(Wendy Edelstein photos)
Reading, writing, 'rithmetic . and research
Undergrads learn about the fourth 'R' first-hand in summer lab-based programs
| 19 July 2006
Massiel Chavez is spending her summer researching how a cell decides what genes it needs to survive and which proteins help it do that; this work may yield clues to cancer in mammals. In another lab, Ryan Dean is studying the establishment of a molecular signaling center in Lepidoptera that initiates the patterning of butterfly wings, which may aid in understanding similar signaling centers that help form limbs and the nervous system in humans.
Neither Chavez nor Ryan is a seasoned researcher. Both are participants in a new summer program designed to provide undergrads with exposure to advanced research over the course of 10 weeks. The program, a "research experience for undergraduates" (REU) in cell, developmental, and evolutionary biology, is one of many REUs operating year-round on the Berkeley campus [see box]. Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the program is headed by David Weisblat, professor of developmental and cell biology, with co-principal investigators Caroline Kane, adjunct professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and Tyrone Hayes, professor of integrative biology. Anne Maclachlan of the Center for Studies on Higher Education assisted Weisblat in writing the grant for the new REU as well as in organizing its professional-development and evaluation components; Erin Conner, a recent Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Education, serves as program coordinator.
'A taste of research'
Like many other REUs offered on campus, the new program targets underrepresented students who are economically disadvantaged, many of whom come from other colleges and universities and live and eat in International House during their Berkeley stays. Getting federal funding makes it legally permissible for the investigators to focus on attracting students who aren't particularly well-represented in the biological sciences, explains Kane. The program's goal is to "give students a taste of research to try to encourage them - if they're interested - to go on to graduate school for a Ph.D.," she says. NSF views such programs as workforce development, while campus departments see REUs as professional development for potential future colleagues and a way to recruit students from other schools into graduate programs here at Berkeley.
Research opportunities abound for undergrads - from short-term stints to two-year programs
For information about undergraduate research programs at Berkeley, visit research.berkeley.edu. For information about the NSF REU in evolution, developmental, and cell biology described in this article, visit mcb.berkeley.edu/nsfreu.
For the students, the experience is a requirement for getting into a graduate research program. An NSF research experience, in particular, gives applicants to such programs an extra edge, Kane explains, because it demonstrates they have already been accepted into a highly competitive research program (Although information about the new program went online a month after its counterparts in other U.S. universities, 120 applications came in for its 12 spots.)
An exact science
A 20-year-old junior at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, Massiel Chavez initially deliberated between majoring in English literature and pre-medical studies. During her freshman year, Chavez took general chemistry, a prerequisite for pre-med majors, to determine whether she wished to pursue that path.
Two female professors taught that course as well as an organic chemistry class she took her sophomore year. Chavez acknowledges that it's unusual to have had the same two profs during her first two undergraduate years - especially women teaching chemistry. "They're so inspiring and passionate about what they do that I couldn't say no to chemistry," says Chavez, who decided to major in chemistry with a biochemistry concentration.
Chavez says chemistry is similar to math, and it's clear she finds the logic of the former particularly appealing. "I really like the aesthetic of drawing out my molecule and making it react with something else, like a math equation where you add two numbers and get a third," she explains. Chavez also finds satisfaction in the fact that chemistry is "a very process-oriented kind of science" and that "it's applicable to the real world."
Chavez was placed in Caroline Kane's lab, where she's refining the practices she learned in the lab sections of the chemistry courses she took at Haverford. Midway through the program, Chavez feels that she's already learned a lot. "My technique has really improved," she says, explaining that because she's working with yeast, it's critical to keep her work environment sterile to protect the samples from becoming contaminated. Precision and accurate measuring also figure into technique, so that "concentrations come out exactly as you planned and calculated."
For Chavez, who grew up in Hayward, this experience at Berkeley is paying off on two fronts. First, it's helped her escape a humid summer in Pennsylvania and return to her native California. The best part of the program, though, has been working in the lab. "I really like feeling like I'm a part of something that could actually have an impact on the world," she says.
From the microscope to the marina
Ryan Dean is a sophomore at University of Maryland Baltimore County who's double-majoring in biology and political science. He really appreciated the series of presentations during the program's first week, when a number of the program's faculty gave three-hour overviews on current core-research questions and predicted the directions their given fields might take in the coming decade. "I learned a lot in a short time, and it helped me get primed for what I was going to do in the lab," says Dean.
Also built into the program are weekly faculty presentations as well as professional-development sessions on such topics as getting into graduate school, scholarly publishing and abstracts, and conducting scientific library research. Dean says Weisblat "wants us to be successful. He really looks after us." To make the students feel at home, Weisblat has baked them cookies, introduced them to California cuisine at Adagia, and ferried them around to favorite Bay Area sites. The group attended the Fourth of July fireworks at the Berkeley marina, ventured out to the Gay Pride parade in the city, and went to a karaoke bar in Japantown. "During the first week, we had breakfast and lunch together every day," says Dean. "The people in the program get along really well."
At UMBC, Dean is on a Meyershoff Scholarship, a program that turns out the most African American male Ph.D.s in the country. He says that logging five to eight hours a day at his microscope has given him "a more realistic sense of what it means to get a Ph.D." and shown him "what type of personalities work successfully in a lab."
Dean is working in the lab of Nipam Patel, professor of genetics and development and of integrative biology. "He's a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, one of the highest distinctions you can get as a researcher," Dean says of Patel, with awe in his voice. He also appreciates the fact that Patel "is not in your face too hard" and that everyone in the lab, from postdoc to graduate student, is "incredibly humble and works well as part of a team."
For Dean, who's had teachers encouraging him to pursue science since middle school, being at Berkeley this summer is yet another example of "the stars lining up" to keep him on that path. "I feel like it's my responsibility to be a scientist, because you can change society by creating new drugs or making discoveries in research," he explains. "I have great confidence I can change the world."