At any university, there are labs where professional researchers work to gain new insight that advances the march of science, and there are labs where students learn basic techniques and further their skills through practice.
But there are also labs like Bucknell University Professor Elizabeth Marin's Biology 340 module, where students can do both.
Over the past six years, Marin, a professor of biology, has developed a series of experiments to teach undergraduate cell biology/biochemistry majors techniques that are ubiquitous in their field of study, but which undergraduates rarely encounter. The experiments also generate data valuable to researchers who, like Marin, study Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly — a real world outcome that Marin said fosters greater student engagement.
Several weeks ago, she and 23 current and former Bucknell undergraduates published their findings and an outline of their experimental method in the journal PLoS Biology, in hopes that other universities will replicate the laboratory module.
"It's a really good example of how a school like Bucknell can give a unique experience to undergraduates in the laboratory and the classroom," Marin said, noting that the experiments she did as an undergraduate at a large, state university were all "huge and canned."
"There was no problem solving, there was certainly no attempt to connect our work to any questions that were ongoing in the field," she said.
"Working on these experiments was so exciting because we did not know what to expect," added Chris Dunne '15, one of Marin's students and first author of the paper. "This kept me engaged in the work and ensured that I paid more attention to scientific procedures.
"In canned laboratory exercises it is easy to get sloppy because you know what the result should be, and if you do not get that result, you simply attribute it to your errors and move on. In this experiment, when we got an unexpected result we had to hypothesize why that might have been and then try the experiment again to see if our results would replicate."
The laboratory module itself challenges Marin's students to master a series of biomedical methods, including the GAL4-UAS system, inverse PCR and immunohistochemistry, to study gene expression in fruit flies. Their results produce previously unknown data about the Drosophila genome, which benefits researchers like Marin, who studies development of the fruit fly's nervous system.
Her students, meanwhile, learn techniques "that will be very useful if they go on in biology in any capacity," she said, and can add publication in an academic journal to their list of undergraduate accomplishments. Even for students who have since graduated, Marin said, the exercise had its rewards.
"Some of them are in medical school and just finishing up, so they're putting this on their CV," Marin said. "I think it's going to help them for the next stage."