October 2010

Introducing Students to Research

 

When welcoming students into a research laboratory for the first time, it is important that care is taken to demonstrate to students early on that, yes, they can do this, and steps are taken to build a foundation of self-confidence that will help them cope with the inevitable vicissitudes of authentic research. (Titled "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive" in print version.)


Autoclave
Many of us initially were intimidated by that groaning, squealing, steam-belching monster called the autoclave.

You’ve Got to Accentuate the Positive1

Investigators who welcome students into their laboratories to experience “real-life” research for the first time perform an extremely valuable service that requires a major commitment of time and effort. Unfortunately, after years of training to become self-reliant molecular explorers toughened by the realities of pressurized competition for grants, jobs, tenure, publications and recognition, research mentors sometimes forget that they, too, were novices, enthusiastic but devoid of research skills and experience.

With time and distance, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember just how lost we felt upon venturing into the unfamiliar world of our first “real” research laboratory; how intimidating we found that groaning, squealing, steam-belching monster called the autoclave; how sheepish we felt when we asked what “subculture” meant and how we broke into a cold sweat the first time we were permitted to fly solo on some expensive piece of equipment. We tend to forget just how little we initially understood about the rewards and frustrations of working at the bench and how thin was the foundation of confidence and self-assurance that buttressed our youthful eagerness.

When welcoming students into a research laboratory for the first time, it is important that care is taken to demonstrate to students early on that, yes, they can do this, and steps are taken to build a foundation of self-confidence that will help them cope with the inevitable vicissitudes of authentic research.

Eliminate the Negative

Upon entering the laboratory, the new student leaves behind an orderly world of regular and predictable schedules and neat and tidy metrics. Gone are the homework, quizzes, exams, points, curves and grades used not only to assess progress but, for many students, to define success itself. No matter how assiduously a mentor may try to explain the nature of authentic research, students may feel insecure and uncertain upon entering an environment devoid of the familiar landmarks previously relied upon to direct their efforts and identify their destinations. Gone, too, is the assuring, black-and-white reality wherein every answer can be determined unambiguously to be either correct or incorrect. And, how is this determination made? By referring to some higher authority, such as a textbook or an expert, extrinsic to the students themselves.

Students, even at the graduate level, inculcated in the “undergraduate mindset” enter the research lab programmed to believe that any experiment designed by an expert such as their research mentor should “work.” By this, I mean that it will operate as intended on the first try and yield results consistent with the hypothesis that inspired it: the nearest equivalent to an extrinsically derived “right” answer. Students trapped in this mindset interpret any outcome that deviates from what is anticipated as a failure on their part, for to accept otherwise is to reject the concept of an ultimate higher authority, with all the comfort and security it provides.

Latch onto the Affirmative

When investigators immediately plunge new, unprepared undergraduate or graduate students into a novel, authentic research project, they oftentimes place the students’ enthusiasm for science and research at risk. The seeds of discouragement frequently lie in elements so simple that they fly under the trouble-shooting radar.

Sometimes, students end up metaphorically banging their heads against the wall because a laboratory’s tried-and-true expression vector proves unsuitable to generate some new recombinant protein. Because the vector “should” work, students may be set off on a frustrating set of trials in which they vary growth conditions, inducer concentration and induction times to no avail.

"...start new trainees out on something that is not just likely to work, but whose feasibility has been demonstrated by a preliminary experiment or two in your own laboratory."

Similarly, a research group long-accustomed to working with His-tagged proteins may be slow to suspect that the fusion domain is responsible for the lack of catalytic activity in the new trainee’s recombinant enzyme preparation. The mentor is faced with two unknowns, an unproven research student and a novel target. Under these circumstances, it is possible that a trainee may be performing flawlessly, yet never realizes it.

Don’t Mess with Mister In-between

Students, as well as research projects, are wonderfully diverse. Hence, there is no single universal prescription for how to conduct a student’s initiation into the world of authentic research. However, I would argue that, when in doubt, it is advisable to start new trainees out on something that is not just likely to work, but whose feasibility has been demonstrated by a preliminary experiment or two in your own laboratory. This may take the form of some small introductory project or training activity, or a long-term product for which the first couple of operations have undergone some preliminary testing to establish their feasibility.

The benefits of rigging the game to produce early success are several-fold. It provides students with some positive feedback, particularly the affirmation that they are capable of performing laboratory research. Second, it affords the mentor an opportunity to evaluate a new student’s abilities free from the potentially confounding factor of an untested system. The concomitant sowing of the seeds of mutual trust will serve both student and mentor well, as the project progresses and challenges are encountered.

Many of you reading this column, as well as its author, first imagined that we might have what it takes to become a research scientist as a consequence of an undergraduate research or summer internship experience. Opening the eyes of students to their full potential is one of the most rewarding things we can do to fulfill our role of advisers and educators and honor those key people who made such a critical contribution to our own lives.

Footnote

1. Headings excerpted from the lyrics of the song “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive (Mister In-between)” by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen.

Peter J. Kennelly (pjkennel@vt.edu) is a professor and head of the department of biochemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He also is chairman of the ASBMB Education and Professional Development Committee.


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