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Lab Course Features Cutting-Edge Research

Story by
Nancy Joseph

It was past midnight and Jay Parrish’s research lab hummed with activity. One researcher studied Drosophila (fruit fly) sensory neurons through an epifluorescent microscope while others double checked data or scrambled to finish building their DNA constructs.  All of them faced a looming deadline: within days they would present their research findings in class, in lieu of a final exam.

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In Professor Jay Parrish's lab, undergraduates Josh Grandinetti and Matt De La Housaye extract RNA from Drosophila larvae. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

The budding researchers were undergraduates in a research-intensive biology course, BIOL 413: Molecular Genetics of Development. Unlike most laboratory courses, which assign carefully crafted experiments in a teaching lab, BIOL 413 students conduct original research in a state-of-the-art faculty laboratory.

“Most class labs tend to be formulaic, with all the students doing the same experiment,” says Parrish, assistant professor of biology, who teaches BIOL 413. “Even the best ones, which try to do real science or new experiments, have very limited scope and are much less ambitious. A typical example would be all of the students doing the same experiment with slight variation. Here, students design their own projects. I encourage them to explore questions that are interesting to them. By designing the course to address open questions in biomedical research, it becomes a vehicle for discovery.”

That prospect can be both exciting and unnerving for undergraduates. Parrish, who has taught the course twice, finds that it takes students a while to gain their footing. “At the outset, a lot of them are really uncomfortable with the uncertainty, with not knowing what comes next,” he says. “They are doing new experiments that have never been done before, have never been tested. But almost without exception, they very quickly come around. It’s amazing to watch.”

To this day, I count BIOL 413 as the most challenging, worthwhile, relevant, and inspiring class I have ever had the opportunity to take.... If I could do nothing with the rest of my tuition dollars but take the class over and over, I would consider my money well spent.

Brandy Olin recalls feeling overwhelmed at times but also inspired. “Dr. Parrish encouraged me to keep trying in spite of my many failures,” says Olin, who took the course last year and graduated in March 2014. “Every class I took after that paled in comparison.  In Dr. Parrish’s class, we had the sense that the work we were doing was real and potentially valuable research.”

BIOL 413 students pursue both an individual research project and a class project. Last year the class conducted a genetic screen in Drosophila to identify new mutations in a gene of interest.  Every student learned and employed the same genetic crossing and imaging techniques, but each sample yielded different results. “The students actually identified three or four new mutations in the gene we wanted to study,” says Parrish, “and they did it in the same amount of time it would have taken someone in my lab. It was fantastic.”

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Biology student Erica Foss images neurons in Drosophila using an epifluorescent microscope. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

The class project begins early in the quarter, with Parrish teaching lab techniques that students apply to their samples. “It’s just too much to give them everything on the first day,” he explains.  “Instead we have them work on some components of the project and slowly reveal how they fit into the bigger picture.” Senior Greg Shintani, majoring in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology, appreciated being introduced to techniques needed for actual research. “After we learned about different techniques, we were able to perform them in the lab almost immediately, assisting in our comprehension of when, why, and how to use them,” he says.

By week three, students begin their individual projects. Each student identifies a research question, designs and conducts experiments, collects data, and shares results in a final presentation at the end of the quarter. “Though we had access to the lab practically 24/7, we had under ten weeks to get solid results, which left little room for error,” recalls Shintani. Adds Parrish, “It’s madness the last two weeks with everyone collecting data, sometimes right up to the day they present their results.”   

While scientific discoveries are rare in such a short period, personal discoveries abound. Students experience firsthand what research entails, and many find that they like it. Last year, five students joined Parrish’s lab after taking the course. This year two students are doing research for credit; one graduated and is volunteering in the lab. Students have pursued opportunities in other faculty labs as well.  

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Jay Parrish, left, discusses an experiment with students Greg Shintani and Erica Chang. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

Thanks to their training, the students become real assets to a lab. A student who learned to make transgenic fruit flies for his individual research project—transforming the flies by adding a foreign gene—now works in Parrish’s lab and trains other researchers in the technique. “He’s absolutely the best person in my lab for doing that,” says Parrish.  “It’s really wonderful. I like the trajectory.”

Given the success of Parrish’s course, the Department of Biology hopes to adopt a similar model for other advanced laboratory courses.  But there is a steep cost for materials and mentorship. Parrish estimates the per-student cost at about $1,000 for equipment and consumables, the latter ranging from chemicals and antibodies to the raw materials needed to replicate DNA. He has minimized those costs by leveraging relationships with vendors—most notably Leica Microsystems, which has loaned six stereomicroscopes, three compound microscopes, and one epifluorescent microscope for the class. The course is assigned one paid teaching assistant (TA); other members of Parrish's lab provide additional support because of the opportunities for synergy. These solutions minimize costs in the short term, but private support may be needed for the course to be sustainable over time.

Olin hopes the department can find a way to offer this memorable opportunity to more students. “To this day, I count BIOL 413 as the most challenging, worthwhile, relevant, and inspiring class I have ever had the opportunity to take,” she says. “I have often recommended the class to others. If I could do nothing with the rest of my tuition dollars but take the class over and over, I would consider my money well spent.”