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Vassar Professors incorporate “discovery” modules in lab courses

Professor Duncan and John Hayden ’14 in the Advanced Research Methods lab
Professor Duncan and John Hayden ’14 in the Advanced Research Methods lab

Lab. That’s where you learn to use basic research tools, follow standard protocols, and report the results in an appropriate format. If you’ve done the experiment correctly, your results should be the same as everybody else’s. You’re not supposed to actually discover anything—right?

Well, why not? Why shouldn’t discovery be part of the laboratory experience? Professors across the sciences at Vassar are re-envisioning their lab courses and incorporating real research questions—questions that don’t have answers. Yet. “It makes lab way more exciting to go to,” says Teresa Garrett, assistant professor of chemistry. “I think my students go back and forth between `this is a lot of work’ and `this is really kind of exciting!’”

272. Biochemistry

A lipid biochemist, Garrett studies the structure and function of lipids in the cell. She’s interested in an enzyme in lipid metabolism called PgsA, which is relatively understudied, but in order to pursue that line of research, she needs to purify another enzyme called CMP Kinase (CMPK). CMPK is not as understudied as PgsA, but there are plenty of unanswered questions relating to CMPK.

So Garrett decided to make CMP Kinase the focus of the 200-level biochemistry lab, a class with 65 students divided into four sections, each taught by a different faculty member. Funded by Vassar’s Center for Collaborative Approaches to Science (which is in turn funded by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute), the new lab module gives students the opportunity to contribute to real research in a classroom context. “The students are developing assays and purification protocols, and next we’re going to purify the protein using the protocols they developed. And then, once they purify their protein, they can choose where they want to go next. You want to study how it works on this substrate? Fine. You want to do an inhibitor? Okay! And at the end of the semester, they are going to tell me what the next experiments should be.”

Professor Garrett’s biochemistry lab
Professor Garrett’s biochemistry lab

One of Garrett’s goals is to move her students beyond the point of asking “what am I supposed to do next?” “My answer to that is, you tell me! I’m there to say, it might work better if you do xyz, or you might want to make sure you keep your stuff on ice. I’m there to guide the process, but I want them to think for themselves.”

Not every experiment is guaranteed to succeed, but Garrett isn’t as concerned about that. “If they fail and they know why, I’ll be happy,” she says. “Did they have their notebooks set up clearly? Did they follow their protocol? Was there an error in the analysis? It didn’t work—why? I do that all the time. Most of my research notebooks are filled with stuff that didn’t work quite right, and I have to figure out why. And that’s what I would like them to get out of it.”

382. Advanced Research Methods in Biology

Over in the Biology Department, Kelli Duncan, assistant professor of biology, is engaged in a similar pedagogical experiment, funded by grants from the NIH and the Center for Collaborative Approaches in the Sciences. The five students enrolled in her Advanced Research Methods course are getting an experience more akin to graduate-level research, collaborating with Duncan on her study of recovery from brain injury in zebra finches and mice. Each student is responsible for his or her own project related to the effect of steroid hormones on brain repair.

John Hayden ’14, for example, is looking at the rate of recovery of singing behavior in male zebra finches. “Each male zebra finch develops a mating call that is unique and that stays the same throughout its life,” says Hayden, “so this gives researchers a really great way to measure recovery from brain injury. We make a base recording of the song, and then we can compare it to what it is after brain injury and then measure how long it takes to return to base level.”

Hayden’s project involves administering progesterone within 24 hours after brain injury and then measuring functional and neural recovery. “There is a clinical trial going on right now at Emory University using progesterone therapy in human brain injury cases,” he says. “The work that we’re doing with zebra finches will hopefully be useful in explaining how it actually works.”

Duncan, her students, and collaborator Kevin Holloway, professor of psychology, hold a two-hour lab meeting once a week where they report on recent findings in the field and discuss issues related to their own projects, and then during the week, the students are expected to be in the lab at some point almost every day. “It’s a huge time commitment for them,” says Duncan, “but I think they’re really enjoying it. And in the end, I think what they’ll get is a real understanding of the process, from planning the project to actually doing it to presenting the data and then hopefully to publishing it in a national or international journal.”

372. Integrated Chemistry Laboratory

Two chemistry students using the X-ray diffractometer to analyze the structure of a molecule
Two chemistry students using the X-ray diffractometer to analyze the structure of a molecule

Understanding the whole process from planning to publication is also one of the goals of the Integrated Chemistry Laboratory, an upper level course required for majors. At the beginning of the course, each student is given a unique sample molecule. Their task during the first half of the semester is to figure out what the molecule is by using all the different instruments and techniques that are available in the department. They use nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to assess the carbon and hydrogen components of the molecule. They do mass spectrometry to figure out the mass of the molecule. They do infrared spectroscopy to learn about the functional groups that are part of the molecule.

“They use all those bits and pieces to try to figure out what it is,” says Joe Tanski, associate professor of chemistry and current chair of the department. “And then the final exercise is to recrystallize the compound and get the molecular structure by X-ray diffraction. We do that last because X-ray diffraction gives you the definitive answer.”

Before the final step, the students write a lengthy lab report documenting the results of all the various procedures and stating what they think their molecule is and why. And then after they do the X-ray crystallography, their assignment is to assemble that result in journal publication format. Tanski reviews and edits it and then publishes it, with the student as a coauthor.

“The students absolutely love it,” says Tanski. “They sometimes get frustrated, but they’re also interested because it’s not just a canned lab experiment where they fill in some form and millions of other students have done the same thing. In order to solve the puzzle, they have to really learn how to do the techniques and how to analyze the results, and at the end, they get coauthorship and something they can put on their CV.”

Posted by Office of Communications Thursday, April 25, 2013