Over the past week or so, I've been up and down about a major component of my job - having undergraduates participate in my research.
The project that I spend most of my research energy on involves understanding how a particular enzyme recognizes its macromolecular substrate, a transfer RNA, rather than any of the similar molecules present in the cell. The methods that I use to gain this understanding are fairly traditional for biochemists. I make guesses about which parts of the enzyme or parts of the tRNA are involved in specific interactions. I use the tools of recombinant DNA technology to mutate or remove those parts, and then I find out whether or not the enzyme can still recognize the tRNA. If it doesn't, my guess was right, if it does, the guess was wrong. In principle, these changes are simple to make and to test, but the process can be tedious and many of the reagents we use are expensive. The quantities of material we work with are also very small. A milligram of enzyme or tRNA is considered "tons". Like most biochemists, I've accumulated a freezer full of very small test tubes, each containing a couple of drops of water in which some precious DNA or RNA or protein is dissolved. These tubes are labeled with codes that are for the most part cryptic to anyone who hasn't worked in my lab.
Undergraduates who work in my lab are part of the big project. They make and test the mutant tRNAs or proteins, and in many cases design new mutants. This is the usual way it's done in chemistry labs at small colleges - students are a central part of the professor's major research project. Some of my colleagues in other departments, for example mathematicians or theoretical physicists, can design separate projects for students while maintaining their own primary projects. That model is far harder to implement with hands on projects that require expensive reagents and access to a relatively small number of instruments.
Okay, enough background. Here's how the last week has gone.
Stage 1: Undergraduate research stinks!
Much of my current sabbatical leave has been spent getting things to work in the lab that did not work for my research students over the course of the last couple of summers. For the most part (knock on wood!) that's now done. Two things have been frustrating about this process. One is that some of the major problems have been due to simple mislabeling - tubes that were labeled as containing one piece of DNA or RNA, in fact contained something that was similar enough, but not what I wanted. The lesson for the future is simple enough - Trust but verify.
The second frustration is more fundamental and troubling. I'm simply more able to troubleshoot technical problems in the lab when I'm doing the work with my own hands. Having a student tell me what she did or show me a picture of a gel or a set of results simply doesn't engage my ability to walk through the experiment and figure out what could have gone wrong as much as doing it myself does. While there are certainly ways to work on this, which would be good for both the students and for moving the research forward, it's hard not to think that everything would be easier if I just did all the experiments myself.
Stage 2: It's good for them, even if it stinks for you.
Sandra Laursen, a chemist who has become an expert on science education, visited our campus this week and gave a talk about work she's been involved in exploring the benefits to students of undergraduate research. The take home lessons for me were that what students gain most from doing research has nothing to do with whether or not the project moves forward. What they gain is an understanding of their temperament, their ability to deal with failure and frustration, and a sense of what it feels like to be a scientist. In other words, they gain confidence from being treated like colleagues, which is really what they are. All of this I knew, of course, but the reminder came at an appropriate time.
Stage 3: God, do I ever love to work with undergraduates on my research!
This week I've been talking to (You can call it interviewing if you'd like.) students who are applying for summer research positions. I've talked to at least 12 and will have at most 3 or 4 positions this summer. Choosing will be so difficult. Some of these kids have had research experience elsewhere already and would come up to speed in the lab very quickly. Others are just so wonderfully earnest. But mostly, it's just a thrill to talk about science with these students. And not just some vague, out there, Science with a capital S, but my science, the questions that I've been obsessed with for years, the cool little details that made me choose the project in the first place.
What I get out of the deal then, isn't at all a set of worker bees who turn my ideas into results. That part I could probably do better on my own. What I get out of the deal is a group of people who share my passion for the problem, who can remind me, mostly just by listening and asking questions and getting excited themselves, why doing science - not just studying science, but doing it - is so much fun.