UNDERGRADUATE LAB EXPERIENCE I: From Students to Scientists

By Alex Crofts

Read Part 2: Undergraduate Research in Faculty Labs

“I still remember the picture I took of my first electrophoresis gel,” said Andrew Smith, a senior in MCB. “I still have it.”

Smith was not conducting research in a faculty lab when he ran his first gel, nor was he working as a biotechnology intern. He was attending his introductory, sophomore-year MCB laboratory course.

“It’s one thing to read about experiments, and it’s another to get to do them yourself,” Smith said.

Higher education leads students to a moment where learning stops coming from lectures and starts coming from experimental results. Laboratory courses are a central part of the MCB undergraduate curriculum, and offer students hands-on learning experiences. Designed with reinforcement in mind, each introductory lab course is paired with a lecture-discussion course.

Teaching lab specialist Elizabeth Blinstrup explained that while lectures and discussions cover topics in depth, “Lab courses elevate a student’s know-how from ‘I get this’ to ‘I’ve done this.’”

Much of what students read in textbooks has been discovered experimentally, but the process may go unappreciated. Performing experiments is the first step in transforming students into scientists.

For an MCB major, this transformation begins in the first required lab course, MCB 251, Experimental Techniques in Molecular Biology, which is paired with MCB 250, a lecture-discussion course in Molecular Genetics.

Each week students attend a four-hour lab session where they run experiments with a lab partner. Plasmids (small, extrachromosomal DNA molecules) are used throughout MCB 251, beginning with plasmid restriction mapping and cloning.

Students transform cells and use antibiotic resistance to select for successful transformation. Later, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is used for plasmid identification, and electrophoresis of the PCR products is performed. By the end of the semester students have used the same techniques that researchers utilize in their labs.

This experience continues in the second required lab course, MCB 253, Experimental Techniques in Cell Biology, which is paired with MCB 252, Cells, Tissues, and Development, a lecture-discussion course.

A lab manual provides students with background information and the procedure for every lab. The purpose and function of materials used and possible alternative methods are included. Before coming to class, students write objectives, predictions, and the full procedure for an experiment in their lab notebooks.

Using the notebooks like a professional researcher would, they record procedural amendments, data, and interpretations for every lab.

Presentations given in the lab by graduate student teaching assistants (TAs) are available online to help students study and clarify questions they have with an experiment.

Quizzes ensure that students understand the procedures and theory for each exercise. Exams test everything from knowledge of reagents to applying the methods learned in solving new problems.

A whirlwind of behind-the-scenes activity in the lab complex allows every student to have the full experience, while also working with a partner.

Each week, more than 650 students participate in laboratory exercises. Each lab room can accommodate 14 classes of 24 students over five days. Each semester, one course is taught concurrently in three lab classrooms, essentially tripling the effort in terms of teachers, preparatory staff, supplies, equipment, and space.

The scheduling is tight and the work fast-paced. After one section has finished, the lab must be prepared for the next section. Reagents need to be dispensed, equipment reset, lab benches cleaned, waste handled, and materials returned to prep rooms.

Incredibly, this turnaround is done in only ten minutes on busy days. A morning lab that starts at 8 a.m., for example, finishes ten minutes before the noon lab sections arrive.

In order to pull off such a feat, the help of a preparatory staff of about 16 undergraduate students is enlisted, said Blinstrup. They distribute materials (such as pipettes and Petri dishes) to students and prepare other necessities, including buffers and reagents, for each lab. Every week a prep-staff meeting is held to discuss and review specific protocols.

Everything needed to pull off a successful lab is organized, tested, and recorded by the course staff. “We have very extensive ‘prep sheets’ prepared for the labs,” explained Blinstrup.

Course staff also work with a dedicated group of nearly 30 TAs every semester, with one assigned to each class section and others running intricate preparation protocols, sometimes weeks ahead of each lab. The TAs present the experimental concepts and procedures to their class before the lab.

While students are working, TAs circulate to help with equipment and techniques, ensure understanding, and encourage students to consider the reasoning behind each step of the protocol.

Each week the TAs meet with their course’s coordinator. The meetings allow them to review procedures and key points that students need to learn, said Blinstrup.

Coordinators also present the lesson plan for the exercise, with TAs sharing first-hand knowledge and tips to help the labs run efficiently. Many TAs teach the same course for several semesters.

“They’re very helpful to us. We like having our veteran TAs return,” said Nicholas Kirchner, a teaching lab specialist along with Blinstrup, “and they enjoy sharing their ideas with the rest of the TAs.” Because they also work in faculty research labs for their graduate studies, the TAs represent an essential connection to new developments in techniques covered in undergraduate labs.

Undergraduate lab courses allow an avenue for students to run experiments and interpret results. By getting the expected results, a student’s understanding is bolstered.

However, if they get unexpected data, “then you actually have a far greater opportunity to teach,” suggested Deb Bielser, coordinator of undergraduate instruction.

She explained that a student may see unexpected results as a failure, but in reality, “you can say ‘Look, here are your results. Why did you get these?’”

Narrowing that gap in understanding is one of the best ways to complete the student-to-scientist transformation, and it is working. MCB majors are consistently chosen for internships and full-time jobs in technical and research areas, a testament to the strength of the labs available to students.

The lab syllabuses for MCB 251 and 253, both taken during an MCB major’s sophomore year, read like job descriptions from the biotechnology industry. Techniques include genetic regulation, transformation, plasmid manipulation, cloning, restriction analysis, PCR, electrophoresis, SDS-PAGE, (sodium dodecyl sulfate polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis), western blot, GFP (green fluorescent protein), unknown plasmid and protein identifications, growing fibroblasts, actin staining, and more.

Other skills that are taught and evaluated include the writing of detailed lab reports with complete analyses of results, experimental design, presentation of results to the class, and discussion of current topics as they relate to the techniques.

Students are given a wide array of experiences to prepare them for advanced coursework—which may include an MCB 290 experience working in a faculty research lab—and for graduate or professional school or a multitude of career opportunities.

“Illinois has managed to put on a quality program for a huge number of students,” said John Landgraf, senior vice president of global pharmaceutical manufacturing and supply for Abbott Laboratories.

Landgraf added that the lab procedures and concepts students are taught at Illinois extend far beyond bench research. “What they’re learning at school can be adapted into the industrial culture pretty quickly.”

Kelly Galanos, a junior in MCB, had this to say about her MCB 251 and 253 experiences: “When reading about GFP transformations and their contributions in molecular and cellular biology, I thought it was an advanced technique only used by the most skilled biologists. I am very proud of being able to use the same techniques as well as understand how they work. I felt like an analytical scientist when I was able to map various genes on a plasmid using the size of the DNA fragments that were cut by restriction enzymes. MCB 251 and 253 have provided me with a solid foundation of laboratory techniques that I can build upon in the future in a research setting.”

Said Bielser, “In medicine or the biotech industry, the big conversations are about gene therapy, drug delivery, transforming cells, and implanting cells in organisms. And PCR is used for everything these days, from forensics to food production; it is a basic fundamental tool. I think once you understand a process and you’ve done it, then you have a very good grasp of what’s actually entailed and what it means. You can have intelligent conversations about things that are very current.”

She concluded, “This all comes down to cell and molecular science. Through things like tissue culture, PCR, and recombinant DNA, students understand cell modifications and become part of a more informed society.”

Read Part 2: Undergraduate Research in Faculty Labs

Undergraduates interested in research should read How to Find, Join, and Succeed in a Faculty Laboratory.

Part 2: Undergraduate research in Faculty Labs, Undergraduate Research Experience.