CBS undergrads lend a hand with research

Foundations of Biology gives undergraduate students a more realistic lab experience while helping researchers with their work.

by Dina Elrashidy

By using undergraduates for lab work rather than paying additional employees, professor Ann Rougvie saves money and has more help to further her research.

More than 200 undergraduate students in a course at the University of MinnesotaâÄôs College of Biological Sciences are doing some of the lab work, which ends up being mutually beneficial.

Students in the course, Foundations of Biology for Biological Science Majors, say they benefit from the experience of working in a real lab setting while Rougvie gets âÄúlots of manpowerâÄù for her research, undergraduate research assistant Chris Tastad said.

âÄúWhen you have 250 undergrads working on something, things can progress very quickly,âÄù CBS Associate Dean Robin Wright said.

Because RougvieâÄôs research is incorporated into class work, CBS foots the bill for the necessary equipment.

The school uses the money that would have funded a âÄúcookbookâÄù lab âÄî a normal University lab with strict direction and set outcomes âÄî toward this âÄúauthenticâÄù lab experience that benefits both students and faculty, Wright said.

WrightâÄôs research was the first to be used when the course began five years ago. Even after that course ended, Wright took on 16 former Foundations of Biology students to work in her lab.

Those students got a glimpse into what a real scientific research environment is like.

âÄúIt is frustrating at times,âÄù said sophomore Brandon Fryza, who is currently enrolled in the class. âÄúBut I like it because if you do want to work in a real research lab, it gives you a taste of it.âÄù

After they finish the course, students have much more technical knowledge and confidence than their fellow undergraduates, Wright said.

But one of the current professors for the course said it can also be very challenging for students.

ItâÄôs the first exposure most students have to a realistic research environment, and it can be hard getting used to failure, said Catherine Kirkpatrick, who teaches the lab portion of the second semester of Foundations of Biology.

But, Wright said, âÄúMost of research is failure.âÄù

The course is designed to give students time to find an answer to the current research question, fail and then have enough time to repeat the experiment several more times.

âÄúYou plot your week around that experiment and that experiment fails,âÄù sophomore Jason Giesler said. âÄúYou spend a decent amount of your life there,âÄù he said.

Wright said other universities have looked to the course as a model for biology labs âÄî she said itâÄôs one of a kind in having more than 200 students work on real research within their coursework.

SheâÄôs been in conversation with universities around the U.S., Canada and most recently Egypt about how the course functions.

And it continues to change, Wright said.

RougvieâÄôs lab has been the classâÄôs focus since last year, but there hasnâÄôt yet been a breakthrough with her research on protein interaction.

âÄúWeâÄôre optimistic that something will come out of it this year,âÄù she said.

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Even if more students showed an interest in living near the St. Paul campus, they might struggle to find places to live.

The neighbors would probably need to be assured that students would maintain their clean and quiet lifestyles, without being too rowdy or noisy, said Wayne Groff, a realtor with Edina Realty in Roseville, Minn.

Groff agreed there is a market for student housing, but since most homes in the area are fairly expensive âÄî $300,000 to $400,000 âÄî most owners would not purchase them to rent them. He also said there isnâÄôt much land in the area to make any new developments around campus.

Even the way people search for housing is different near the St. Paul campus, Groff said. The easiest way to find housing isn’t to look on Craigslist âÄî itâÄôs to put your name and number on a bulletin board outside a coffee shop, or walk around and see whatâÄôs out there.