A new approach to undergraduate research

Seth Palmer
April 01, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Having to turn students away from the lab just didn’t sit well with professor Emily Bell.

“We know that being involved in research is a really valuable and important experience for students,” she said. “It changes the way they think about science, the way they interact with their other coursework. And it's super important for their career readiness and their ability to be competitive and get the jobs that they want.”

Bell, associate research professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State, worked to place as many undergraduates as she could through independent study. But there just weren’t enough positions.

“I was turning away at least 20 students a semester,” she said. “There’s just more demand than there is supply.”

So Bell said she had the idea of creating a new, first-of-its-kind two-course research program to serve those undergraduates.

Result of resolve

“Nobody’s done anything like this before, at least not wet bench-wise, that I’ve found,” she explained. “But with the resources that a course has, I could incorporate a lot more students, get a group of 20 together and do this as a team. And that’s a realistic experience for doing research. It isn’t this solitary thing you do; it’s interactive. So doing it as a team actually seemed more authentic to me.”

Each cohort would start in the fall with a completely new project — formulating a hypothesis, reading scientific literature, designing and conducting experiments, analyzing the data, and then in the spring writing up their results in a publication and presenting them.

“A start-to-finish experience,” Bell said. “They do everything a professional researcher does.”

And the program would be targeted toward change-of-campus students entering their first year at University Park and give them first priority in the application process.

“The reason for that,” Bell explained, “is that many incoming students haven’t yet had the opportunity to make connections with faculty at University Park, which can make it difficult to find a research lab placement. Also, getting a team of students together who are all new to campus and all have an interest in research, you automatically give them a community, so I was hoping that would make their transition here smoother, as well.”

Bell also made the application process as simple as possible, with just a single prerequisite.

“I want to reach students who haven’t had experience, who maybe are unsure if this is for them because they haven’t had the chance to explore it,” she said. “I don't want to put up barriers. I want people from every kind of experience level and background to feel like this is something they could be involved in and benefit from.”

Without the benefit of research experience, Bell added, students may not have the chance to pursue a career path they otherwise could have, “so it’s really important to me to give opportunities to those students, to promote the diversity of people that get to progress in science. I want to help open doors for students that otherwise wouldn't have considered even applying because they would feel like they weren't competitive.”

After more than a year of preparation, Bell was finally set to launch her new program — in fact, her first time teaching a lab course — in fall 2020.

And then the pandemic hit.

Resilience rewarded

“This program is something I’ve been really passionate about,” she said. “I felt like it would be so valuable for the students, and I didn't want to cancel it. I didn’t want them to lose that opportunity.”

So Bell made the necessary accommodations for social distancing in the lab, as well as for hybrid and remote instruction: New safety protocols were established; students rotated through the lab in smaller groups and in shifts, and some participated entirely online.

BMB 490 students Ofure Akhigbe and Xianzhen Zhou learn cell culture.

BMB 490 students Ofure Akhigbe and Xianzhen Zhou learn cell culture.

IMAGE: Emily Bell, Penn State

Emphasizing mentorship, she worked closely with each of her students to develop their skills and interests, also discussing internships, graduate school, and different STEM career paths in academia, industry, and government.

“I take a very real interest in the students’ success,” she said, “and I’m very supportive of whatever they want to pursue, I write reference letters for them. And they get to feel like somebody knows them really well, knows their strengths, and is helping them to achieve their goals.”

Keaton Chapman, a junior majoring in pharmacology and toxicology, said the program went “above and beyond any other lab experience I’ve ever had. It’s given me a huge boost in confidence for applying to graduate schools and moving forward in a research-based career.”

Juniors Khushi Kiran, a biochemistry and molecular biology major, and Andrea Esposito, a genetics and developmental biology major, emphasized the skills and experience they gained through the program, which Kiran described as “a truly unique opportunity. It provides hands-on experience doing research with real-world applications.”

“By building my communication and laboratory skills,” Esposito said, “I believe it’s prepared me for a future in science.”

Andrew Basht, a junior majoring in immunology and infectious disease, noted how ”at a smaller campus, it feels a little like you’re missing out on some aspects of real lab settings.” But his experience in the program, he said, “has given me a much greater understanding of what goes into research.”

Junior Mina Halimitabrizi, an immunology and infectious disease major, said that despite her limited knowledge of research at the outset, participating in the program “helped me understand different aspects of research and put everything into a better perspective.”

And Michael Lapioli, a senior majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology, said, “More than just lab work and technical writing, this program gave us intuition about what it means to be a good scientist.”

“I’m really proud of these students,” Bell said. “They were resilient, dependable, motivated, and they definitely put their best face forward and rose to the challenge. I feel like they’re better prepared to go on to graduate school than any students I've supervised for independent study, so I'm really happy with that.”

As they move on to the next phase of their journey, Bell’s students know well the high hopes she has for them.

“I drive home the point that when they finish their degree here, they’re going out into the world as ambassadors for science,” she said. “They're going to be responsible for interpreting and explaining information that's relevant to people's livelihood and health. This past year has been full of examples of challenges and failures in how we communicate scientific information to the public. But hopefully, if they do a good job, they can influence people in a positive direction.”

More information about BMB 490/491: Undergraduate Research in Cellular Dynamics is available on the Penn State Eberly College of Science website.

Last Updated April 06, 2021