Undergraduates Explore Scientific Research at the Second Summer Research Institute-Mellon College of Science - Carnegie Mellon University

Tuesday, August 3, 2004

Undergraduates Explore Scientific Research at the Second Summer Research Institute

Probing the molecular genetics of yeast — it's not your typical 9 to 5 summer job.  But 16 rising sophomores successfully vied for the opportunity to spend eight hours a day for 10 weeks exploring the molecular biology of  four previously uncharacterized yeast species for which the genomic DNA sequences were known.  

The students — from biology, engineering and computer science — are participating in the second Summer Research Institute (SRI), a program that exposes undergraduates to scientific research at an early stage in their college experience.

Directed by Elizabeth Jones, the Dr. Frederick A. Schwertz Distinguished Professor of Life Sciences, the SRI is funded as part of a $1 million Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Professor's grant Jones received in 2001. The SRI also receives partial support from a $2.2 million HHMI grant awarded to Carnegie Mellon to improve student research and broaden students’ access to science.

“We’ve found that immersing students in a research environment enables them to make informed, sound decisions about pursuing a research career,” said Jones, who heads the Department of Biological Sciences. 

Students spent the first two weeks performing experiments designed to teach them research skills and safe laboratory practices. For the remaining eight weeks, they are using molecular biology and genetics techniques to study four species of yeast. Although better known for its roles in fermenting beer and producing bread dough, yeast has played a crucial role in research to unravel genetic aspects of cell proliferation and death that go awry in diseases like cancer. Yeast studies also have shed light on the evolution and function of genes needed by higher organisms for everyday tasks like making proteins.

While the students initially needed to develop skills with pipettes and culture plates, they were already savvy in other ways.

"These kids are great with computers," said Peter Berget, associate professor of biological sciences who, together with special faculty Jim Burnett, co-directs the program. As a result, students are at ease searching genomic databases to identify specific DNA sequences to manipulate in a virtual world before going to the bench and attempting the same thing with real molecules.

Student Kristen Livesey thinks the work she's done this summer will definitely help her to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. And she appreciates the experience she's gained integrating work at the computer and in the lab. "More research now involves computational biology."

Rather than repeat cookbook recipes, the SRI students are designing experiments and learning how to use controls to validate their findings.

"All of us are able to try different things and see if our experiments work out as expected," said SRI participant Will Eimer.

"Designing experiments is fun," said Candice Anderson, another SRI student.

First-year students at many colleges and universities don’t have the opportunity to experience the rewards and challenges of conducting original research, according to Jones. A 2001 National Survey of Student Engagement found that only 25 percent of seniors across all majors at doctoral universities work with professors on research outside of course requirements. With help from HHMI, the Mellon College of Science offers every undergraduate science student the opportunity to participate in research. More than 85 percent of graduating seniors have taken advantage of this rare opportunity. Several of last year's SRI students currently work with faculty on independent research.

Working in teams, this year's SRI students have used classic microbiology techniques to culture different yeast strains and identify mutants that are defective in producing tryptophan, an amino acid essential for making proteins. The findings should result in the publication of at least one scientific paper, according to Berget.

In other studies, students are identifying genes they want to disrupt in the three different yeast species through substitution mutagenesis. Using the computer, the students choose virtual restriction enzymes to cut out genetic sequences in specific ways. After their simulations, the students go to the lab bench, use real restriction enzymes to create packages of substitute gene, and deliver these gene packages to yeast cells. Inside yeast cells, the new genes wedge within normal genes, thereby disrupting them. The new mutants will provide an important resource for scientists to learn how specific gene disruptions alter given metabolic processes, says Berget. Moreover, these kinds of studies should identify whether all three yeast species are affected the same way when the same gene is disrupted. If not, this could mean that the same gene operates differently in different species.

While the students learned a lot about developing research strategies and perfecting techniques in the lab, they also learned what it means to be a scientist.

"The SRI was what I expected and more. I learned a whole lot about gene manipulation and that science does not always work," said Anderson, who found that camaraderie is just as important as practicing science. "I think the best aspect of the SRI experience is the bonds that form when you work so closely with a group of people for a long period of time."

By: Lauren Ward