From the Research Lab to the Classroom: The Benefits of Undergraduate Research Experience
Elizabeth Kruse investigates cellular responses to brain injury. As a third-year student working in Dr. Michael Dailey’s lab in the Department of Biology, she studies Biology and Mathematics inside the classroom and contributes to neurobiology research outside the classroom.
Elizabeth’s experiences both inside and outside of the classroom manifest the translational benefits of research on education and reinforce topics in a hands-on manner. She shares, “it is really cool to have the stuff I do in class translate over to what we do in lab. It makes me feel like what I am learning is applicable. I do what I learn in lab.”
Principal Investigators (PIs), the researchers who run the lab, also understand the translational aspect of research to an education. Dailey shares, “most of the education that students have gotten up to this point is, ‘here’s the textbook, here’s the lecture; this is the way it is.’ In research you are discovering how knowledge is created.”
Not only is it beneficial to classroom learning, but research has helped Elizabeth with skills that can’t be taught. Research has given her the opportunity to “develop a lot of great critical thinking skills.”
Elizabeth Kruse looks at microglia, a type of brain cell, by visualizing brain tissue in mice under the microscope (left). Dailey and Kruse study microglia and their role in development and brain injury (right).
At the University of Iowa, many undergraduate students, like Elizabeth work to develop these skills in the research lab. When students start research, very few have prior research experience. Despite this, PIs are still eager to take undergraduates into their labs because of the dual role they play in the lab. Dailey shares, “there is an educational component to it, but there is also a productivity component to what you might expect students to do.”
Elizabeth began her involvement by emailing PIs. After sending emails to 5 PIs, a reply rolled into her inbox. She met with Dailey and quickly began work in the lab, ready to learn.
The first few months in lab for Elizabeth were dedicated to familiarization with serial dilutions, pipetting, and practicing sterile techniques to avoid contamination. After taking time to get comfortable with these basic techniques, Elizabeth began work on a more hands-on project studying the effect of a specific drug on microglia, a specialized type of brain cell.
Along with practice at the bench, Dailey shares, “many times when a student [starts], I will have them read several of the papers that the lab has published so they have some understanding of what we’ve done in the past. Typically, a research project will be extending some aspect of those studies.” This is beneficial to help students understand why the lab is interested in what they are studying, which puts the research into context.
The Dailey lab is primarily interested in microglia. Little information is known about this type of cell, making it an active area of research. Researchers in the lab want to figure out how these cells respond to brain injury. In order to do this, the lab studies these microglial cells in mice.
While day to day activities can vary across weeks and depend on the project, a typical day in the lab for Elizabeth can include harvesting and staining brain tissue in the mice, using chemicals to fix the tissue for analysis, and using laser confocal microscopy to examine the tissues.
Studying brain tissue is certainly different than the typical day of biology lectures that she attends. Research works to apply concepts from the textbook into a laboratory setting, allowing students to experience how science is used in practice and develop valuable critical thinking skills.
Skills of the like can be hard to develop in the classroom, but come in handy for students, such as Elizabeth, who are in pre-professional programs preparing for exams like the MCAT, GRE, and DAT. While she is busy studying for the MCAT this semester she has cut back her time in lab, but still finds time to come in 2-3 days a week.
Many science and pre-professional students take advantage of research opportunities, but research is not limited to a certain field or major. Elizabeth shares, “all my friends do research … even my friends who aren’t in STEM do research”, as a testament to how rich the research community is on Iowa’s campus.
In their early years, undergraduates get involved because they have more free time and want to do something productive in this time. As early as freshman year, students can begin research work in labs across campus. Dailey shares, “it is never too early to get involved.”
As a freshman, “you might have to do a little bit of coaxing”, shares Dailey, but willingness to learn is more valuable than age to most PIs. Early involvement during a student’s freshman or sophomore year allows for time to grow and complete projects, often culminating in the opportunity for a student to present their work as a poster or to be part of a journal publication. Dailey shares, “the student’s initiative is a large part of where their research takes them. It can be what the student makes it.”
While now a PI, Dailey also began his research career as an undergraduate student. Growing up in Washington D.C. surrounded by PhD scientists at the NIH, Dailey was aware of what research was from a young age, knowing that was a possible route to take. For him, this meant getting involved in research during his undergraduate years, and later attending Graduate School at Washington University in St. Louis. The Dailey lab has now called Iowa home for the past 20 years.
Dailey’s own early involvement has helped him understand the importance of fostering the next generation of scientists. “Somebody had to take the time to train me, and I’m glad for it. So, I invest in someone.”
Brianna Lupo is a third-year student pursuing a B.S. in Biochemistry and is a Latham Fellow. As a fellow, she has developed Readsearch, a series of articles highlighting the undergraduate research experience at the University of Iowa from both the PI and undergrad viewpoint. Check out www.stem-o-sphere.org to find the rest of the articles and other cool projects from fellows!