Student researchers reveal simple secrets to lab success

Student research assistants in the science department aid their professors in their semester-spanning projects. The campus job acquaints students with real-life challenges that face scientists. Now, student researchers are sharing what they have learned with their peers.

Partnering with a faculty mentor, students at Vassar can conduct research in one of two ways. Research can be conducted as a on- campus job, in which freshmen can work eight hours; sophomores can work nine hours, and juniors and seniors can work ten hours.

Otherwise, student lab work can be completed for academic credit, where students receive a half or full credit for the work that they do. From spending time in the library to spending time in the lab, Vassar’s student researchers are learning the ins and outs of experimentation.

One project being conducted this semester is being done by Sharon Lee ’14, a student researcher in the chemistry department, who is completing her senior thesis.

For the past two years, she has worked with Professor of Chemistry Miriam Rossi during both the school year and the summer, at both Vassar College and Università Roma 3 in Rome, studying antioxidant activity. She is currently testing the effects of two antioxidants from the chalcone group on Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans). These organisms are being used as model organisms, due to their similarities to the human genome and their ease of study.

As Lee described in an emailed statement, “Basically, when your body cells are stressed with things like UV light or cigarette smoke, it releases things called free-radicals which are extremely reactive and can cause DNA damage and cell destruction. Antioxidants basically calm down the free-radicals (by taking its extremely reactive unpaired electron) and prevent this ‘oxidative stress’ from happening.”

She later continued, “I’m going to see if these two antioxidants (which I’ve studied using chemical methods and cells, but not in a whole organism) have an effect on C. elegans that have been stressed, and what kind of effect it has.”

Lee controls interference in her experiments by keeping organized during and before the time she spends in the lab. She keeps a thorough notebook, and suggests that when in doubt, one should always add an observation or detail to their notes. That way, if a desired result is not obtained, or one method was chosen over another, one can go back and make changes.

“Also, aside from the mistakes like spilling chemicals or dropping beakers, I think ‘mistakes’ in the lab can help you learn more about your topic at hand and train you to think critically” she added.

Another project that is being conducted, is one being done by Lena Josephs ’16 under the guidance of Associate Professor of Biology Jodi Schwarz. Josephs is studying LGR gene family expression in sea anemones. She is currently looking at the relationship of the gene family in the anemones’ reproduction.

“I am quantifying the expression of LGR genes in sea anemone samples, which were harvested at different times throughout their spawning cycle. I will then compare the genes’ expression in spawning and non-spawning dates,” explained Joesphs.

Josephs believes that the simplest way for students to avoid mistakes in the lab is by staying engaged and focused. This is especially important for students, who like Josephs spend large periods in the lab. Josephs has found that scheduling has been one of the biggest challenges in integrating research into her school life. Allotting enough time during the day, so that professors are around to consult and others are around in case of emergency, can be hard to fit into a class schedule.

Said Josephs, “Allotting a whole free day in my schedule for research is most effective.”

Other research projects are more flexible. Tewa Kpulun ’15 is currently working with Assistant Professor of Physics Jenny Magnes studying locomotion of C. elegans. Using shadow imaging and laser diffraction, Kpulun is studying the movements of the nematodes under red, orange, yellow, green and blue light. This is advantageous as it allows for movement analysis to be conducted in a 3D environment, as opposed to the traditional 2D analysis done by microscopes.

“A typical week is spent in the lab when we have data to collect and the rest of the analyzation can be done anywhere as long as I have a computer,” described Kpulun. “So sometimes I work in my room in my PJs.” As for suggestions on how to work efficiently and effectively, Kpulun stresses the need for consistency and great control over outside variables.

“Always make sure that everything is constant except for the specimen you’re experimenting on” she remarked.

Other simple things that can be done to be a good scientist in the lab are following basic protocol and basic safety rules. These instructions change depending on the setting. For example, in Kpulun’s lab jewelry is prohibited, as the lasers they work with can reflect light into someone’s eyes. This is very dangerous, as the lasers can cause eye damage. Familiarizing oneself with the protocol before lab will better prepare scientists for the work ahead, and will prevent mistakes that may interfere with data or cause harm.

Said Josephs, “Speak up if you are confused about so that you can learn a lot from the lab work.” It is better that one admits that they do not know something, instead of missing the opportunity to learn more about the technique or procedure on which they are working.

Besides the obvious benefits of being able to learn research skills from an experienced scientist, there are other perks of conducting research. For example, by working with professors, many students have been able to receive co-authorship on published scientific papers. Both Kpulun and Lee have been published in scientific journals through their contribution to their professors’ work. This is typically unusual for an undergraduate. At larger universities, undergraduates typically are not able to conduct research so extensively.

Many students conduct research as a way to continue on to graduate school or to enter the science industry after graduation. By working at Vassar, these students have been able to explore their interests in the field before entering the industry or studying at a higher level.

Today’s Vassar’s researchers are taking what they learn in the lab and applying them to their lives in other ways. Working at Vassar has improved their technical skills and has provided them with valuable experiences.

“Research allows me to collaborate effectively with others-but makes sure I am highly motivated and functional as an individual in the lab. It allows me to continue discovering awesome things in our natural world, and communicating it to others” described Lee.

Some student researchers still manage to spread their attention across multiple subjects, taking advantage of a liberal arts education.

Wrote Lee, “As a biology major, English minor, and researcher in the chemistry department, I found it challenging to cultivate simultaneously all three disciplines at any one time. It was more like I had a spurt of progress and learning in biology one semester, then English during another semester, and research during the summers.”

“Research allows me to collaborate effectively with others-but makes sure I am highly motivated and functional as an individual in the lab. It allows me to continue discovering awesome things in our natural world, and communicate them to others,” described Lee. “I’ve learned so many skills through conducting research with Professor Rossi, and really got a sense of what it is like to work in science and collaborate/communicate with scientists.”

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