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Undergraduates aid UA’s bio research

Citizen Staff Writer



A year ago, Meredith Roberts was an engineering student at the University of Arizona who had never taken a biology course.

This year, the sophomore is doing independent research on genes and DNA in a molecular and cellular biology lab. And she’s getting paid for it.

Roberts is one of 140 students who participate in UA’s Undergraduate Biology Research Program, or UBRP.

“I just wanted to see where this would take me,” Roberts said recently. “It is a different type of learning. You learn to think differently. But more than that, as an undergraduate in a research lab, it makes you feel more a part of the heart of the university.”

UA was at the forefront of the movement to get undergrads out of the classroom and into research labs when it launched UBRP 20 years ago. Before then, being a paid member of a lab research team was generally the domain of graduate students and post-doctorate fellows.

The program – pronounced u-burp – was so unique that it drew the attention and funding of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. It has received continuous funding from Hughes, an honor shared with only 15 U.S. universities.

In its 20-year tenure, UBRP students have co-authored more than 700 papers for professional journals with noted UA and international scientists, and presented research at scientific conferences across the country.

The benefits of putting undergraduates in research labs extend beyond the scientific community, according to Giovanni Bosco, a UA assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and Roberts’ UBRP mentor.

“The whole idea that students can just learn from books is completely wrong,” said Bosco. “People learn by doing. Doing affords them the ability to make mistakes. If we want curious, skilled citizens, we have to start with science.”

A student’s question

UBRP started with a curious UA sophomore who wondered – as scientists are wont to do – if any UA researchers would let her into their lab.

It was 1988 and Teri Suzuki, now a principal research investigator with sanofi-aventis Pharmaceuticals’ Tucson office, approached her adviser with the question.

“I was already a biochem student and I was curious to see what they were doing,” Suzuki recalled recently. “I went to (the late UA professor) Mike Wells and asked if there was any chance he knew of a researcher who would take on an undergraduate who didn’t have any lab experience. He put me in his lab.”

Suzuki said the difference between doing lab experiments for classes and being in a working lab is like night and day.

“In lab classes the experiment is pretty much laid out for you. They give you a recipe and you follow it and you come up with what they want in the end,” she explained. “But when you do actual research, you’re learning how to write the cookbook. It is the difference between following a recipe and being a chef.”

At the time, Wells was head of UA’s biochemistry department and doing some wondering of his own, according to UBRP program director Carol Bender.

“He’d noticed that most of the science majors were graduating and going off to medical school and wondered why,” Bender explained. “There’s nothing wrong with medical school – we need doctors – but he knew we needed researchers, too.”

Watching Suzuki in the lab, Wells developed a hypothesis: Putting undergraduates in research labs as paid associates would increase their interest in scientific research careers.

It worked. While a healthy 31 percent of undergraduates participating in UBRP go on to medical careers, 36 percent go on to careers in research.

Bosco said working with undergraduates such as Roberts is “energizing,” and he lights up when he describes the importance of the UA sophomore’s research and the possibility that it might explain why cells degenerate and lead to certain diseases.

“You can’t fix something until you know how it works,” he said. “That is why basic science research is so important as opposed to jumping ahead and screening a whole library of drugs to see which one stops cancer. ”

Not just for scientists

UBRP started with 19 students and 13 faculty members drawn from six UA departments, said Bender.

Interest and participation in the program has grown exponentially. Now, UBRP admits 140 students annually who work with any of 240 faculty mentors drawn from 43 UA departmental research groups.

About 40 percent of the students work in labs associated with the Arizona Health Sciences Center and 60 percent work in the basic sciences, Bender said.

Undergraduates, irrespective of major, apply for the program in February and applicants are screened by faculty researchers.

“The program’s name is really a misnomer,” Bender said. “The students don’t have to be science majors. The most important part of the application is a personal statement establishing how a bio-medical research experience fits in with your career goals.”

Research areas include molecular biology, linguistics, optics, family studies, anthropology and mechanical engineering. Bender said about 70 percent of the UBRP program students are biology majors, with the remainder coming from a broad array of academic majors.

“What happens when you work in a lab is you learn to ask and answer questions and it teaches you to think logically. It is a good background for any person from any major,” Bender explained.

Jared Ragland, director of the Office of Intellectual Property and Innovation in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, testified to that very point Jan. 17 when he gave the keynote address for UBRP’s 20th annual conference.

“I believe that no less than our future as a country depends on our continuously producing scientifically educated individuals who are able to meet the challenges of the global economy,” Ragland said. “It is my firm belief that (the scientific) mode of thinking is important not just for the pursuit of scientific questions, but can and should be applied to many other challenges that face our country, our economy, our society.”

Ragland spent his time in UBRP studying the modern genetic diversity of the human Y chromosome, something that has absolutely nothing to do with his job in international trade.

But, he explained, the UBRP experience was the jumping-off point, primarily through BRAVO!, the international outreach arm of UBRP that provides up to 18 undergraduates the opportunity to do research with scientists in foreign countries.

UA students have participated in research projects in countries such as Peru, Norway, France and the Czech Republic.

State support for UBRP and BRAVO! has totaled $1.5 million over the past 20 years. External funding – with Howard Hughes Medical Institute accounting for more than 60 percent – totals $15.4 million.

Modern life is based on science

Students start their UBRP experience in May, Bender said, so they have the summer to develop a project and get a lot of research done without the distraction of classes.

The faculty mentor-undergraduate student relationship is symbiotic, with undergraduates getting paid for the lab work and learning research techniques, while the faculty receives the benefit of another set of hands.

“Research is extremely labor intensive,” Bender said, adding that one criteria of a good UBRP opportunity is assuring students are not used as “lab slaves,” but are doing actual research.

Faculty have to pay 50 percent of the undergraduate’s salary through their own lab budget, while the other half comes from the UBRP program, funded primarily through outside grants.

The lay person may wonder why “making scientists” should be a university priority, but that is because many people do not understand the breadth of science, said Joyce Schroeder, UA associate professor of molecular and cellular biology and one of the first participants of the UBRP program.

“Basic science has applications in all we do, from what we eat to the clothes we wear to the technology we use, this whole beautiful life we take for granted,” she said. “All the information we have about the world, people don’t realize how we got that information in the first place: It’s all science.”

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