Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Learn by Doing

Every summer for the last 20 years or so, Duke's life science researchers have hosted a couple dozen super-talented rising sophomores in their labs for eight weeks of hands-on experience in the laboratory -- their first taste of it, in many cases.

The program is sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and directed by Mary Nijhout, a biologist who heads Duke's very successful Undergraduate Research Support Office.

Last summer, we tried a little experiment on the HHMI summer fellows -- we asked them to keep blogs about their experience. What tumbled out was a fascinating look at the world of science through fresh eyes, with all the triumphs and disappointments, boredom and elation laid bare.

So this year, they're at it again, and the results, once again, are just terrific.

For example, Stephanie Haeyun Chang has learned a little about how labs share biological specimens freely and cooperatively across the country and even around the world -- but you have to check what you get carefully to make sure it's what the paper said it was!

Kristina Warren has compiled a short list of lab dos and don'ts. Like, DON'T leave precious enzymes out in a tub of ice overnight -- by morning they're junk in a water bath. DO keep track of the names and concentrations used in your recipe, and so on. She doesn't elaborate on how exactly she's accumulated all this practical wisdom, but you get a sense it won't happen again.

And Nathan Ranney, pictured mugging above, is getting some fresh air (read oppressive heat and humidity, ticks and mosquito bites) taking gas samples in the Duke Forest for his PI Rob Jackson. He's learned that a balky machine can cost you a whole day of work.