At many universities, students learn the fundamentals of chemistry by doing “cookbook experiments” — following a set of instructions from their professor. The procedures are pre-set. The outcomes are expected.
But, experimentation by rote will only get you so far.
For undergrads hoping to pursue a research career, these methods are as helpful as a chef learning to read a cookbook. It’s a necessary step, but real learning only happens through freedom and experimentation. Betty Crocker, or chemistry by rote, will only get you so far.
This year, AU’s undergraduate, upper-level chemistry curriculum was restructured to create an open, working lab for junior and senior chemistry majors. Last fall Experimental Biological Chemistry’s year-long course launched for biochemistry and chemistry majors; next fall the department will add Advanced Chemistry Laboratory for physical and inorganic chemistry majors.
With a $25,000 Research as STEM Education award granted by the NASA DC Consortium, chemistry professors Matt Hartings, Douglas Fox, Abigail Miller, and Kathryn Muratore designed a program where students spend their first semester studying a problem from peer-reviewed literature, duplicating results, and training on new equipment. For 12 students, the fall semester’s work served as the control experiment, while this spring, under the mentorship of Fox, they are building upon that outside research and using experiments of their own design to lead research.
It’s liquid gold
The inspiration for the lab’s work came from a recent study of gold nanoparticles. These nanoparticles are not only tiny but behave differently than their bulk counterparts (what you might find in a piece of gold wire, for example). Typically, making these particles requires harsh conditions and expensive equipment.
Usually, standard chemistry falls short of allowing researchers the opportunity to modify nanoparticles cheaply and easily, but in a Beeghly lab, using new techniques studied in the fall, students are working to do just that. Perfecting these modification techniques would be a tremendous contribution to the field, considering that, as Hartings explains “understanding these particles, only your imagination is limiting for what they can or could be able to do in a technological sense.”
Last fall, students made their solutions — using the common protein, bovine serum albumin — but then perfected techniques that may help in developing alternative applications such as fluorescent spectroscopy and gene expression.
Now, says physical chemistry professor Fox, “They’re really learning what it’s like to run a research project.”
Another day at the lab
Four research teams of three students apiece took on the real responsibilities of managing the Experimental Biological Chemistry lab: they chose their projects, wrote proposals (a process that will come in handy throughout future careers when they write grants for funding), designed a project plan with weekly experiments; and performed data analysis.
They are also learning the more practical side of lab management. In any laboratory, sometimes equipment breaks, and you need to change focus or adapt your plan. There’s also the opportunity to present their work at the end of the semester and write a report of their findings.
Says Fox, “Because we’re taking something from literature, and because we’re finding things that are new, and we’re presenting this and doing research just like it’s a research project, the data is publishable.” Faculty member Hartings is collecting student data and will be writing a paper to which all students in the class will be contributors. Really, so long as students execute their plans well and equipment cooperates, each team could pursue individual publication of a peer-reviewed, high-impact paper.
Undergrad chemistry lab researchers
Student Elizabeth Ghias ’15, who is in the five-year BS/MS program, plans to work in research after graduation. To her, the freedom and responsibility of the research course are of tremendous benefit. Compared to other lab courses, she says, “it’s a lot more valuable. And you’re actually connecting the things you’re learning in class. You’re seeing how you would use it in a real lab.”
For instance, Ghias’s team, which also includes Omar Choudary ’12 and Floriane Briere, a French study-abroad student, is attaching fluorescent dye to gold nanomolecules that they developed last semester. Ultimately, this could be the first step in attaching drugs to nanoparticles. Tiny nanoparticles, according to Ghias, would be able to get into cells easier, allowing for better drug delivery, reduction of side effects, and increased efficacy.
“What you’re doing is functionalizing the protein,” Choudary elaborates, “and then the gold nanoparticle and the functionalized protein are able to have drug delivery that’s more effective.”
Choudary, Ghias and Briere, taking a break from their day’s work to explain its potential application, which for now is many steps away, certainly do not sound like undergrads ticking off steps in someone else’s experiment. The project is theirs, and they have the tone of authority that comes from pouring oneself into research that matters.