Students are given a protocol and have to figure out how to make it happen. If they think they want to vary something, they seek information on how to do that from research reports in scientific journals. “We’ve learned how to learn,” Turk says.
“You learn a lot. More than you could learn in a classroom. More than you could learn in a lab that goes along with your lecture,” says Duda.
Gilbert agrees. “First of all, they formulate a biological question that they want to addressin this case it has to do with cancer. Then, they have to design experiments to address that question. It’s very different from classroom learning, where you almost always have a textbook or a series of papers that you read and you’re basically accumulating information. Now what you have to do, in essence, is design one experiment, and then a series of experiments, that help you figure something out. That is a real talent that you have to learn. It’s a learning process.”
Scholarly analysis of undergraduate research experiences bears out the observations of Rensselaer students and faculty. Studies have shown that students’ understanding of the very nature of scientific knowledge is greatly enhanced by practical laboratory work. In addition, students develop the intellectual capacity to understand more complex ways of knowing.
“I think it’s a terrific program,” says Gilbert. “The students really benefit, and there’s an excitement to having the space and opportunity to develop your own independent ideas.
Students also learn what it is scientists do day in and day out. “It’s a good experience,” says Duda. “It lets you know: Do you want to go to grad school? Is this for you? It kind of gives you a heads-up before you make your career choice.”
Students know going in that the course is a big commitment. “I expected it would take a lot of time,” Duda says. “And I’m OK with that.”
It’s a huge time commitment for Edick, who says he easily spends 25 to 30 hours per week counseling students, keeping the lab running and well-stocked, and grading student reports. “I see it as kind of a hobby,” he says.
As is often the case in academic labs, the students are there at all hours of the day and night. Turk says she can be found there, more often than not, late on a Saturday night.
“This is what I want to do,” she says. “It’s bigger and better than the rest of my studies, because it’s actually what I want to do.”
Watch the Student Research: Cancer Cell Biology video