Rensselaer sophomore Neena Pyzocha leans over the lab bench and carefully pipettes tiny samples of biological fluid into a gel that will separate proteins of different sizes. After the separation process, she will stain the gel blue and look for spots that resist the stain.
The whitish blotches will tell her what’s in her samples. Pyzocha is studying matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), molecules that are found in the spaces between cells and play a role in how cells interact with each other in the body. By comparing the amount of specific MMPs that occur in cancerous cells to that in normal cells, she may find clues about whether MMPs contribute to the unregulated growth that occurs in cancer.
What’s unusual about Pyzocha and her work is that she designed the experiment herself and will decide what to do next with very little direction. She’s not without supportshe could consult with biology laboratory supervisor George Edick. And she knows her classmates have her back, whether it’s problem-solving her staining technique or the care of her cell culture. And yet, she will take full responsibility for the success or failure of her next experiment.
Pyzocha is enrolled in BIOL-4060, Cancer Cell Research, along with six other Rensselaer undergraduates. The class offers a unique experience for students who are itching to do research, for those who are intrigued by exploring cancer, and for those who like science and want to try out what research feels like as they contemplate careers. It can be taken for as many as six semesters and is focused very deliberately on developing students to think and act like scientists.
“Most of these students are going to end up in a graduate program,” says Edick, who initially developed the course in the mid-1990s and has supervised it ever since. “What we do is tangle with high-risk experiments. Students really go after a project, experience failure and more failure, until it finally worksand they know something new. In their graduate school interviews, they can say, ‘I lived the lifestyle of failure and I want more.’”
Pyzocha’s research will not be worthy of publication in a scientific journal, but that’s not the point. The focus is on developing students who can think critically, who can motivate themselves and be self-sufficient, and who are intimately versed in the scientific method. And that process takes time.