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(l-r): Erin McAuley, Egal Gorse, Erin Turk, Neena Pyzocha, Lyndsey Duda, Leilani Cruz, and Marc Nudel with lab supervisor George Edick.

Another feature that distinguishes Edick’s group from other undergraduate research experiences is the simple fact that it’s a group. Most undergraduates do research in a professor’s lab and the student may be the only undergraduate there. Students certainly meet with their faculty advisers and can seek help from graduate students or postdocs in the lab. But the brainstorming sessions that take place in Edick’s group likely are not replicated anywhere else.

“The group is very supportive,” Duda says. “They’ll say ‘OK, now pick yourself up and move on.’” Classmates are there to bounce ideas of, but also to motivate each other. “The other people in the group are really passionate about what they do,” she says.

Duda is studying how cancer cells interact with normal cells of different ages. Her biggest roadblock so far is growing cells until they show signs of being aged. “I’m waiting for fibroblasts to senesce,” she says. She’s done her experiments with cancer cells and young fibroblasts and has gotten the predicted interaction. The exciting part of her work will come when she can repeat the experiment with aged cells. But for that she’ll have to wait. The group waits with her, and keeps her engaged with advice on how to care for her cells.

“The atmosphere is always happy, always positive,” says sophomore Leilani Cruz. “It’s really important that, even though we’re doing our individual projects, when we talk to each other, everyone’s really helpful.” Edick is proactive in squashing any potential competition within the lab, looking for community-minded people when he screens applicants. He also sets the tone in the lab. “I tell students, ‘The only competition you’ll ever see is between you and your experiment.’” “I think there are valuable lessons to be learned there, from the standpoint of ethics and ethical conduct of research, that your actions can impact other members of the group,” says Hajela. “It teaches them about the dynamics of group research.”


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 address—in 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

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2009 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.