We had a few minutes at the beginning of class today, discussing how to have on-line group discussions, while still respecting FERPA rules. It was decided that about the only medium that would work for everybody was e-mail, so I created an e-mail discussion list. Currently, this list is invitation-only, but we’ll add mentors to it as needed. If there are regular readers of the blog who would like to participate in the student discussions, comment on this post requesting to be added, giving some information that I can share with the class. I’ll forward your request to the class, who will decide collectively whether adding you would benefit them.
As soon as that discussion was over, we followed our tour guides over to one of the buildings that contains bioengineering labs. We were supposed to have 3 tour guides for 3 labs, but none of the tour guides had responded to my e-mail over the weekend. One showed up, another was replaced by someone else from the same lab, and the third I still haven’t heard from. As it turned out, we didn’t really even have time for the two labs, so I’ll probably have to schedule another tour later on.
The first lab we toured was for a brand-new faculty member in protein engineering. The tour guide was a senior doing a senior thesis in chemistry, and she gave us a good description both of the work she was doing and of the various equipment in the lab, which was all fairly generic molecular biology equipment (incubators, freezers, centrifuges, vortexers, electrophoresis boxes, gel viewer, ultrapure water source, PCR machines, pipetters, …). The only really specialized piece of equipment was an HPLC machine for purifying proteins. She demonstrated the tiny amounts of liquid that are handled, by showing her smallest pipetter (2µl max) and demonstrating how to use a different pipetter, putting a 9µl drop of water on the bench top (which people could barely see).
This was an excellent first lab to tour, as almost every procedure done in the lab is one that the students on the biomolecular track will do themselves many time (only the HPLC and the protein gels are specialized), so all the tools are ones the students will learn to use.
Next we went to the lab where samples are prepared for DNA sequencing. There was nothing much new there—again it was all standard molecular biology equipment. That went quickly, and we moved over to the nanopipette labs. Because the rooms were so small and there were two undergrads willing to talk about their work, we split the class in half, with one group seeing the grad students and postdocs (the main lab space) and hearing a bit about the point of the projects, and the other group getting a demo of making the nanopipettes and hooking one up to the electronics to record the response to a sine wave. We then swapped groups, so everyone got both. We ran out of time before seeing the DNA sequencing machines and never had time to try to hunt down someone from the nanopore lab for a tour there.
The people in the labs were very gracious about having their work interrupted and the tour guides were enthusiastic about the work they were doing. The freshmen asked good questions about how to get into research positions. Both the tour guide and I had similar advice for students—read the posters on the walls (many of which are undergrad projects), read faculty web pages, come to the weekly departmental research talks, and ask faculty if you can sit in on their lab group meetings. These things seem obvious to us, but freshmen are new to the university—several did not even know that faculty had weekly lab group meetings!
Overall, I think that the lab tours went well and were successful at what they tried to do. I’ll have at least one more tour for the labs in the biomed building—hopefully stressing things that are different there (flow cytometry, hyperthermophiles, stem cells, …).
On Wednesday, though, it is back to doing a design exercise. We’ll try the spectrometer exercise again, now that students have had a chance to learn on their own about spectrometers, and I’ll scaffold the “systems thinking” of dividing a complex system into communicating subsystems.