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As biology booms, students flock to the lab

May 14, 2009 By Terry Devitt

There’s no question that biology is a booming business, even in these down times.

During the past 25 years, big advances in the biological sciences have revolutionized health care and agriculture, set a foundation for new kinds of industries, manifest in the clusters of biotech companies that have popped up like mushrooms around university campuses, including UW–Madison, and created the kinds of job opportunities that communities and states lust after.

None of this has been lost on students. Since the mid-1990s, UW–Madison has experienced a surge of interest in biology, a phenomenon that has challenged the folks who run UW–Madison’s biggest portal to this hot field: Introductory Biology 151 and 152 in the College of Letters and Science.

“There has been a dramatic increase in overall enrollment from about 1994 to the present,” explains Jean Heitz, the faculty associate in zoology who orchestrates a course that this academic year will channel as many as 1,200 students to any of the roughly 37 biology majors on the UW–Madison campus. “It’s huge.”

Sara Hotchkiss, assistant professor of botany, teaches Introductory Biology 152, a required course for biology majors, in a lecture hall in Bascom Hall.

Photo: Jeff Miller

The 151-152 course sequence exposes students to the elements of the scientific method and the larger realms of the life sciences — plant biology, animal biology and the world of microbial life. During the second semester of the sequence, students may opt for a mentored lab experience for an independent research project. Heitz, who has been involved with the course since 1978, sees more students choosing the lab experience as they set their sights on graduate or professional school, or a career associated with the field.

“Nationally, there’s been a push to get undergraduates involved early in their college careers,” says Heitz, who, as a UW–Madison student in the 1960s, was mentored in the lab by noted UW–Madison limnologist John Magnuson. “I wanted to bring that experience into the classroom.”

But doing so requires a considerable investment. This past year, Heitz and the other 151-152 coordinators met individually with more than 350 students to help them hook up with mentors and to prepare them for the experience. It also takes research faculty willing to bring undergraduates into their labs.

“We’ve been very happy that faculty on campus are as interested in undergraduate mentoring as they have been over the years,” Heitz says. “It’s been fantastic. I can’t thank the mentors enough.”

But it could be better, she says, and with more and more students looking to a life sciences career track, the Introductory Biology 151-152 sequence and the shot at a real-life lab experience is likely to continue to be oversubscribed. The introductory course sequence, Heitz notes, always has a waiting list. Should Chancellor Biddy Martin’s Madison Initiative be approved, however, it is classes like Heitz’s Introductory Biology 151-152 that could get a boost to both alleviate a crowded classroom and fuel a mentoring program that is a model nationally.

Since 1996, more than 2,600 students have gained valuable hands-on research experience through 152. Given that UW–Madison has roughly 2,000 declared biology majors at any point in time, Heitz sees the research experience at the undergraduate level as a growth industry.

“They are all going to get a better idea of what science is like,” Heitz notes. “It opens their eyes to all the possibilities.”

Animal science professor John Parrish takes into his lab anywhere from one to four 152 students a semester. “It’s another role in teaching,” says Parrish, who also uses the opportunity to help prepare his graduate students by having them guide the undergraduate through the experience. “We don’t let them pick a project out of the blue. It has to be something we are interested in. And I’m really big on them doing the work. We’re not just going to let them follow a graduate student around.”

A big lesson frequently imparted, says Parrish, is that science is labor intensive and, often, things don’t work as planned. “You have to come in and do stuff, and most of the time it doesn’t work.”

Parrish volunteers his lab for the 152 students, but gets no additional support for doing so: “The problem is if you have them do something significant, it costs money somewhere, and we don’t get any extra money for this.”

That research is expensive and projects need to be carefully considered in the context of a lab’s mission in life is yet another point the experience underscores.

But for students, exposure to a working lab can pay enormous dividends. Some even publish and get a start on building a CV that will help them gain access to and succeed in a professional or graduate school setting.

UW-Madison sophomore and Introductory Biology 152 student Sarah Springborn, who this semester is working with kinesiology professor Kreg Gruben, was elated at the prospect of a lab experience. “I knew that this experience would give me a good idea whether I was really interested in doing research, or if doing research is nothing like I thought it would be. Through this lab experience I am learning about the importance of working as a team and taking responsibility for what I need to get done. Especially in Dr. Gruben’s lab, everyone is working on the same project/problem, so we must all work together to get the data we’re looking for.”

A biomedical engineering major, Springborn got involved with research as a freshman through the Undergraduate Research Scholars program. Her foray into the Gruben lab is her second exposure to a working laboratory, but the experiences, she argues, are invaluable and not only enrich her educational experience, but help her network in areas directly related to her major.

“One of the most important benefits to working in a lab is building up connections in that field. I have found that working with a professor in a lab is extremely different than getting to know them through classes.”

Many students, says Heitz, extend their lab tours beyond their 152 experience. “Life experience and professional development are the big things students get out of the class, in addition to knowledge of biology,” she notes.

On Thursday, May 7, the upshot of the 152 experience will be on display in the Great Hall of the Memorial Union in the form of 200 poster presentations. The poster session, says Heitz, helps underscore a final lesson: communicating the research, explaining to the world why work in the lab is vital. And, indirectly, why a remarkable introductory approach to teaching biology is a valuable, multifaceted educational experience.