Over the course of the 10 weeks I’ve spend in the Jia lab, I feel that I have become a much more competent researcher, as well as gained more perspective on the role of research in science and science education. Over the course of my research project, I have learned a great deal about the day-to-day process of research that I had, for the most part, only understood through minor lab experiments as part of classes and an outsider’s perception of research. Experiments that are either disregarded, or simply minor parts of a larger research project can each take weeks, but somewhat surprisingly I found the entire experience to be exciting. Yeast grows rather quickly, which made for a research process in which I could physically see my results when they became evident. I also had the opportunity to master techniques over this summer that seemed unattainable at the beginning when I was first stumbling through them. Additionally, over this experience I gained a great deal of independence in the lab. In the beginning of my internship, I was typically waiting for my mentor to come to me with tasks and trainings, while in these most recent weeks I was completely able to independently come into the lab and accomplish my work that was building on everything I had completed previously throughout the summer. While I still checked in and consulted with my mentor, I had a complete idea of my tasks and goals for each day, and throughout the week.
I now feel, overall, much more confident as someone who is able to conduct research, and understand the steps that need to be taken to accomplish an overall goal. Additionally, I feel that I now have an increased confidence to ask for help when I am unsure. I am sometimes uneasy when asking for help because I don’t want to seem incompetent or unable to accomplish tasks, but over this summer in research I have learned that simply asking questions, even if they seem foolish or unnecessary, can make accomplishing tasks far more effective. I, of course, have known this for a long time but being sometimes completely clueless in the lab led me to be more active in my pursuit of knowledge from mentors.
Completing this research experience has led me to think about how important research is in STEM education. Overall, I feel that being able to engage in research is essential for students to have a full understanding of science subjects. While many students have laboratory elements in classes, actually experiencing what a lab setting is like, and understanding the world of science research, changes an individual’s idea of science. Of course, not every student can experience research before beginning college, but having a teacher that is intimately familiar with research can be very beneficial for students. As I have said, I feel like I have an increased ability to explain the process of scientific research and how discovery works now that I have fully experienced research.
In the future, I will be able to use these research skills in future research, when I, most likely, complete a research thesis, as well as when I continue to engage in science education. With the many research skills I have gained, I will be able to be a much more competent researcher, and begin to pursue my own research goals with the skills I have gained. I hope to become a better science educator, and be able to explain to students how science truly happens and how the information they are learning has come about. Additionally, I want to help students think critically about scientific discoveries and how reliable scientific data is. During my internship, I reviewed a variety of papers that occasionally disagreed on the interpretation of results, and I hope to help students understand that even if there is information in a scientific journal, it is not necessarily absolute truth.
Over these past few weeks in the lab, I have learned a variety of new skills that are essential for completing my project. I also have a greater understanding of the full scope of steps that are required for me to complete an analysis of a particular gene mutation. The steps are: crossing that mutated strain with the strain over-expressing our gene of interest, dissecting tetrads from that cross, replicating that dissection onto plates with different antibiotics or missing certain amino acids that will indicate a successful cross between the strains, and finally completing a dilution analysis that, if possible, compares a wild type strain, a strain with the gene of interest over-expressed, a strain that only expresses the gene deletion, and a strain that expresses the gene deletion and the gene over-expression. The dilution analysis allows me to see whether the gene deletion phenotype has chromatin that is rescued from the gene over-expression. I also utilize a dilution analysis to confirm that identical strains from the same dissection grow similarly, to confirm that my dilution results are reliable. In my dilutions, I have been able to see that some of the gene deletions I am investigating lead to a rescue of the chromatin, which is exciting.
I am also currently working to put together a scientific abstract and poster to present at the SRI poster session at the end of the month. This is something that I feel is especially applicable to STEM education, as a science teacher should be able to teach students how to conduct and present research. Presenting research is essential to the process, as communicating findings can be difficult, even to other scientists. Thus, students need to learn how to concisely summarize and communicate scientific information, especially that information that they have collected themselves. It is essential to accurately present scientific data, and I hope by presenting my own data I will be able to have a fuller understanding of how to accurately and clearly present data, and understanding I will later be able to pass on to students.
For the rest of my time in the lab this summer, I aim to finish as many of my dilution analyses as possible, so I can have data to present at the poster session, and hopefully complete most of the project I have been assigned by my supervisors. I also aim to continue researching general background information for both my project, and the research done by other members of the lab, in order to have a more complete understanding of my research. In order to manage my time effectively, I plan out my weeks in advance, and have a general idea of what I specifically want to complete, which is very helpful in making progress on my project. Additionally, to further understand the scientific background of my lab, I am continuing to review relevant journal articles with my mentor, in order to make sure that I am fully understanding the articles. In the next few weeks I am also planning to concisely collect my results in order to have a clear way to present my research.
Keeping up with current literature is also very applicable to STEM education, as even though science curriculums do not often change radically year to year, breakthroughs are made in science consistently. I believe that it is important for educators to stay up-to-date on current scientific discoveries, so they can be woven into the consistent curriculum to both pique students’ interest and give them a fuller picture of both canonical scientific facts and newer discoveries and thoughts.
Overall, I feel that the time I’ve had in the lab since my first progress report has allowed me to feel more confident about my knowledge of the lab procedures, locations of equipment, and my ability to form my schedule from day to day. Though I do often consult my mentor, I am usually able to plan and carry out my own protocols each day. Also, I have gotten more used to keeping my notes carefully, and I feel more comfortable with the note taking standards in the lab, which is very helpful for future presentations of my research, and discussing it with my mentor.
This summer I am working in the Jia Laboratory at Columbia University, led by Dr. Songtao Jia. This lab focuses on researching epigenetics, and specifically epigenetic control of genome organization. In cells, genomic DNA is in the folded form of chromatin, and the elements that compose chromatin are nucleosomes, which are DNA wrapped around histones. Mutations in histones, while rare, can have large effects on the stability of chromatin. Additionally, these mutations have been seen across a wide variety of cancers and developmental disorders. Thus, the Jia laboratory is studying histone mutations in order to more fully understand how they interact with other mutations, and how chromatin can be rescued from these mutations. In the Jia Lab, fission yeast (Schizosaccharomyces pombe) is used to examine mutations. This yeast can be used due to the high levels of conservation of chromatin metabolism between yeast and mammals. Additionally, mutations that have been disease-causing in humans can have parallel identities in yeast, which allows the lab to study those mutations and their interactions utilizing the yeast cells.
The project I have been focusing on so far is the one my PhD candidate mentor is working on. He is studying a gene that, when over-expressed, causes chromatin instability - so, we are investigating other mutations that, when combined, can rescue the chromatin as seen by cells with normal growth.
In order to work on this project, I have learned a variety of skills in the lab. This includes crossing different strains of cells, dissecting tetrads of cells when the crosses have mated, dilution analysis to see if combinations of mutations have rescued chromatin in the cells, isolation of genomic DNA, PCR to magnify isolated genomic DNA, gel electrophoresis to visualize the PCR, and purification of PCR products to be sent to an outside lab for sequencing. The skill I have been working on the most, and is one of the most important for the project, is tetrad dissection. To dissect the tetrads of cells, I utilize a dissecting microscope that has a needle I can operate to pick up, separate, and drop cells. The microscope helps me to drop cells into a matrix, so that when they further grow out, it is visible if the cross was successful based on which cells survive on the plate and which do not. My first dissections took me up to 2 hours, but I can now complete a dissection (which includes dissecting 18 tetrads) in under an hour.
I have also learned a lot about how a smaller lab functions, as the Jia lab includes - aside from Dr. Jia - my grad student mentor, one post-doc, and one other undergraduate researcher, so there is a lot of collaboration despite separate projects being done by different members of the lab. I am enjoying the opportunity to collaborate with different scientists and being able to assist others with their research projects.
I think that this aspect of collaboration is one that I find especially relevant to education. While completing lab research isn’t explicitly an education experience, I find that having the skills to work with others in a scientific context is one that is essential when it comes to education as well. Additionally, I think it is a great boon for science teachers to have an intimate knowledge of the science they are teaching. While it is not possible for all teachers to do research, or for those who do, to research a large variety of subjects, understanding the process of scientific research and discovery allows for a teacher to better convey that process to students. Research in science can seem very opaque to students, and complex and dense journal articles do not do much to illuminate the reality. Thus, if a teacher has lab experience and understands how discoveries are made in this way, students have direct access to this knowledge. Additionally, it gives a teacher an understanding of hands-on science, not simply classroom-based lecture science.
In the next weeks in the lab, I hope to gain greater skill in the techniques I have learned through practice, as well as independence in the lab - that is, being able to know my tasks for the day and complete them with less assistance. I have already felt myself becoming more independent, but I think I could gain more ability to understand what I will accomplish before I come into the lab for the day. Also, I hope to gain a greater understanding of the scientific background of the projects we are completing, and I want to be able to better understand the results of experiments I do.