The value of a robust undergraduate research experience goes far beyond doing science.
“As public educators, it’s our job to instill critical thinking in our students because, fundamentally, that’s how democracy works,” says Stephanie Porter. Porter is a microbiologist at Washington State University Vancouver investigating symbiosis.
“I see science in a similar way. Our job is not just to train more scientists but to help all students understand the scientific process of taking information, developing a hypothesis, and then seeing how well it’s supported and, finally, interpreting what you find.”
For Porter, that means that undergraduates working in her lab are not just dishwashers—though everybody gets to wash lab glassware, too. Rather, they are actively engaged in puzzling out questions large and small—why, for example, do certain species of bacteria form partnerships with legumes and why are there so many stable symbiotic relationships over evolutionary time? Students help design experiments, run them, and then help analyze the results.
This kind of experience gives students the ability to evaluate claims and methodologies, examine underlying assumptions, and make their own decisions based on their analysis of available information. Whether a student becomes a pharmacist or a stay-at-home parent, everyone needs a mastery of the evaluative process.
Plus—and this is no small thing—science is fun and empowers students to think differently about their abilities.
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned in Dr. Porter’s lab,” says Miles Roberts (‘20 Biol.), “is that a lot of students, we put ourselves in this little box about what we can do. And often math and science are outside that box, as difficult and beyond our grasp. Which is not to say that these things aren’t difficult, but we underestimate how much we can learn and how far those learning abilities can go.” Roberts says that, despite a rich tradition of science in his family, it still took a push from one of his professors to get him to apply for the internship in Porter’s lab.
“Getting out of my comfort zone and jumping into research has been completely transformational for me,” says Roberts, who moved to Michigan this summer to join a Ph.D. program at a public university there. “Now, going to grad school, I have confidence that if I come across a problem that I may not have the knowledge to tackle, I have the tools to research it, analyze it piece by piece, and come to a solution or at least a close approximation of a solution!”
What Roberts has realized through his time working in a biology lab is that “a lot of doing science, especially life science, doesn’t boil down to memorizing facts but rather building critical thinking skills.”
Angeliqua Montoya worked in Porter’s lab as an undergraduate and is now a Ph.D. student with the lab. She, too, felt her horizons expanding as she excelled in community college science classes, and was urged to keep the momentum going by transferring to WSUV.
“I took a biology class with Steve Clark at Clark College, a phenomenal teacher and a great mentor. He warned me to not take a break, to take years off, but I did.” She worked retail and fast food for five years to help her family get by. But when she got the chance, she finished her Bachelor’s degree at WSUV. “Another professor, geneticist Willy Cushwa thought I had potential to do research. He vouched for me” and that led to Porter’s lab.
Porter says that, typically, seven or eight undergraduates work in her lab every year, “and they’re directly involved in original research, and some of them become co-authors on my papers. Part of the excitement of being a scientist is working with young people, involving them, and benefiting from their creativity and energy. And they benefit by learning about the scientific process.”
And they also bring their own life experiences and perspectives to bear on the lab’s investigations. “We had a veteran fighter jet mechanic in the lab, and he brought a huge skill set and built prototypes for things. People who grew up in agriculture bring a practical skill set to our work with plants and microbes. And interns from more urban backgrounds bring life skills that further enrich our lab.”
One of the tools Porter wants to build is a website, to be called Science Scholars, that will connect students with researchers. “A lot of students don’t even know there are research opportunities on campus.” Often, she says, those are students from groups who are under-represented in science–meaning pretty much anyone who is not a white male.
“There’s a big need to connect the students to the opportunities so we’re going to build a website and publicize it,” Porter says. Based on models Porter studied when she was herself an undergraduate and graduate in the University of California system, she thinks the project will be a big hit. After all, she says, students at WSUV are very hungry for work experience
Part of the beauty of a robust research experience as a high school student or undergraduate is that it can integrate fascinations that we often feel we have to grow out of to be mature, contributing adults.
“I’ve always loved nature and been curious about why things are the way they are,” Porter says. “That’s part of my personality. My parents took me camping and let me run around exploring and trying my own hand at understanding why things are the way they are. Like kids do! I think that kind of upbringing motivates me to want to bring experiences to the next generation and to get out to nature. I know there is a kind of nature deficit among kids who grow up in a more urban environment, a more controlled environment. But out in nature there are all sorts of mysteries that you might not notice the first time you walk through. And in a human built environment there’s not the same opportunity to make that connection and to feel a part of the larger ecosystem.”
Connecting with nature is not just healthy, it’s the kind of engagement that can result in practical answers to social challenges, from sustainable engineering solutions through biomimicry to participating in wildlife counts to help understand how a changing climate affects our shared ecological systems.
“There’s something elegant about proposing a hypothesis, designing an experiment, and getting an answer–I find that really appealing,” Porter says. “The world is confusing but that seems like something you can hold on to and use to understand the world. So it’s a lens for thinking—not just about individual problems but you can apply it in many ways in life.”
That lens is tightly focused right now, as Porter and her students and colleagues wrestle with ways to teach biology in the middle of a pandemic. How do you teach lab skills? How do you mentor young people?
“We’re continuing with things online,” Montoya says, but she misses having the interns in the lab.
“I’m really worried about this cohort of students,” Porter says, “because what they are really missing from their college experience is hands-on learning. Especially the relationships, the interactions with grad students and faculty. We’re thinking about ways to get all that without being in a lab.”