During the week of March 26, 2018, while many students were having fun and relaxing during Spring Break, others were busy doing extra lab work at the BTC Institute. This four-day workshop was designed to provide an introduction to the molecular biology laboratory for students affiliated with the Center for Educational Opportunity (CeO) on the UW-Madison campus. As noted on its website: “CeO promotes access to resources, academic achievement and personal growth for students whose parents have not received a four-year degree, students who meet specific federal family income guidelines, and students with documented disabilities.”
It is well known that first-generation college students, women and students of color persist in STEM fields at lower rates than the general population. This interferes with the creation of a diverse STEM talent pool, in turn needed to ensure diverse problem-solving perspectives.
Further, STEM fields are often seen as being stressful, given their competitive learning environments. This may be especially discouraging for students from racial/ethnic minorities who may not have as many mentors and role models to turn to.
This workshop aimed to give students an experience that would strengthen their skills and confidence as they continue to pursue scientific paths. In addition to laboratory work, students discussed the importance of clear communication in written and oral presentations, were required to work as partners to experience teamwork, and were encouraged to use reflection and lab reporting as ways to internalize what they learned throughout the week.
We covered a lot during out time together:
- The week began with a discussion about laboratory safety and the use of basic laboratory equipment. Students learned about the importance of personal protective equipment, safe laboratory practices, how to deal with biohazards in the lab and about biosafety levels.
- Students isolated DNA and RNA from brain tissue and learned how these molecules can be isolated and studied using techniques such as affinity purification, and amplification (PCR).
- They performed RT-PCR with RNA as their starting material to study gene expression, detecting the Factor V Leiden mutation, which is associated with a blood clotting disorder. They tested both mutant and normal RNA for the mutation and were able to analyze the data they generated, explaining the differences between the two tissue types.
- Students also studied how DNA and RNA are related to proteins and performed a genetic transformation with the reporter gene Luciferase, demonstrating how bacterial cells can express genes that are inserted in the laboratory using genetically engineered plasmids.
- This was followed by a study of protein function, where students combined their genetically altered bacterial cells with Luciferin, Luciferase’s substrate, to see their samples glow in the dark.
- Lastly, students learned about epigenetics, using restriction enzyme digestion to detect methylation in genomic DNA.
In addition to the knowledge and skills developed through lectures and lab work, experiences like this help students cultivate social capital. Social capital accumulates as networks are formed through interactions with instructors, advisors, and peers – both formal and informal.
As students learn where to go for reliable information and support, how to navigate college, develop personal relationships and adjust socially and academically, not only are they cultivating social capital, but they are also developing an identity as a STEM learner. This, in turn, increases their self-efficacy and confidence, leading to greater success in obtaining a degree and career in STEM.
In short, students begin to feel like they belong in the laboratory and that they are in the process of becoming scientists. Some find out about STEM careers that they didn’t even know existed, and even better, how to go about pursuing these careers. The more students are aware of the breadth of STEM career choices available to them, the better equipped they are to decide what degree to pursue.
Introduction to the Laboratory provided students with significant classroom and laboratory experiences, including valuable opportunities to interact with scientists and guest speakers who encouraged their pursuit of STEM degrees. We hope that the insights gained regarding how scientists think and conduct themselves professionally have increased these students’ confidence as they move forward on the UW campus and beyond.
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