Real scientists wouldn’t be caught dead with cookbook-style lab instructions (“Two tablespoons of baking soda plus two cups of vinegar equals foamy fun!”).
“They’re what we call ‘canned’ laboratories, where the results are already known, and students just go through the exercise,” explains biology professor Margaret Saha, who’s been teaching undergraduate and graduate students at W&M for 15 years. “It’s not question-driven. And that’s not what scientists do.”
Real scientists identify a unique problem, come up with a hypothesis, and employ a wide range of interdisciplinary techniques—a pinch of biology, a dash of computer science, a teaspoon of calculus—to achieve brand new insights. Professor Saha and Professor Forsyth, also in the biology department, lead a freshman course in “real science.” Professor Kurt Williamson, whose research focuses on the topic of the laboratory, will join the program as well.
Students will combine elements of ecology, chemistry, electromicroscopy, physics, biology and bioinformatics to isolate and sequence the DNA of the fascinating bacteriophage. Phage viruses attack and kill bacteria and are believed by many to be a viable alternative to antibiotics.
The groundbreaking class is part of a science education initiative sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). A total of 12 colleges and universities across the nation will be teaching the class simultaneously, with each group of student researchers studying the particular strand of phage found in their local soil.
“We’ve been pushing in this direction at William & Mary, but we have nothing quite this extraordinary,” says Saha. “First of all, it’s a year-long exercise. Some of the exercises that we have in our lab, we try to make them investigative, but they’re three to four weeks at most.” It’s also massively interdisciplinary and collaborative, says Saha, reflecting the way that real scientists do their work.
The program targets freshmen, because this is where the sciences lose thousands of talented students who are put off by large lectures and canned labs. “We want to start this type of training to show what science is really like as early as possible,” says Saha.