Alain Viel, PhD
Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology
Senior Lecturer in Molecular and Cellular Biology
Director of the Undergraduate Research Laboratory in Sciences and Engineering
Director of the Jeremy Knowles Laboratories
When I first arrived at Harvard twenty years ago, students had two options to practice experimental biology: disconnected lab exercises tailored to illustrate course material and to fit in a few hours, and long term research on a specific topic in a Harvard faculty member’s laboratory. The former would often culminate in rote lab reports and the latter in far more fulfilling but very time-intensive senior theses. In 2004, a new era for undergraduate research in the life sciences began with unprecedented support from Harvard University and the relentless efforts of Profs. Lue, Losick and Melton. Laboratory exercises in large classes were enhanced by being made more open-ended, and the life sciences created dedicated resources for advising students about research opportunities. At the same time and as part of this effort, I launched a unique research-based course (now called LS100r) that gave students new opportunities to conduct focused experimental projects tied to ongoing faculty research during a full semester.
We created a state of the art research laboratory entirely dedicated to undergraduate students, and engaged Harvard investigators from both the Cambridge and Longwood campuses to offer research projects. In 2009, based on the success of LS100r and with the unwavering support of Harvard we moved to the North West building in the newly built Undergraduate Research Laboratory in Sciences and Engineering. Now, about 10 hands-on courses in chemistry, biology and bioengineering share the space.
Why is the creation of hands-on courses so important? After all, students seeking a research experience could join a research laboratory. In fact these courses are meant to provide more than a single research experience. The main goal is to expose a larger population of students to the rigor of scientific inquiry, independent of whether or not they intend on going to graduate school in the sciences. That is why LS100r is open to students regardless of their field of concentration (from the life sciences to the humanities). All students can benefit from taking hands-on courses. They contribute to the development of analytical skills; teach how to formulate hypotheses; and how to design experimental approaches that test hypotheses and models. Hands-on courses should complement but not replace either lab exercises in large courses or longer-term research in Harvard laboratories, all of which are key elements in our curriculum.
If student exposure to science is limited to short lab exercises and the reading of primary literature, they may not appreciate the time, effort and intellectual process needed before scientists publish their findings. This lack of direct experience and subsequent appreciation diminishes the level of scientific literacy in our society. It makes people more gullible and willing to accept any unsound or unproven theory and to believe unsubstantiated and media driven claims of the consequences of publications. How many times has a “new” cure for a disease has been wrongly trumpeted in the news? How many times has false hope been raised, leading to a distrust of the scientific community? In a world where science is omnipresent, one of our missions in higher education is to produce educated citizens with critical minds. Hands-on courses contribute to this mission by reaching a pool of students that would otherwise never work in a research laboratory.
Enrollment in hands-on courses should not necessarily be required of all students but should be encouraged and facilitated as an important opportunity among all the intellectual endeavors a liberal education has to offer. Last fall, I launched one of the few hands-on freshman seminars (FS25o) to promote early exposure to research. Ironically, while we are asked to tell freshmen to be open minded when they select their first courses and not think about their future concentration, a fair number of freshman advisors still recommended against taking lab courses during the first year of college. Early exposure also helps students to discover whether or not working in a research laboratory is something they truly enjoy and would like to pursue. Hands-on courses can be considered as a transition toward working in a research lab or a means to explore different research topics while or in lieu of working on a single project in a research lab. It also allows students to learn from and establish contacts with various investigators, both with their peers and graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and faculty.
Integration of hands-on courses with more traditional lecture-based courses is also important because it builds connections between concepts discussed in class and the experiments leading to such concepts. In collaboration with Profs. Girguis and Lue, I created the Genome to Biome (G2B) program funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. This program includes a lecture course: OEB191 and the FS25o seminar, both of which can segue to LS100r projects, and finally summer internships offering research projects related to all three courses. To maximize flexibility, students can participate in all or a subset of the program components. An added feature of the program is the development of an international collaboration with Jiao Tong University (Shanghai, China), the hosting-institution of the G2B summer internships. It demonstrates that good research is also done outside the United States, and it fosters long-term international relationships between Harvard students and both investigators and students from a Chinese university. The G2B program through its hands-on courses prepares students to enter a world where science is part of our every day life, and through summer internships it strengthens student awareness of an active international scientific community. In the last 10 years undergraduate research at Harvard has clearly made substantial progress, and the future is equally bright.