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Gene Cloning: A Different Kind of Lab

By Taliesin Nyala 07F

The Jan Term course Gene Cloning is a rite of passage for natural science concentrators: three weeks, eight hours in the lab five days a week, collaborating on research projects of their own making.

On their first day, Assistant Professor of Evolutionary Biology Charles Ross says, “Students are doing [what was once] a Nobel prize and a half worth of work. What took 20 years to develop, and months or years to do, we now do in a day.”

Though the course is led by Ross and biology professor Lynn Miller, who designed it, both are quick to say that the real teachers are the student instructors who each lead a group.

As third-year student Rachel Ingraham puts it, “This course provides a lot of freedom for students—professors are around to help when needed, but it’s the students who are working and learning together.” This is her second year as a student instructor, and her group is looking at whether a certain gene prevalent in cancer is more present in smokers than nonsmokers.

Just ten feet away, student instructor and third-year Eric Hoel and his group are isolating and sequencing genes—reading their code—to see if there is a correlation between the UNC5C gene and musical ability.

Working in Hoel’s group, Mt. Holyoke student Ioulia Bespalova explains that she wanted to take this course because “it is a completely different type of lab—in others, you’re given everything, but here you have to do things for yourself.”

“It’s the difference between microwaving a [frozen dinner] and cooking an actual meal,” Hoel says.

In the middle of the lab, first-year Scott Barish is working in a group to “determine what the change is in the gene that causes people to be either red or green colorblind.”

Next to him, second-year Alicia Salinero works on a project involving “sequencing cow genes to determine the genetic breed of [Hampshire’s] farm cows. They might be a rare breed of Dutch Belteds, which would make them very valuable.”

This course is about encouraging independence and mistakes, recognizing that “80 percent of experiments will not work,” Ingraham says. “Science requires you to be creative and have a collaborative mind.”

Each days starts with questions from the students. Professors Miller and Ross create a lecture ad hoc from those points of interest, and after that the students are back in the lab.

“A good teacher is one who lets the students ask the questions,” Miller says. “This is how students learn science. It’s about exposing them to the unknown and not telling them what to do, but teaching them to figure out how to do it.”

Future Gene Cloners

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