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Integrating Research into Undergraduate Education: an interview with Utpal Banerjee

Nandini Rajamani

Utpal Banerjee
Utpal Banerjee  (Photo: Utpal Banerjee)

Biology today is changing to become more technology-dependent and collaborative, and the integration of research experiences with standard undergraduate biology education is considered essential to nurture future innovators in science. Several programs by the NSF and AAAS (Vision and Change Program), HHMI (Science Education and Research Training), PCAST (Engage to Excel report) and others have introduced research-based learning and discovery into undergraduate STEM programs in the United States. Utpal Banerjee, a molecular biologist and HHMI professor at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), has focused on integrating education and research for over 20 years. He talks to Nandini Rajamani about the structure of these programs at UCLA, if they can be adapted to India, and his personal motivations.

Can you describe the approach and philosophy behind the move to integrate research into undergraduate biology curricula?

The whole program is about early engagement and scientific inquiry, with the view that this will improve science education. Most people at an undergraduate level think that they need to finish up all of their curriculum, which has to do with genetics, cell and molecular biology, and everything else, before they could go to a lab and do a little bit of research. The problem with this approach is that by the time they have finished all the courses that they need to take, it’s too late for them to then spend enough time in a lab. 

Our approach has been that students should be exposed to research early on. All they need to do is learn some basics, almost starting mechanically at first. We find that they very quickly learn to think and design experiments, and we hope this will help with their education. This is the premise behind Vision and Change, which has students applying the process of science using quantitative reasoning, models and simulations, communicating and collaborating with other disciplines, and understanding the relationship between science and society. 

How do you implement the recommendations of the Vision and Change Program and PCAST at UCLA?

We’ve got two programs — one is a hands-on-research program, and the other is called deconstruction, which is a pedagogy that we have developed at UCLA. First or second year undergraduate students, fresh out of high school, will do one of these. Then based on their interest in research, which will be evident after the course, they will then be absorbed into a minor in biomedical research, and can do research for all four years of their undergraduate degree.

Could you elaborate on the kind of research they are required to do? 

The hands-on research course is a HHMI funded program. This is very easy to implement in India if one had the courage and heart and need and want to do it. The idea is that you start with students as early as first year, and each student is assigned a piece of original research, and they contribute little parts to one large group of projects. This is just for ten weeks, in which they get didactic lectures, laboratory experience, computer experience and some writing experience. A publication as outcome promotes ownership, and the top students can advance to research-based careers. 

For example — there are different projects in my lab — mosaic analysis of essential genes in Drosophila development, gene based expression and analysis, RNAi screens etc. One outcome was a PLOS Biology paper with 134 undergraduate authors. We beat that with a Genetics 2007 paper with 264 undergraduates, and still hold the world’s record for the most number of undergraduate authors on a paper. We are now aiming for another paper with over 300 undergraduate authors. 

Can you talk about the second program — research deconstruction?

This is a new concept. This is mentioned in Vision and Change, and we have also described it in a PLOS Biology paper. Basically what we do is to have a bunch of students come in, they get a full-scale research seminar, which is video-taped. And then there are many interaction sessions, which help to deconstruct the initial seminar, cutting pieces of it, and this goes on for five weeks. The deconstruction starts as a dialogue in a question-answer format to explain basic concepts, and then at the end you bring back the lecturer for an interaction session. We find that this model works really well. In one course, we deconstructed one of David Morgan’s iBiology seminars. At the end of five weeks, David Morgan then asked the students questions on Skype, and it was a great session. The students, who are just in their first or second year, they tend to become very sophisticated after five weeks. 

How many contact hours do the students get in the five weeks?

It’s very extensive — typically three hours of lecture plus discussion sections. This one course covers many topics. After this we place them in a lab, but we already know these students by then, so we can place them appropriately. Then they get some research training courses, integration with social sciences, and philosophy and history of science etc.

Do you also work with high school students?

We do some high school outreach, where students or teachers can come in and get trained, and then they sometimes go back and revamp their curriculum based on this. One high school teacher came and worked with us — he then took it back to his class and his high school students now actually do this kind of work as well.

What is the scale of this program at UCLA? 

We started this in 2007. The number of students that have participated in any of our programs is upwards of 3000, across 142 laboratories and 28 different departments at UCLA, majority in the school of medicine. They have published over 77 papers in journals like Cell, Development, Nature Methods, etc. One third of all students have at least one publication. 

How is the success of these programs assessed?

STEM retention is a major issue in the US, like in India. STEM retention nationally is 30 something percent. UCLA is a little better than that — 60 something percent. For us, it’s close to 100% — 97% STEM majors (94% of women, 100% of underrepresented minorities) are retained. 84% of our students then go on to some higher degree, but a significant number, 36%, either go to MD or MD PhDs in very good places.

How would you adapt the program to a country like India?

One way is to develop these deconstruction ideas from resources that are available online. But this might not be feasible in the long term. What is more feasible is encouraging a large number of small observations. For example, there are rice varieties in India that have not yet been sequenced. One can use undergraduates to do annotations after sequencing. Or students can be involved in bird migration monitoring programs, like Migrant Watch.

What would you suggest for Indian undergraduate colleges, which typically don’t have research as part of the curriculum, or where faculty don’t do research?

I think one has to choose. If the faculty don’t care about research then there’s not much you can do. But it’s important to note that it doesn’t matter what students do, as long as they are working on something hands on, for which the answer is not known. This is critical. 

Do you think an undergraduate could do this for 3 – 4 months, or does it have to be sustained and spread out?

Most of the students would not do 3 months — they would do just a little bit, then they would find something on their own to do, like joining a lab of their interest. Even that little bit is better than nothing. If you have a research lab in which you are doing titrations, instead of routine experiments, one could instead create an apple extract, and figure out the acidity or molarity, or calculate how many hydrogen ions there are in an apple. This doesn’t require a gigantic lab but would still be a novel research experience. 

Do you think even simple experiments should lead to some kind of ownership or authorship?

Ownership is a must. Students have to say, I did this, and this is my result”. 

This implies that the student has to see it through up to a productive end point.

Yes, that’s why you want a large number of small observations. You don’t students to start a long project where they get stuck in the third step and then don’t know what to do. Little sections of larger projects or questions are best. For example, one of our labs sequenced the sea urchin genome, and they do in-situ hybridizations. Each student gets a different gene and does in-situs to see where it is expressed. The cDNA library is made from all these stages of sea urchins, so everyone is guaranteed to get some results within the larger project. The student also writes a little report about it. If you have a website, you could put up reports online — then you don’t need to publish a paper. Even having something on a website can help students claim ownership. 

Change is not going to happen overnight, but I think also waiting around and expecting something to happen is not going to make a difference. One has to begin at some scale, even if it is 50 or 100 kids, or only those who have access to NCBS or AIIMS labs. Let’s not try and solve all problems simultaneously. That’s not going to happen. 

One last question — what is your personal motivation behind what you do?

Education is important, there is no other cause in the civilized world that overrides education. Everything else is either a necessity or a matter of just basic pride, but education you can’t do without. People who make political and financial decisions about the future, those who become the next scientists, engineers — they all need to get this level of education. Without that nothing is going to progress or change. Social freedom, and every kind of freedom in this world is based on education. I think that’s motivation enough. 

There’s this revolution going on in India about getting to the next step — quality science education has to become part of the whole equation — it can’t be left out. It can’t just be about technology or development, without paying attention to early education.