Decoding sleep, mapping quasars: A day in the life of undergraduate scientists

Abby Knecht gets into the lab around 9 a.m. She chats with her colleagues, catches up on recent scientific journals and preps the Total Internal Reflection Fluorescence microscope for her single molecule experiments on DNA transcription.

It’s a typical summer morning for many graduate students across the country, except Knecht ’15 isn’t in graduate school — she is one of dozens of Brandeis University undergraduates who’s traded white beaches for white lab coats to work alongside faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows researching epilepsy, mapping quasars, decoding sleep cycles and uncovering the chemical mysteries of cell differentiation. Knecht and her fellow student-scientists are designing research projects and writing research papers for publication with some of the university’s most distinguished scientists.

“I really feel like I am treated like a graduate student,” says Knecht, who works with Jeff Gelles, the Aron and Imre Tauber Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology. “As an undergrad, I am treated with respect, and I am free to work on my own experiments.”

Student Scientists at SciFest 2014

“I often give my most speculative projects — those with the highest risk and highest reward — to undergraduates,” says physics professor Seth Fraden, PhD’87. “These undergraduates often surprise me by finding creative solutions. My lab’s two current research tracks, protein crystallization and Turing’s chemical basis of morphogenesis, were both started by undergraduates.”

July culminates in the annual SciFest, where student-scientists present their research to faculty and peers. This year, 86 students, including 64 Brandeis undergraduates and 21 summer visitors from around the world, presented their research in the sunny lobby of the Carl A. Shapiro Science Center.

Funding for undergraduate research comes from many sources, including the Provost’s Undergraduate Research Fund; the Jerome A. Schiff Undergraduate Fellows Program; the Division of Science Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships; the National Science Foundation; the National Institutes of Health, and the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center Research Experience for Undergraduates.  

“Working on pioneering research alongside grad students and postdocs gives undergraduates a chance to see what a life of research is really like, and it challenges their imaginations,” says Jim Haber, professor of biology and director of the Rosenstiel Basic Medical Sciences Research Center.

 Time in the lab is transformative.

“You can’t really learn something until you have to do it yourself. I see things that I’ve learned in biology class every day in the lab,” says Adam Jones ’15, who spent the summer in professor Michael Rosbash’s lab. “I’m more excited about research now than I’ve ever been.”

Categories: Research, Science and Technology, Student Life

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