Believe in Students

What if undergrads authored high–profile research papers?

Students, especially undergrads, are often maligned for being a liability in the lab–an occupational hazard. but what if we provided more incentives and opportunities to contribute more than washing dishes and cleaning out mouse droppings? three of our top investigators credit students for playing a pivotal role in some of their best work.

Algorithm No. 5

  • Invite Chaos

    Give up a little control to gain a lot more creativity. Bring together smart, diverse people from a variety of disciplines–then get out of their way.

  • InnovateOpenly

    Create an environment where research is shared freely and anyone can have the next big idea.

  • EmbraceInexperience

    Work with passionate people who know less than you do. Encourage unique perspectives that experts in the field may dismiss or overlook.

Case Study One:

Case Study: DAVID GRAINGER'S LAB

David Grainger, Ph.D., is a busy guy. He just finished co-editing the most comprehensive treatise on biomaterials, is the editor of several leading journals, chair of a national institutes of health panel and several international research center advisory boards, and principal investigator on several active research grants.He also has a travel and speaking schedule that rivals Hillary Clinton's.
Mahender Avula Ph.D. Candidate, Bioengineering Co-authored two papers, filed patent disclosure

Mahender Avula Ph.D. Candidate, Bioengineering Co-authored two papers, filed patent disclosure

Mahender Avula Ph.D. Candidate, Bioengineering Co-authored two papers, filed patent disclosure

Dolly Holt Ph.D. Candidate, Bioengineering Co–hatched idea that resulted in a NIH grant for the lab Won 2012 Utah Women in Technology Award

But he's not too busy for students. He's also quick to give them credit. "The first author on my most highly cited paper is an undergrad," says Grainger, who has spent his career mentoring students such as University of Utah alum Kenneth Hinds, Ph.D. As an undergrad, Hinds had the ambition and the patience to take a project Grainger suggested to the corner of the lab. He figured out how to analyze gold surfaces decorated with protective films for quality control. His findings were published in a widely cited article in the American Chemical Society"s publication, Langmuir. "If undergrads are courageous and they work hard, they'll do real science." But Grainger doesn't just invite students into his lab so he can be a good academic citizen. He invites them for their ideas. "When students dump a new, perhaps naive, idea onto the table, rather than just brushing it into the trash can, I try to say, ‘Let me indulge you for a moment and see how this might actually work.’ " He purposely brings together a diverse mix of bioengineering and pharmaceutical researchers, and then eschews traditional lab hierarchy for a more organic mentoring system. That philosophy has helped shepherd high school students all the way to the national Intel Science Talent Search. And much of the research generated in his lab results in invention disclosures and patent applications. "Anyone who works here can have the next big idea," says Grainger.

Grainger acknowledges that youthful energy isn"t always easy to harness. "Students can be loose cannons in the lab," says Grainger. "They're reputed to break things, cause accidents and divulge lab secrets, which can make the effort/reward gap feel too wide. Having to tow an inexperienced high school or undergrad student around the lab can feel like a boat anchor to a grad student." Grainger thinks small things can make a big difference. "A thousand dollars per student pays for meaningful supplies or rewards a graduate student to dedicate time to an undergrad. This makes the effort and opportunity worthwhile and more attractive to all. It takes so little to change the game."

In addition to enjoying pizza and donuts at lab meetings, Grainger's students organize holiday events, work together on community service projects, and get some opportunities to enjoy Utah's great outdoors and famed powder, especially on the annual lab ski day when Grainger foots the bill. "Work hard, play hard is a great rule," he says. "I tell my group, ‘If it's a powder day and you can't go skiing, I feel sorry for you.’ But then I expect to see them in the lab on Saturday." These extracurricular activities help create a community where students aren't afraid to share their ideas, professors make time to listen, and innovation is an open, collaborative process. "Our lab is built on trust," says Grainger. "And fun."

U of U Pharmaceutical class taught by David Grainger, Ph.D.

David Grainger, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Pharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Chemistry, College of Pharmacy, says his lab is built on trust and fun. Grainger has won several teaching awards, including the University of Utah 2010 Distinguished Graduate and Post Doctoral Scholar Mentor Award. "Group diversity drives innovation. Without it, you either have my graying hair or a monolith of students thinking the same way," says Grainger. "And what does that get you? Same old, same old."

U of U student innovator Darren Cootey

Darren Cootey Undergrad, Bioengineering Former military surgical tech, whose expertise produced 2,000 surgical procedures

David Au Undergrad, Bioengineering Assisted with proving new instrumentation capabilities and submitted two research grant applications

David Au Undergrad, Bioengineering Assisted with proving new instrumentation capabilities and submitted two research grant applications

Archana Roa Ph.D. Candidate Pharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Chemistry Submitted two papers, fi led patent disclosure

Archana Roa Ph.D. Candidate Pharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Chemistry Submitted two papers, filed patent disclosure

Archana Roa Ph.D. Candidate Pharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Chemistry Submitted two papers, fi led patent disclosure

Nikki Davidoff Undergrad, Bioengineering First author on three papers, UROP funding

Dorina Diekjuergen Ph.D. Candidate Pharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Chemistry Lab Group Coordinator

Dorina Diekjuergen Ph.D. Candidate Pharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Chemistry Lab Group Coordinator

Case Study Two

Case Study: DAVID JONES' LAB

Dave Jones, Ph.D., thought "forcing" students to give 30–minute presentations at weekly meetings sounded like a good idea for several reasons. The meetings would give students experience presenting, encour age the crossbreeding of ideas, and foster a collegial, open environment among the department's different labs.He never imagined that one of those presentations would completely transform his own research.

Jones, who is now co–chair of the Department of Oncological Sciences and senior director of Early Translational Research at Huntsman Cancer Institute, was dutifully listening to a student from his colleague Joe Yost's lab present her studies on the organ asymmetry in zebrafish. In the back of his mind, however, he was perseverating about his grant proposal rejected by the NIH the day before. He thought he was on the verge of understanding why the adenomatous polyposis coli (APC) gene causes 85 percent of colon cancers. NIH reviewers, however, told him he first needed to test his hypothesis using knockout mice. Building a mouse model would tack on two years, Jones thought, and there was a good chance it wouldn't prove anything. As the young student explained how she was able to manipulate genes to flip the zebrafish's heart from the left to the right side, Jones lasered in on the fish's intestine. He could see it perfectly through the transparent body of the fish. That's when the light bulb went on. He didn't need mice. He needed fish. They're cheaper, easier to manipulate, and completely transparent. "It was all just sitting there," he says. "And I suddenly knew exactly what to do."

One month after knocking out the APC gene in zebrafish, Jones had the result he was looking for (though it took another two months to realize what they had discovered). He credits another student, who serendipitously had just joined the lab, for making that research happen. Like Jones, M.D./Ph.D. candidate Lincoln Nadauld had never worked with a zebrafish in his life. But his willingness to take his research in a completely different direction paid off. Nadauld was the first author of the paper published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry (September 9, 2004) that demostrated how the APC gene controls conversion of vitamin A into retinoic acid and how mutations in the APC gene may cause cancer in humans.

Ten years after that student presentation, Jones has thousands of fish, which he uses to test thousands of drugs that may prove beneficial in colon cancer treatment. Some of those drugs are now in clinical trials. Along the way, Jones has noticed fascinating effects that different drugs have on the development of zebrafish. Although they are unrelated to his specific study, Jones wants to create an open–source database to share those findings with a broad range of scientists. He's also collaborating with medicinal chemists in the College of Pharmacy to tap into the vast potential zebrafish have to improve the drug discovery process. "It's a unique environment here," says Jones. "I wouldn't be doing the science I'm doing now without such a collaborative community."

David Jones, Ph.D., innovates with student partners

"It was absolutely pivotal. I went into that student presentation with a problem and came out of it with a completely different idea about how I was going to pursue my research."

Case Study Three:

Case Study: JODY ROSENBLATT'S LAB

Jody Rosenblatt, Ph.D., had a hunch. The huntsman cancer institute investigator and as sociate professor of oncological sciences noticed that when cells were crowded, some were shoved out to their death."It was a very simple idea, but really a departure for anyone to think about it like that."

What she needed was a way to artificially crowd cells in tissue. "We were coming up with some crazy schemes, and we needed a bioengineer to help with our experiments," says Rosenblatt. "We asked leading scientists around the country where we might turn for help, but they had no ideas." Serendipitously, she received an impressive cover email from a bioengineering undergraduate student, Patrick Loftus, that caught her attention. She didn't have any space in the lab, but there was something about the email that seemed savvier than most. After talking to Loftus and listening to the kind of questions he was asking, she decided she wanted him in her lab "no matter what." "When you find someone who is very excited and enthusiastic about the research or a project or a topic, like Patrick was, it's contagious," says Rosenblatt.

Loftus enthusiastically introduced her to his bioengineering teachers and classmates. "Working with bioengineers and students opened all sorts of new possibilities. That kind of crossbreeding is really important," says Rosenblatt. As it turns out, the device she needed already existed around the corner in the lab of a colleague, Masaaki Yoshigi, M.D., Ph.D., research associate professor of pediatrics and bioengineering (adjunct). "Masaaki had created a sort of evil torture chamber for stretching cells and suggested that I could just use it in reverse," says Rosenblatt. It worked.

"Working with bioengineers and students opened all sorts of new possibilities. That kind of crossbreeding is really important."

Loftus went to work with Yoshigi's device in collaboration with postdoctoral fellow George Eisenhoffer, Ph.D., who was using zebrafish skin as the model for epithelia, the cellular covering of internal and external body surfaces. With the help of colleagues and students, Rosenblatt's hunch eventually led to an important discovery of a connection between cell division and cell death never before identified. The findings, which could possibly identify new avenues for cancer therapies, were described in a paper in Nature (April 15, 2012). She is quick to give credit to her young collaborators.

Rosenblatt suspects she takes on more undergraduates than most of her colleagues, but she doesn't accept just anyone. "I have no use for just a pair of hands. I need an attached brain, and I need someone who is self–motivated." Her interest in students dips way below the undergraduate level. She routinely invites middleschool science classes to tour the lab for "science days" at Huntsman Cancer Institute. Scientists at all levels set up stations for students to do real experiments, such as forensic DNA testing or looking at their own cheek cells stained fluorescently. It gives scientists the chance to explain science in lay terms and try to answer some of the best, most poignant questions about the field–from 12–year–olds. And it gives students the chance to learn that science is about learning new stuff, not memorizing things from the past. "Growing up, I never thought about science because it was taught in such a boring way; it was all about memorization," she says. "But science is about discovery. It's really the only frontier left. I want kids to know how fun it is."

Jody Rosenblatt, Ph. D., collaborates with bioengineering students and teachers

"Growing up, I never thought about science because it was taught in such a boring way; it was all about memorization. But science is about discovery. It's really the only frontier left. I want kids to know how fun it is."

U of U students in collaborative innovation

Huntsman Cancer Institute Investigator Jody Rosenblatt, Ph.D., collaborated with undergraduate bioengineering student Patrick Loftus, postdoctoral fellow George Eisenhoffer, Ph.D., and colleague Masaaki Yoshigi, M.D., Ph.D., among others to discover a revolutionary connection, reported in Nature, between cell division and cell death. "Jody and George included me and made me feel like I had my own project and that my contributions were important," says Loftus, who worked in Rosenblatt's lab for three years and started medical school at the University this fall. "I felt like I helped create new knowledge and discovered something that could help people. That was a really motivating experience for me."