Saturday, September 13, 2014

Student scientists study sea stars, produce plaudable publication

A good university science education should give students the opportunity to engage in scientific research. This is widely agreed upon, and most of the biology position announcements I consider state that the successful applicant's research should present opportunities for student participation. The general model is that the professor has the research program, and a question that needs answering, and a plan for answering it, and the student gets to see how research happens by carrying out, or at best refining, that plan. I'm all in favor of this, but I'd like to take it a step further.

My first publication, way back in 2003, was with one of my professors at Bennington College, based on work that she planned, and I, as an undergraduate, helped carry out. I made alterations to the experimental protocols, did a lot of lab work with minimal supervision, and chose to work on this project rather than others that were available, but I can take no credit for any of the ideas in the publication. In retrospect the one thing I would add to my own undergraduate education, if I was to be my own professor, was working through the entire process of generating a primary paper, from initial observations and idea generation to publication.

Implausible you say? Impracticable? If generating publishable science is so easy, why doesn't every professional scientist publish a paper a week? Well, I've just finished doing it with two of my students, and I'll tell you about it.

'Finished' is vague. We've submitted the paper, and I think it good, but we have to wait to hear if the reviewers agree. I'm not going to give you too much detail on what we found because you'll have to read the paper (or a future post) when it comes out.

It happened like this: At SDU, where I currently work, all natural science students in their second semester have to complete a group project. A group of students (four in my case) are assigned a faculty mentor who gives them a question to answer and guides them in answering it. In my case, the question was, "Can we use PIT-tags (like a vet puts in your cat) to mark starfish for a long-term demographic study?" We brought some starfish into the lab, talked about animal care and experimental design, showed them how to inject the tags and pretty much let them do their own thing.

They did great, but the tags just kept coming out. After a few weeks, all the tags were out. They answered my question with confidence: No, PIT-tags cannot be used to mark starfish long term. But the thing is, they didn't stop there. With no pay, no additional course credit, no requests for recommendation letters or such, two of the four students just decided to keep going. We met occasionally and I offered encouragement and comments, but little more.

They presented their results to the Evolutionary Demography Society, and long after the course was over they kept doing more experiments to figure out how the starfish were ejecting the tags. Notice that this is their own question. I asked, "Do the tags stay?" and my students answered this then asked, "How do they get rid of the tags?" And when we had an open house at the laboratory, they presented what they had learned to the public. Just by chance, one of the visitors they talked to had access to an ultrasound machine. This let them repeatedly image exactly where within the starfish the foreign body was moving. A year after they started, they convinced me that they had discovered, and had the data to back up, a previously unknown mechanism by which starfish can eliminate foreign objects from within their body cavities. "Okay," I said, "write it up for publication, and tell me now by what date you will have a finished draft." They missed their self-assigned deadline. They needed more help with data analysis than they expected. They put in all the wrong references in all the wrong places, and the flow of the article was terrible. English is not their first language. But not so long after they said they would, they sent me a draft that had most everything I needed to make it good. With the co-authorship of a couple of marine biologists (did I mention that I know next to nothing about starfish and have no other starfish research ongoing?) and with the continued input of these two students, we made a respectable manuscript out of it.

What lessons do I draw from this? Motivated undergraduates, with just enough guidance, can basically have their own successful research programs. The paper we produced still took a bit of my time to write up, and isn't the most important paper in the world, but they discovered something completely new (answering a question that someone who knew the literature would never think to ask), and they learned. They learned a lot. Refining questions. Starfish anatomy and function. Experimental design and practice. Ultrasound imaging. Cox regression in R. Scientific English. Literature searching and use. Collaboration. Communicating science to peers and the public. Preparing and submitting a manuscript for publication. Now they will get to see how peer review really works, or doesn't. These students, just starting their third year as undergraduates, have a fuller experience of what goes into making a scientific publication than I did when I started my third year as a doctoral student. Chew on that for a minute.

It is important here to think about these students' motivation. Judging by their grades, they are not academic stars. Neither of them has described a lifelong fascination with starfish. They did this, so far as I can tell, because it was their first chance to truly be scientists rather than just science students.

I told them early on that:
A) That they would have a strong say in the direction of the research and
B) that if they produced something publishable, I would help them submit it for publication.

These are not promises to be made lightly. Publishing things, especially things outside one's own central line of research, is time consuming. Giving first year undergraduates even this limited version of academic freedom in their research is, understandably, not common practice. But it seems to me to be damn good educational practice, and I plan to continue offering this type of opportunity to students when possible. Students will do much better, and more, work when they are exercising agency and following their own curiosity. Even if they don't choose careers in science, they know how science happens from start to finish, and that is surely something science students should be given the chance to learn.

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