Duke Magazine
by Robert J. Bliwise
Even before they formally start college classes, sixteen freshmen learn the rudiments of research in a Duke science lab.
Alexandra Paul and Daniel Jung master the art of pipetting
Sparking scientific curiousity: Alexandra Paul and Daniel Jung master the art of pipetting.
Megan Morr

Project WILD, Duke’s oldest pre-orientation program, has a well-honed gear list. The list goes out to the not-quite-yet freshmen who sign on for two weeks of hiking in western North Carolina: broken-in hiking boots, waterproof rain jacket, flashlight, medical-insurance card, and so on.

Project Search (whose partakers prefer the snappier “pSearch”), Duke’s newest pre-orientation program, hinges on moving liquids gingerly through pipettes rather than moving students purposefully along mountain trails. Every day for two weeks, beginning in mid-August, the sixteen pSearchers, evenly split between men and women, spent up to six hours in a lab in the sub basement of the Biological Sciences Building. They were chosen—by a team of older students who work with the program—through an application process that included two essays. In one they wrote about a professor whose particular research they’re drawn to; in the other, about why they’re interested in research in general.”

The question of whether Duke should invest in this particular early exposure to research was first formulated by two students. Alex Robel and Anthony Lee, 2010 graduates and A.B. Duke Scholars, started talking about a pre-orientation research program in the summer of 2008, while they were in Ecuador through the scholarship’s service-learning project. That fall, they distributed a survey to gauge why freshmen might not pursue research. They identified as key factors a lack of earlier research experience, poor communication with the faculty, uncertainty about whether a research trajectory would be right for them, and an inability to find a position in a lab.

Those targeted by pSearch have a rough interest in research but have never put that interest to the test. “While all Duke students excelled in high school, obviously not all high schools are equal,” Lee says. In 2009, he helped recruit a pSearch pilot
group that had students with “great A.P. science scores,” he says, “but some never did a ‘wet’ lab in high school—all their labs were virtual.”

As they sample science in the non-virtual world, this year’s students are trying to create “proteins of interest” from DNA samples, largely from mice and fruit flies, donated by Duke labs. Those labs plan to make experimental use of the newly synthesized proteins. Every cell contains thousands of different proteins, which together play a big role in cell function. The students “are not doing a purely academic exercise,” says Eric Spana, assistant research professor of biology and the program’s lab adviser. “They’re building something that researchers want, and students understand the science better when it really matters.”

Early on, the pSearchers learn about transcription and translation: Cells use the two-step process to read each gene and produce the string of amino acids that make up a protein. “The central dogma of biology tells us that all proteins are derived from a specific sequence of RNA, and that that RNA is derived from a specific sequence of DNA,” Spana explains to a visitor.

One of the tasks for the students is to amplify the DNA using a technique called PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and clone
it into E. coli bacteria. E. coli can be stimulated to transcribe the gene into RNA, and from there to translate it into protein. They’re particularly useful for genetic experiments because they grow rapidly, at a rate of one generation every twenty minutes under typical growth conditions.

From that point, the students will purify and extract the protein from the bacterial cells. The end product—ideally—is a solution containing the protein requested by each of the faculty researchers. “We are not trying to push students into doing research, but simply to let them make the best-possible educated decision about their own course,” says cofounder Robel, who adds that nearly all of the ten pSearch participants in the 2009 pilot program sought placement in a lab. A double major in earth and ocean sciences and physics, with a minor in mathematics, he did research on climate and physical oceanography, as well as writing senior theses in both of his majors. He’s now in Harvard University’s Ph.D. program in earth and planetary sciences.

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