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Immersion Science

It’s a valuable lesson, and one for which some students don’t have the patience. Edick does experience attrition—students leaving the group after a semester or two. But that’s OK, he says. Even the students who leave have learned something valuable, and science can still be a good fit for them, as there are many science-related careers that are not centered on open-ended discovery, he says. “This course helps people figure out where they fit, who they are.”

Those students who do stick it out are rewarded in other ways. Turk reaches for an old lab notebook and shows off a picture of a gel taped to a page—a reminder of her most memorable mistake. “I stayed up all night. I cried. I had buffer running all over the floor. It’s the night I became a scientist.”

The students joke about the lesson of delayed gratification. “As much as you fail and fail” Pyzocha says, trailing off to indicate that the cycle might be repeated many more times. “When it finally works, it’s awesome.” According to Turk, “I think we’ve all learned to cut our losses. It takes a whole semester to get there. You need to have the experience to learn that.”

The lessons of perseverance, especially after failure, are valuable for any student and can be applied to any postgraduate endeavor, says Susan Gilbert, who heads the Biology Department at Rensselaer. “Many of the students go on to graduate school and to medical school or other professional health careers. Others go on to business and law school. It has broad appeal.”

STUDENT DEMAND

The course evolved more than a decade ago out of another of Edick’s lab courses, Cell & Developmental Biology, which he has taught for years. The course covers the gamut from generating hypotheses to learning techniques, and culminates in a group project. Sometime in the 1990s, Edick introduced cancer cells rather than always using normal skin cells in experiments, and thereby infused a much wider variety of outcomes. Students were enthralled by the new questions that arose, and gratified to be doing science that seemed more real-world than the usual classroom experiment.

The way Edick tells the story, it was the students’ enthusiasm that prompted him to take the next step. “As students would take the course, they’d say, ‘These [cancer cells] are pretty interesting. Do you suppose we could come back after the course and play with these?’” Edick says. “So the Cancer Cell Biology Group just kind of evolved out of an interest in students wanting to do that.”

When students apply for the course, they know Edick expects them to stick around for two or three years. And yet, each year Edick has more students applying to join the group than he has the resources to manage. Edick and his students meet as a group once a week during the semester. Sometimes the students give a talk about their research, other times they present an assigned topic. Edick does the assigning—always in the field of cancer research, but sometimes quite removed from whatever aspect of cancer a student is working on in the lab. “Cancer research is so vast. It covers every discipline imaginable. If you go on in this field, you’ll be interacting with a wide range of people,” Edick says. He doesn’t want students to get too locked into their tiny area.

Writing is a large component of the course, and Cancer Cell Research is one of Rensselaer’s “communication intensive courses,” which satisfies the new communication requirements—a kind of writing-across-the-curriculum initiative on campus—implemented in the 2006-2007 academic year. If students stay on through their senior year, they also write a senior thesis.

Students come into the class with different goals and expectations. Erin McAuley is a sophomore majoring in bioinformatics and molecular biology. “Bioinformatics is kind of the marriage of information technology and biology—both of which I’m really interested in,” she says. “My first-ever project proposal that I gave to George was trying to build a computer program that would model the aspects of cancer cells in culture. This is a lab-based course, though, so that wasn’t exactly appropriate. I like to think that being a bioinformatics major, I know a whole lot more about how to harvest the data that we get on the computer, which is happening now.”

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.