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In the Eye of a Fruit Fly
by Linda Marsa
In Utpal Banerjees lab at UCLA, “Each student has to do whatever it takes—PCR, computer analysis, sequencing—to figure out why the mutations are doing what theyre doing.”
AT FIRST GLANCE, Utpal Banerjees lab at UCLA looks like any other. Across three rows of Formica-topped counters, amid lab equipment and bottles of chemical reagents, 15 microscopes stand at the ready. But the researchers who toil at these workstations are a lot younger than those in a typical lab. Mostly freshmen and sophomores, theyre enrolled in an unusual biology class thats open to all undergraduates.
In this lab, which serves as one of the venues for the course, students conduct real experiments. Unconstrained by canned laboratory exercises, many of them are deciphering mutant fruit fly genes, and their research has generated publishable data that other scientists are using.
“This teaches them a different type of reasoning process,” says the amiable Banerjee, an award-winning teacher and chair of UCLAs department of molecular, cell, and developmental biology. “Theyre able to do experiments with uncertain results and have some pride of ownership about what they uncover.”
The Indian-born scientist was one of 20 HHMI professors who were awarded $1 million grants in 2002 to find innovative ways to improve undergraduate biology education. Using these funds, Banerjee, along with lecturer Allison Milchanowski and postdoctoral fellows Jiong Chen and Gerald Call, created the course to give students a real taste of the excitement of scientific discovery.
Combined with traditional classroom lectures that provide background information and a computer lab where students learn how to do genetic analysis, the bench experiments give them hands-on research experience.