A longer version of this story appears in the September-October 2010 Duke Magazine
Project WILD, Duke’s oldest pre-orientation program for not-quite-freshmen, has a well-honed gear list: broken-in hiking boots, waterproof rain jacket, flashlight, medical-insurance card, and so on.
Duke’s newest pre-orientation program, Project Search (or “pSearch”), 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 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—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 program was first formulated by two students, Alex Robel and Anthony Lee, 2010 graduates and A.B. Duke Scholars who started it in the summer of 2008, while they were in Ecuador on a service-learning project. That fall, they distributed a survey to gauge why freshmen might not be pursuing research. They identified 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.
Incoming freshmen 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 pSearch students are trying to create “proteins of interest” from DNA samples, largely from mice and fruit flies, donated by Duke labs. 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.”
The students learn cloning, amplification, purification and extraction, ending—ideally—in 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 last year sought placement in a lab.
Co-founder Anthony Lee says students may understand the character of a research university, but they don’t necessarily appreciate their own potential for participation. Many of his friends didn’t get to taste research until late in their college careers, he says. “It wasn’t because they weren’t talented or proactive. It was because Duke had so much to offer that laboratory research was often postponed for the next semester, or the next, or the one after that.”
A biology major as an undergraduate, Lee spent all four years and portions of every summer doing research at the medical center—first working on a fungal pathogen, then on astrocytes, the most abundant cell type in the brain. His lab mentors “really encouraged me to ask interesting questions,” he says, and they treated him not “as a lowly undergrad” but rather as a colleague who was expected to “play substantive roles in the lab.” He’s now in the M.D./Ph.D. program at the University of California-San Francisco.
On a typical morning, pSearchers are doing a lot of watchful waiting. They’re looking over instructions on the lab whiteboard: “Suspend pellet in 10 ml 3-PER by vortexing/pipetting up/down”; “Gently shake homogenous mixture for 10 min.”; “Centrifuge @ 15,000 rpm for 15 min.”; “Add 2 x 3 ml elution buffer and collect fractions.”
During the slow stretches, several are exercising their iPhones. One student, who puts herself into a spin in her lab chair, jokes that she’s mimicking a centrifuge. Another is crafting a hand puppet from her rubber glove. A few speculate on the whereabouts of the lab’s unofficial mascot, a black-and-white rubber orca whale, which tends to get tossed around in not-so-gentle fashion.
pSearcher Josh Weiss makes an easy shift in conversation from science to cello playing. He took A.P. courses through high school in biology, chemistry, and physics and worked on a genetics-related bioinformatics project at Long Island’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. “But none of that was in a wet-lab setting,” he notes.
Before their classmates have arrived at Duke, the pSearch group has become tight knit through cardio-dancing, joining the crowd for a Durham Bulls game, visiting the local Target for critical supplies like pita chips, and watching a meteor shower through Duke’s teaching telescope.
“We’ve formed strong chemical bonds and become a polymer of awesomeness,” Weiss says.
(Incoming students may apply for pSearch online.)