Monthly Archives: May 2012

Don’t forget to feed and water your undergraduate

Back when I was a graduate student, and mentoring my very first undergraduate researcher, my advisor had this advice:

“Don’t forget to feed and water your undergraduate!”

It was meant as a humorous reminder that our role as research mentors is to help students develop the skills of a scientist. Our undergraduate students come to us, like seedlings, ready to absorb knowledge and grow into scientists with bench skills and critical thinking abilities. But it is up to us to provide assistance in learning the techniques, as well as guidance in developing the ways in which experiments are planned and results are analyzed.

Since that time, I have mentored many undergraduates both in labs and in classrooms. It is so rewarding to watch them develop as thinkers and scientists. I am very excited to have potentially three undergraduates working with me on various aspects of the Athlete’s Foot in Worms project this summer. I will do my best to remember to feed and water them.

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Space, the first frontier

It’s the middle of spring quarter here, which means midterms, blossoming cherry trees, and … planning for the “Athlete’s Foot in Worms?” summer research. Exciting!┬áMy first task was to figure out where the research could be done. Since we’re working with pathogens, we can’t just pitch our pipettes at any old spare counter. We need microbiology facilities with specific characteristics.

Initially I was planning to “borrow” a lab bench from a fellow faculty member. This was a very kind offer on her part, and the facilities in her lab were ideal. However, once it was determined that it might be more than just me and one student (more on that in future posts!) I thought it might be nice to have more space. The research labs here are not huge, and I didn’t want to be an imposition on my colleague.

Fortunately, I was given permission to use the microbiology teaching lab space, which is larger and also has all the facilities that I need. So, what are those facilities? At a very basic level, most microbiologists just can’t live without their bunsen burners, which hook up to gas outlets. Having gas outlets installed is therefore an important part of designing a teaching or research lab. Bunsen burners help to keep our solutions and experiments sterile in two ways: they provide a heat source that can be used to sterilize by dry heat (stick something in the flame to sterilize it), and the flame itself creates an up-draft, preventing dust in the air from falling into your solutions while you are working.

Another thing, which is more specific to working with pathogens, is a biological safety cabinet. The basic idea with these is that an airflow is created in which air is taken into the cabinet and up through a filter at the top before being released. Dust particles will not fall into your experiment but rather will be pulled up into the filter. Similarly, if your experiment contains, say, mold that could become airborne, then any airborne particles will be safely removed and caught in the filter rather than circulating in the room. Because dermatophytes are molds, it is safest to work with them in a biological safety cabinet.

Finally, it’s important to have a place where your microorganisms can grow, called an incubator. The temperature of the incubator should mimic the natural environment of the microbe. For example, human intestinal bacteria would be grown at body temperature, which is 37C. Dermatophytes grow best at about 30C, which is about the temperature of skin.