Education, Science

What Undergraduate Biology Laboratory Courses Don’t Teach You

Hello again!

I apologize for the lack of posts as of late. I have been adjusting to a new routine of lab work in the summer, as well as working on a proposal for my upcoming thesis project in the fall semester. I went home for some vacation time – only 4 weeks – and I have been slowly plodding through a cold I managed to catch (probably while I was traveling).

Since returning to the lab (more regularly at least than during the previous spring semester), I have come to realize that learning in a lab is different now, as a graduate student, than it was when I was an undergraduate student. That’s what I’m going to talk about in this post!

Now, don’t get me wrong, undergraduate biology ab courses are really great to take. In my undergraduate career, I did labs in general biology, genetics, cellular biology, microbiology, and biochemistry. These courses do teach you important basics (like how to use a pipetman and work with different volumes), and they introduce you to a wide variety of techniques. It was thanks to my undergraduate lab courses that I also learned how to write lab reports, and by extension, research papers. On the other hand, while you do learn how to do a Western blot,  you don’t really learn how to make the polyacrylamide gel from scratch, or what to look for in a good gel, or how to digitally quantify the protein bands on the gel (which is done on the computer, using software that I am still learning how to use).

It’s the things done “behind the scenes,” so to speak, that aren’t taught that I had to learn from the ground up over the past month or so. I didn’t get to make polyacrylamide gels or prepare reagents as an undergraduate because the TAs of the labs would make those for us. Coming into class, we would find equipment and reagents already laid out on the bench for us to use (in groups, I might add). Now, as a graduate student, I need to use my own reagents that I had to learn how to make myself (with new equipment, like gigantic 2000 mL graduate cylinders and filtering devices), gather the equipment I need, and manage the timing of it all as I go. Lab courses – at least the ones I took – were only 3 hours long, which is not enough time to instruct students on how to prepare all the materials from scratch and then have them complete experiments and clean up for the next class. (Put another way: from start to finish, a Western blot takes 5 hours, not including the 2 hours needed for the gel to run or the overnight transfer onto a blotting membrane.)

Nonetheless, shouldn’t undergraduate students get some understanding of these “behind the scenes” aspects? A lot of preparation goes into experiments; lab work is not just “plug and play.” Reagents and equipment and materials that are all needed don’t just materialize on the lab bench! Learning how to make reagents and putting together materials properly and efficiently are important skills that, in my opinion, can only be learned by actively doing them instead of just reading about it in a textbook or lab manual procedure.

In addition to these aspects, lab courses also don’t teach you how to efficiently find, read, understand, and properly cite scientific journal articles. While I wrote numerous lab reports and research papers that required hunting down and citing journal articles, only a fraction of papers that I would find would be cited in the final report or paper, and it would take hours to read a single journal article. It wasn’t until starting graduate school that I had to learn how to read journal articles more quickly – or rather, find the bits of information I needed and move on – in order to keep up with the reading load each week. (More on my approaches to reading journal articles in a future post!)

What do you think? Is it possible to make biology laboratory coursework more hands-on and a more accurate representation of what work in a biology laboratory is actually like?

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