MDI Biological Laboratory

Course Spotlight >> The Colby INBRE Course: Taking the Cookie Cutter Out of STEM Education

  • December 11, 2019

It happens frequently in INBRE short courses: the students ask questions like “Is this the right answer?” or “Is this the result you were expecting?” only to be told that we don’t know the “right” answer until we do the experiment – that an unexpected answer, or an answer that reveals a hypothesis to be incorrect, may be the “right” answer.

This revelatory moment is when the students realize that, rather than engaging in a proscribed lab experiment, they are engaging in scientific research. “They realize they are discovering things that have never been discovered before,” said Andrea R. Tilden, Ph.D., J. Warren Merrill associate professor of biology at Colby College.

It’s a moment that launches new career plans, sends career plans thought to be set in stone hurtling off in unanticipated directions and ignites a thirst for exploring the frontiers of biomedicine through scientific inquiry.

It’s almost always transformative.

That moment was on brilliant display during the Maine INBRE course for Colby College students January 21-25, 2019. The course is one of eight academic year courses offered at the laboratory through the federally funded program, a statewide biomedical research and training network led by the MDI Biological Laboratory.

“In the labs at school, you are doing cookie-cutter experiments; you’re under pressure to get an expected answer,” said Trisha Mukerjee of Lexington, Mass. “This feels much more tangible than experiments that are spelled out in a lab manual. You are actually creating a path with your thinking – you are connecting the dots.”

The research conducted in the course, which involved investigating the genetic response to a stress hormone in zebrafish, could one day lead to interventions or therapies to address the adverse health consequences of chronic psychosocial stress.

The course was led by Tilden and, from the MDI Biological Laboratory: James Coffman, Ph.D., associate professor and Maine INBRE director, with assistance from Joel H. Graber, Ph.D., senior staff scientist and director of the computational biology and bioinformatics core, and Elli Hartig, a research assistant in the Coffman laboratory.

In addition to laboratory research, the course involved a hefty dose of bioinformatics, or the science of analyzing large volumes of biological data. “They are getting both – the intensive computational experience and the bench lab experience,” Tilden said. “It’s an opportunity they wouldn’t get anywhere else.”

As for the experiment, the results were unexpected. “I wasn’t anticipating that,” Coffman said. “But that’s what’s fun about these courses.”

IN PHOTO ABOVE: Colby College student Trisha Mukerjee of Lexington, Mass., studying the effects of early-life stress on zebrafish embryos during a Maine INBRE course at the MDI Biological Laboratory.