A catapult into scientific research


Matthew Bruce and Ron Yu, PhD

Wearing a freshly starched lab coat and bright blue nitrile gloves, a young scientist used a pipette to transfer a concentrated salt solution into a small 1.5 ml tube in preparation for separating cellular proteins and debris from DNA. Next door, another listened as a scientist explained the conclusions drawn from a colorful neuronal precursor cell image splayed across a 10-foot tall screen. It was all in a day’s work for this year’s Stowers Scholars, who spent ten weeks immersed in a defined research project, which culminated in an institute-wide presentation of their research.

The program that started with eight participants in 2004 has grown to accommodate thirty-nine undergraduate researchers in the summer class of 2012. With nearly two hundred students applying to the program, Stowers investigators are able to select the most promising candidates for projects in their labs. For undergraduates with an interest in science, but unsure of the rigors and demands of scientific bench work, experiences like these may be the trigger that catapults young scientific hopefuls into a lifelong career in research.

Stowers Scholars Program Coordinator Ana Pedraza, PhD, explained that while the experience does provide participants with the opportunity to learn some of the technical skills necessary for a bench-based job in research, it aspires to achieve much more than that. “It is our goal to provide a context for aspiring scientists to participate in the collaborative nature of research based science,” she said. “We want them to gain an overall impression of a career in science, not just the rote tasks of an experiment.”

Over the years, Associate Investigator Ron Yu, PhD, has been lab host and mentor to a large number of Stowers Scholars. “The curiosity and enthusiasm these young researchers bring to the lab is inspiring,” he says. At first, Yu thought the scholars could be extra sets of hands for already established research projects, but he soon learned that by allowing them intellectual space for development, combined with the right amount of support, amazing things can happen.

When 2007 Scholar Stephen Gradwohl returned to Yu’s lab the following summer, he was presented with a large data set of responses to odor stimuli but no way to easily process or analyze it. Driven by a desire to “figure things out,” Gradwohl developed a custom script that condensed the analysis to just a week rather than the months previously required. “His contribution was an essential catalyst for the lab to move into systems-level neurobiology and his effort triggered two other similar projects to streamline data processing,” said Yu.

While most scholars might not have that kind of scientific epiphany during their short tenure, they do come away with a much greater understanding and appreciation of the amount of work and dedication that it takes to work in research. “I learned an ethos while a Stowers Scholar that has benefited me throughout my work experience,” said Lauren Shelton, a former scholar who now works as a research technician in the Abmayr lab. “The immersion into a real-life work experience gave me the opportunity to learn a sense of ownership and responsibility for my work.”

Jerry Yin, 2012 Scholar and biomedical engineering student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, experienced the power of collaboration during his time in the Yu lab firsthand. He spent his summer improving the design of an olfactometer, a machine that delivers highly controlled odors for behavioral studies of mice. Yin took a basic design from Yu’s lab and set about improving the machine’s capability. He successfully built a machine that simultaneously controls two independent behavior boxes, allowing researchers to run two experiments in parallel.

Yin credits his success to the freedom he was given to try out new ideas and to the generous help he received from various departments at the institute. “Everyone was so friendly and eager to help,” said Yin. He specifically acknowledged the information management team for help with software and Senior Biomedical Equipment Technician Tony Torello, who assisted with the fabrication of the machine. “This experience has given me an opportunity to see what can happen when everyone works together,” Yin reflected. “It is something that I am going to try do to more of when I return to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.”