In intro biology lab, students become research subjects

Sunday, September 27, 2015 - 8:14pm

Students in the University’s introductory biology lab now have the option to join a section in which they perform a research study — with themselves as the subjects.

Biology 173 enrolls several hundred students each semester and normally follows a textbook curriculum of common lab experiments. The new section deviates from the standard curriculum: students will be both the researchers and subjects of their own study.

Students will spend the semester studying the effect of dietary fibers — the parts of plant-based food the body can’t absorb or digest — on microbiome — or the full collection of microbes in a community, like the gut. They will test the levels of fiber in their own gut microbiomes before, during and after adding a fiber supplement to their diets.

Tom Schmidt, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, was one of the founders of the new section. He said he saw the need for a more research-oriented option for beginning science students.

“We want to provide everyone with the chance to see how real research is conducted and how conclusions are drawn from research,” Schmidt said.

He added that it is a challenge for many science students to find jobs in professors’ labs at the University, so the curriculum may offer skills taught in those highly sought after lab positions. 

LSA sophomore John Klein said he applied to take the class because it sounded more interesting than the normal Biology 173.

“It’s going to be more work for sure, but I think it’s going to be worth it for me in the long run,” Klein said.

To fund the project, Schmidt received a $1.5 million grant through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The grant also allows for a parallel section in the Chemistry 125/126 course.

The students who were interested in taking the class submitted a short application and were randomly selected through a lottery system. The section began last winter with 40 students. In its second semester, the section doubled to 80 students.

Even with the larger class size, Schmidt said there were still more students hoping to take the class than there were available spots, which were limited by the number of microbiome samples the lab’s equipment could process.

The data obtained from the students will contribute to Schmidt’s own microbiome research, allowing students to feel like they impacted a larger scientific discovery.

Schmidt said he hopes undergraduates in the section will discover if they have a passion for research.

“We want to provide undergraduates with an authentic research experience that they can use to determine whether they want to continue in research,” he said.

Arvind Venkataraman, a research fellow in the Department of Internal Medicine, is another instructor of the course. In an e-mail to The Michigan Daily, he wrote the research could help children facing malnutrition.

“Malnutrition causes 45 percent of child deaths worldwide,” Venkataraman wrote. “Recently, it has emerged that persistence of malnutrition is strongly related to deficiencies in functions normally provided by the gut microbiome.”

Correction appended: Arvind Venkataraman is a research fellow in the Department of Internal Medicine, not a professor.