What happens when graduate students in biology are given the freedom to play, dabble in new fields, launch into the unknowns of genuine research, not worry about getting "good" results?
In the case of the MBL Physiology course, one outcome has been-paradoxically-an extraordinary level of new knowledge and publications generated by student-and-faculty teams.
In the Dec. 21 issue of Science magazine, several scientists who have directed the Physiology course detail their winning formula for instilling in students the passion for and ability to conduct "real research," as lead author Ron Vale of University of California, San Francisco, describes it.
The article presents the overwhelmingly positive feedback from a poll of Physiology course alumni from 2004 to 2010; and the remarkable list of 23 research papers and 59 meeting abstracts that developed out of Physiology course projects from 2005 to 2012.
Vale and Tim Mitchison of Harvard Medical School co-directed the Physiology course from 2004 to 2009 and revamped it in significant ways: (1) an equal number of students from cell biology and from physical sciences are admitted (2) students go through a "boot camp" to learn research techniques outside their fields and to begin thinking and stretching beyond their comfort zones (3) faculty give students the kernel of a "real" research problem - not an exercise - and the students develop an experimental plan, reporting back on what they found at the end of 11 intense days (often working 14 hours a day!)
And if they find nothing? Not a problem! "That's most of what is going on!" Vale says. "Learning from failure is a crucial part of being a scientist." The atmosphere the course intentionally creates is "intense, yet low-risk," minimizing "the fear of failure or of appearing ignorant, factors that impede students, as well as senior scientists, from venturing into new fields or learning new approaches," the article states.
Very often, students and faculty become so inspired by a research problem that they continue to work on it after the course ends, at their home institutions. That is how the seven-week Physiology course has generated so many publications.
The positive impact on students is evident from the alumni poll, which includes comments like, "I am now much more likely to try new experiments even though they seem nearly impossible. This attitude has had a very positive influence on the fun I have being a scientist, which is also reflected in the results."
"People have a tremendous amount of fun in the Physiology course, whether their project gets a good result or not," Vale says. "They appreciate the experience of going after a real research problem, of being surrounded by faculty and fellow students who are excited by the thrill of the chase ... We are trying to learn something new, and we don't necessarily know how to get there. That is science!"
The current co-directors of the Physiology course, Dyche Mullins of University of California, San Francisco, and Clare Waterman of the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, have preserved the basic structure and spirit that Vale and Mitchison brought to the course.
Physiology is one of 22 courses the MBL offers for advanced, laboratory-based research training in fields such as cellular physiology, embryology, neurobiology, and microbiology.