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Biology 190 to Add Research Component

Students working with equipment in a laboratory.
Rebecca A. Eckland

While undergraduate research has been happening at TMCC for several years, the Biology Department is excited about a new opportunity for first and second-year students to conduct research. Through a partnership with the University of California, Davis, TMCC will be designing DNA sequences and testing subsequent effects on proteins in the Biology 190 lab classroom.

While Biology 190L is typically the first lab experience for degree-seeking science majors, this new pilot program will take students’ hands-on experiences to a whole other level.  TMCC, along with Hamline University and Florida International University, are members of a pilot program for research opportunities that ask undergraduate students to design and modify DNA sequences, and test resulting proteins. The project, called “Design to Data” (D2D) will officially launch at TMCC in two sections of Biology 190 lab during the summer session of 2020.

“The students will manipulate DNA sequences and then test subsequent proteins produced from this modified DNA,” said TMCC Biology Instructor Dr. Sharif Rumjahn, who is overseeing the pilot project along with Dr. Laura Briggs. “The students will first modify the DNA sequence of single amino acid, building blocks of proteins, using a computer modeling program. The modeling program will then predict if this single amino acid change is favorable or unfavorable to the overall structure of the protein. More importantly, students will produce and compare the resulting mutant protein to what existing data & the modeling program predicted would happen. By doing this, the students will help to refine the accuracy of these kinds of computer modeling predictions.”

UC Davis has been successfully utilizing this form of undergraduate research in a small cohort of freshman-level biology classes and is expanding this research to other colleges around the U.S., which is why the TMCC Biology Department is eager to implement the program. “According to many studies, undergraduate students tend to do better and have more meaningful experiences in classes with a research component,” said Dr. Rumjahn. “They take ownership of their work, therefore becoming more invested in the course.”

Why Should I Care About DNA and Proteins?

DNA, the almost universal genetic blueprint used on Earth, can code for functional products known as proteins that are essential to life. Simply said, DNA is similar to a cookbook recipe and proteins are the resulting food after preparation and cooking. This Course Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) is about the semester-long journey and not just the subject (DNA and proteins) that form the essence of this new undergraduate research project. Dr. Rumjahn compares the procedural methodology of doing research like this to learning to cook. It’s not only about the delicious pizza at the end, he said, but the understanding of ingredients and the process from start to finish that makes the exercise valuable.

Instead of flour, tomato sauce and cheese, though, students who will take part in the debut classes will manipulate DNA to see what effect they have on resulting proteins. These various outcomes will be logged into a national computer database that will either confirm previous predictions or amend them to become more accurate.

While this research is certainly useful (more correct predictions of protein structure will help further research in many medical fields), it’s giving first and second-year students a glimpse into the value of research—and that is truly the goal. “Students are learning the first steps of how to work in a lab environment,” said Dr. Rumjahn. “They will gain an appreciation of research. And this is the kind of basic research that can result in finding new targets for medications, for example.”

Future Opportunities for TMCC Undergraduate Researchers

While Dr. Rumjahn emphasizes that the project is in its pilot phase, he anticipates future research and presentation opportunities will become available for TMCC students because of the D2D program. “The hope is that TMCC becomes part of a large national community doing this kind of undergraduate research,” said Dr. Rumjahn, who also emphasized that, because this program is so new, it’s hard to know what exactly to expect. “We are excited to be invited by University of California, Davis to this D2D pilot program, especially as its first community college member.”   

What’s for certain, though, is what previous undergraduate research opportunities have shown: that students who are truly invested in their projects are more likely to succeed.

For more information about undergraduate research opportunities at TMCC, contact the Biology Department at 775-673-8251.