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“The best kind of teaching and the best kind of learning”: lab-based course empowers undergrads

Undergraduates Bryan Hong and Anna Keshabyan with Associate Professor Morgan Barense (photo by Diana Tyszko)

Bryan Hong went from being an overwhelmed first-year student to co-author of a groundbreaking research paper.

Anna Keshabyan turned a personal interest in Alzheimer’s disease into a major role in running experiments on brain function and aging.

Valentina Mihajlovic became her professor’s lab manager.

All three undergraduates were catapulted by the Arts & Science Research Opportunity Program (ROP 299) from the confines of a classroom into a hands-on, laboratory-based education mentored by Morgan Barense, an associate professor in psychology, and onto a path they could not have imagined a short time ago.

“The best kind of teaching and the best kind of learning is what is going on in the lab,” says Barense, the Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience. “It’s a microcosm of how education should work and how people should learn.”

The program gives second-year students in the Faculty of Arts & Science a chance to share in scientific discoveries while developing relationships with faculty members that can help them move on to graduate studies and future careers.

Now in his fourth year and planning to attend graduate school at U of T, Hong remembers how intimidated he felt in first year. He says the research experience changed all that, allowing him to work side by side with Barense, an established faculty member and researcher.

That set the stage for his undergradute career. After he finished the second-year ROP299 course, he continued working in the Barense lab, conducting research into aging and cognitive impairment. What he helped uncover will be part of a paper on a new and more effective way of detecting early signs of brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

“It feels very empowering to have your ideas validated,” says Hong. “What’s truly important in science is not what happened, but why, and you don’t get that from textbooks.”

With a grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s, Kashabyan came to the lab two years ago to gain research experience on the disease, and to pursue her interests in learning how memory works in people as they age.

She expected she would simply be assisting in the lab, but soon found herself playing a much larger role, as she was called upon to create numerous experiments.

“I was doing it all – preparing the stimuli, recruiting the participants, testing people, then looking at the data and seeing if it fit the hypothesis,” says Kashabyan, a fourth-year student specializing in psychology. “That was really mind-opening.”

Bringing undergrads into the lab and making them full participants in the research process is a powerful way to give students a voice after years of being conditioned to memorize and regurgitate the “right” answers, says Barense.

Research is the opposite of that standardized system. There are only questions and theories that must be tested, and many errors are expected along the way. “You learn so much more from your mistakes.”

She has been recruiting undergraduate students for seven years and says all have ended up with their names on published papers after making a multi-year commitment to the lab.

“The goal is for every student to be involved in something that contributes to science in a very public way,” Barense says.

“If you start working with them early, you can have a real long-term mentor relationship that can evolve for each individual.”

When she was named lab manager by Barense in only her third year as an undergrad, Mihajlovic sensed her professor was testing her, knowing she would rise to the challenge.

While it was nerve-wracking at first, Mihajlovic soon found it made her a more confident student in class as well, always ready to voice her opinions, ask questions and approach professors.

“You learn along the way, and that’s really important, not just in research, but life in general, whatever you end up doing,” says Mihajlovic.