trying to understand how bacteria transfer DNA from one generation to the next (photo by Blake Eligh)

UTM students gain real-world lab experience

An innovative joint program at U of T Mississauga is giving fourth-year science students a chance to see what lab life beyond graduation might be like. The AIRLab program, now in its fifth year, was created to help students get a head start on acquiring skills they will need as they build their scientific careers.

Paul Piunno, associate professor with UTM’s chemical and physical sciences department, says the multi-disciplinary program was designed to give students the skills that he wished he had when he first entered the working world. “If I could go back, what are the things I would have liked to be exposed to as an undergraduate that would have served me at the start of my career?” he says.

While other undergraduates complete solo fourth-year projects, the AIRLab program creates two teams of three students from different scientific disciplines. The teams are each assigned a research problem related to their unique skill sets and given an academic year to work on the project. “We try to deliberately find people in different quadrants, chosen from chemistry, biology, physics and earth sciences,” Piunno says. “The exciting science happens at the boundaries between the disciplines. When you combine that expertise, you can advance research.”

In past years, AIRLab teams have worked on a variety of projects, such as building a hand-held DNA sequencer to identify insects in the field or figuring out how soft organic matter turns into a fossil. “They try to answer ongoing research concerns,” Piunno says. “This is project-based learning. We give them a challenge, but it’s up to them to tackle it as team. They will take their own path to solving an unanswered challenge that’s fair game in the field. These are grand challenges, but it’s the journey that’s the most important part of this.”

Over the course of the project, AIRLab teams make weekly presentations to an academic advisory panel of three to four professors – defending their work, defining current challenges and outlining future plans.

Along with the scientific work, the program includes training in skills that Piunno and his colleagues see as vital to a scientific career. Students learn about different working styles and project management techniques. They also learn to manage a budget of $2,000, which they receive to spend on materials related to the project.

This year, one AIRLab team, comprised of astrophysics and math student Emily Storey and chemistry students Daniel Gorelik and Richard Fuku, is challenged with understanding how, at a molecular level, bacteria transfer DNA from one generation to the next.

“Our goal is to develop a technique for tracking plasmids within live bacterial cells,” Gorelik says of their work. “We hope this will allow researchers to understand the dynamics of plasmid movement which could lead to ways to inhibit plasmid transfer and the transfer of genes that carry antibiotic resistance.”

Students involved in the program are required to spend a minimum of 15 hours a week on the project, but the trio admit that their enthusiasm for the plasmid project means that they can’t wait to get back to the lab.

Storey says she likes the challenge of the weekly presentations to the advisory team. “We have to defend our ideas to the advisors and convince them that we’re on the right track,” she says. “Having to explain your work to others is really good experience. This is good practice for what we’ll be doing in the future, whether we’re going to conferences or defending a thesis.”

Fuku says he finds the project management aspect of the project very valuable. He also likes the practical aspects of using the cumulative knowledge he’s gained through his undergraduate studies. “You can apply what you’ve learned and see what happens,” he says.

“The AIRLab program helps students learn to do research as a team and develop their critical thinking skills,” Piunno says, noting that one of last year’s students landed a job with a biomedical startup company directly because of her AIRLab experience. “These skills are transferrable and tick off many boxes that employers are looking for in industry or in academic research.”

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