At the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus in Virginia, scientists are developing innovative new technologies and pursuing ambitious scientific questions. This summer, sixteen undergraduate students are part of that mission. The students have come from 15 colleges and universities across the United States and Europe, where they are studying fields such as chemical biology, biomedical engineering, physics, and computer science, to participate in Janelia Farm’s Undergraduate Scholars summer program. The students’ resumes boast an impressive list of accomplishments and a diversity of laboratory experience -- but all arrived at Janelia Farm with open minds, ready to discover new areas of science.

"The summer undergraduates really bring a new spirit to Janelia in the summer - they have a fresh approach and a level of energy and enthusiasm that is a pleasure to see" said Gerald M. Rubin, the director of Janelia Farm.

With Janelia Farm lab heads as their mentors, the students have delved into projects that include identifying the neurons that control feeding behavior in fruit flies, designing better labeling molecules for use with sophisticated microscopy techniques, increasing the longevity of dragonflies, and developing computer programs for automated image analysis. The Janelia environment, they said, provides a unique opportunity to focus intently on research.

“It’s hard to get a lot done during the school year, when you have your social life and classes and other stuff to manage,” said Peter Yiliu Wang, who has worked in a neuroscience lab at Cornell University. “But life is simple here. It’s just eight hours or twelve hours a day of research, so it’s very nice.”

Daniel Ferguson, a student at Grinnell College, added that science at Janelia Farm is not limited to the hours spent in the lab working on experiments. “Everyone here is really in-depth in terms of what they’re studying, and they really love to talk about it,” he said. “People are constantly talking about their projects and asking each other questions about what they think they should do. You’re not just working while you’re here on campus – you’re also talking about your research at meals and off campus.”

The students have become integral members of their research teams, and many valued the small size of lab groups at Janelia Farm (no more than six scientists), and opportunity to work closely with their mentors. Ferguson, who worked in the lab of group leader Anthony Leonardo, also noted that Janelia scientists’ relative freedom from administrative responsibilities had a direct impact on his research experience. “He’s got more time to show me what to do and show me things I could work on,” he pointed out.

The summer program offers students more than just hands-on experience in the lab – it aims to expose them to a more complete picture of what it is to work and think as a scientist does. An important component of the program is a weekly seminar in which students present their work to one another and field questions. Likewise, scholars are encouraged to attend the campus’s frequent seminars, conferences, and journal clubs, for exposure to research other their own.

For Gloria Wu, who is majoring in biochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, the interdisciplinary nature of research at Janelia Farm and the diversity of backgrounds among her fellow scholars were important assets. “A lot of students are coming from math or computer science backgrounds, and that really stimulates a lot of discussion between us, so we can see other approaches to solving biological questions. That is something really wonderful about this program,” she said.

During their ten weeks at Janelia Farm, the scholars are sharing two houses in the housing village on campus. Many have found that informal interactions with other Janelia Farm scientists, such as at meals or in the campus pub, have spurred unexpected discussions and offered new ways of thinking about scientific problems. “It’s mostly at lunch and dinnertime, and Bob’s Pub, where everything happens. That’s where a lot of the collaboration happens, and where help comes, because we just pick a table and then just talk.”

This is the third year of the Janelia Undergraduate Scholars program. The 16 students were selected from a highly competitive group of 931 applicants, in an application process that included writing a proposal for a research project in the lab of a specific Janelia Farm scientist. The application process for the 2010 summer program will begin in September 2009.

Photo: James Kegley


Source: HHMI