Byron Smith, graduate student instructor, demonstrates how to safely handle syringes with attached needles. “NEVER recap the needle, dump it directly into the plastic sharps container.” The Biology 173 students used syringes that day to transfer bacterial cultures between two oxygen-free test tubes without opening them to the atmosphere. Image credit: Dale Austin

Students in the University of Michigan’s introductory biology lab now have the option to join a section in which they perform a research study – with themselves as the subjects.

Biology 173 enrolls several hundred students each semester and normally follows a textbook curriculum of common lab experiments. The new section deviates from the standard curriculum: students will be both the researchers and subjects of their own study.

Students will spend the semester studying the effect of dietary fibers – the parts of plant-based food the body can’t absorb or digest – on microbiome – or the full collection of microbes in a community, like the gut. They will test the levels of fiber in their own gut microbiomes before, during and after adding a fiber supplement to their diets.

Tom Schmidt, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, was one of the founders of the new section. He said he saw the need for a more research-oriented option for beginning science students. Schmidt is jointly appointed in internal medicine, civil and environmental engineering, and microbiology and immunology.

“We want to provide everyone with the chance to see how real research is conducted and how conclusions are drawn from research,” Schmidt said.

He added that it is a challenge for many science students to find jobs in professors’ labs at the university, so the curriculum may offer skills taught in those highly sought after lab positions. 

“The course is currently being offered to 80 students (four sections of 20) and is working well,” Schmidt said. “Two students from last semester are serving as undergraduate assistants for the course.”

Deborah Goldberg, Elzada U. Clover Collegiate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Schmidt, and colleagues in materials science and engineering, chemistry and physics received a $1.5 million grant through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The grant also allows for a parallel section in the Chemistry 125/126 course.

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Previously in EEB web news from The University Record

Students Sharjil Shamim and Zeinab Baydoun taking part in Biology 173 lab exercises during spring 2015. Image credit: Dale Austin