THE FLYRM PEOPLE: “People tend to think that scientists are antisocial or have lab tans from sitting in front of the white lights from microscopes all day,” says associate professor of biology Nancy Pokrywka with a laugh. “It’s wonderful, however, to build a lab community and to be able to share research and ideas in a group. College is a very social experience, and we want to simulate this in the lab.” But how do you create this community when students tend to work on independent research projects, and faculty mentors work with just one or two students a semester?
This question has been on the minds of Pokrywka and biology professor Kate Susman for several years. “We wanted our students to experience the feel of a large lab, much like they would in a cellular biology lab in graduate school,” says Susman, explaining how larger universities tend to have an “experiment factory” with teams of researchers all tackling one question and quickly churning out data. “Also, with our little nucleus of one or two students, we couldn’t have a rich, intellectual environment of sharing at lab meetings and presentations,” she says. “Our labs get together with other labs during URSI [Vassar’s Undergraduate Research Summer Institute] in the summer and could share and swap stories, which was great. We were looking for ways to get that community feeling into our labs year-round.”
Sharing this common goal, Pokrywka and Susman also realized that they were both interested in answering many of the same scientific questions. Susman’s work deals with the study of microscopic worms, whereas Pokrywka’s focuses on fruit flies. Both organisms, however, are studied for their DNA and for how the cells become organized and functional. But if the flies and the worms shared the same lab, would everyone get along? “We tried to think about every aspect of how to do this,” says Pokrywka, adding that there were several limitations, including a lack of space for a joint lab. Also the current research grants didn’t cover collaborative projects (though this is now beginning to change). Student interest was also a gamble.
“Eventually, we started saying we were merged, but the separate labs were on opposite ends of the building,” says Susman. “We were basically just bumping into each other in the hall.” Determined to form one collective lab, the two finally hatched a plan. “I figured that if we knocked down the wall between our offices, we’d have a lot of space,” explains Pokrywka. “We pointed out to the college that this is an interesting model and something other departments might want to do, so we were willing to be the guinea pigs. It’s a very small investment in a new way of thinking about collaboration on campus.”
Last summer, the wall came down, signaling the beginning of a joint research community. The two labs turned into one large lab where the fly and worm work is now done. They also share a computer and imaging lab for analyzing data and a molecular biology lab where students purify DNA and run protein gels. Now students can work on worm and fly DNA manipulations side by side. “The students adjusted immediately to the idea of a lab community and helped us move,” says Pokrywka. “I brought in a table where they sit and have lunch as a group, which we never had before. They don’t have to be here, but now they stay and hang out.”
According to biology major Anna Payne-Tobin ’08, it didn’t take long for this sense of community to develop. “We spent a lot of time together and shared all of the lab chores,” she says. “It’s nice to have other people to bounce ideas off of and to help with your project if you can’t make it to the lab.” Often, students doing independent research projects are required to work in the lab for three days in a row. Because of other classes and commitments, this translated into late nights and weekends spent alone in the lab with experiments. Now a group of students can divide the workload, take on more complex experiments, and complete them in a shorter time frame, which also mimics the work done at the grad school level. After spending several summers working in larger labs at universities, Jessica Linden Swienckowski ’08 welcomes the lab expansion. “They’re creating a similar environment to these larger grad schools with more opportunities, but at a small liberal arts institution,” she says. “This is really fostering the sense of a science community here.”
“We’re starting to think as a team, and the transition has gone smoothly,” says Susman. “We’re not collaborating from two independent places—we’re joined completely. The students don’t feel like fly people or worm people anymore. We’re now all flyrm people.”