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Making a Scientist

Biology students learn how to be scientists through on-campus summer research program

There is a certain science to becoming a scientist. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it certainly isn’t easy. But for those with a passion for discovery, it is worth every painstaking effort.

Fortunately for three of Ohio Northern University’s molecular biology majors, a new on-campus summer research program has taught them just that. Meet Sadie VanHorn, Charlotte Wirth and Jordyn Sanner, the most recent participants of ONU’s Polar Research Experience Program in Molecular Biology (PREP-MB).

Open to both molecular biology majors and pre-med majors, the PREP-MB program is a five-week summer research experience during which students work full-time in an on-campus lab, immersed in an intensive learning environment. There is no cost to the students to participate, and they receive a stipend for their work.

Launched four years ago, PREP-MB is the brainchild of Dr. Jamie Siders Sanford, assistant professor of biology, who helped develop the program in response to a growing need for students to gain valuable research experience.

Sadie VanHorn, senior molecular biology major from Weston, Ohio“The main rationale for starting this program was to give students an opportunity that would make them competitive for other research opportunities, fellowships and graduate schools,” Siders Sanford says. “Government-funded summer research opportunities for undergraduates are intensely competitive. We needed to offer an experience here at ONU as a precursor to prepare our students for a career in science and help them become viable candidates for these summer fellowships.”

This summer, VanHorn, Wirth and Sanner have punched their tickets to three highly coveted Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) at Washington University in St. Louis, Harvard University and at Scripps Research Institute in Florida, respectively. For 10 to 12 weeks, they will be paid to do research at higher education institutions that are nationally esteemed for their scientific research programs.

For undergraduate students to even be offered this opportunity is an immense achievement. Most REUs accept less than 10 percent of the entire applicant pool, which can include several hundreds of applicants from across the country.

I was extremely pleased and proud with the outcome,” Siders Sanford says. “Knowing that summer fellowships are extremely competitive, I advised them to apply to 20 REUs each. Incredibly, all three students received multiple offers and ultimately accepted spots at prestigious summer programs.

It’s an invaluable opportunity for any student that esteems to become a scientist. It’s also an opportunity that would have scarcely been possible if it weren’t for the foundational skills and techniques the students developed thanks to the PREP-MB program.

So what does it take to “make” a scientist? Virtually any scientist will give you the same answer: trial and error – a lot of error.

“The students learn that in research, experiments often don’t work the first time, or even the second or third. They learn how to reason through what aspects of the experiment they could alter, how to troubleshoot, and how to critically think through the problems,” says Siders Sanford. “When they fail and then try again, I think, ‘Now you’re becoming a scientist.'”

Undoubtedly, scientists must become comfortable with failure – it’s inevitable. But it’s not about the failure itself; it’s about what is learned from it. This is a lesson that can be rather hard to learn, but it’s also an absolute staple when it comes to unraveling the mysteries of science.

While in Siders Sanford’s lab last summer, the students researched several biological concepts by studying fruit flies, but they ended up learning just as much about themselves as scientists in the process.  

Jordyn Sanner, junior molecular biology major from Fairview, Pa.“I think my biggest challenge was feeling like I didn’t know what was going on when I started the program,” Sanner says. “I wasn’t used to not knowing what I was doing. I think that was a big challenge for me: just accepting some confusion and learning along the way.”

Performing experiments is not exactly what it might seem to the untrained eye. There is much waiting – waiting for the right testing conditions; waiting out scientific processes; and, perhaps the most testing one, waiting for favorable results, which may or may not ever come.

“Our experimenting legitimately became Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result,” VanHorn humorously notes.

Another lesson the students learned thoroughly is that being a scientist is in all respects a full-time job, and then some. Scientific processes know no work schedule. If the experiment calls for you to get out of bed in the wee hours of the night to complete a time-sensitive task, you do it without question. And even when you’re not physically in the lab, your mind often still lingers there. 

It’s really not 9 to 5 because there’s so much to do, and I think that’s another thing about the career in general,” VanHorn says. “It’s what you’re thinking about all the time, and you’re always wondering what you should do next.

Despite the seemingly infinite failed trials and the long and demanding hours, there is one absolutely priceless reward that makes it all worth it – the thrill of discovery. Scientists are trailblazers in their own right, and the rare unearthing of scientific mystery is something prized among them and often something they will stop at nothing to achieve.

Charlotte Wirth, senior molecular biology major from Dundee, Ill.“Molecular biologists are really sneaky, and they will do anything to get an answer,” Wirth says. “They’re constantly developing new methods just to do something that they want to do, and it’s groundbreaking.”

Since the PREP-MB program’s inception four years ago, every participating student who has graduated has gone on to either graduate school or medical school. Given the program’s impressive track record of success, and the growth Siders Sanford has seen in her students as a result of it, she hopes to be able to expand it by establishing similar programs available to other majors.

“You watch them become independent. When they first come in, you’re starting to teach them things and then by the third or fourth week, they’re doing things on their own,” she says. “It builds their confidence. They’re coming up with their own ideas, and that’s key to becoming a real scientist.”

Looking ahead, the newest PREP-MB participants are excited for what the future holds. This summer, VanHorn and Wirth have become Amgen Scholars, some of the most elite collegiate science students in the country, and Sanner – having just concluded her sophomore year – will be one of the youngest REU students.

And it all started with a passion, a passion that ONU helped these students not only grasp but also make into a career, thanks to making scientists out of them.

If you’re interested in applying for the PREP-MB program or seeking more information, contact Dr. Jamie Siders Sanford at j-sanford@onu.edu.