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Molbio students get a jump on senior theses

By Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- For Princeton students majoring in molecular biology, one highlight of their college years comes not during the school year, but in the summer before senior year.

In a longstanding tradition, the great majority of molecular biology students spend their last college summer working side-by-side with Princeton scientists conducting cutting-edge research. The summer research program gives them an opportunity to apply the knowledge they accumulated over the previous three years and to jump-start their senior thesis research.

student and biologist in lab

Neha Jeurkar (left) is creating genetically engineered fruit flies to study a gene that controls aspects of embryonic development. She worked with biologist Elizabeth Gavis in a summer program that allows molecular biology students to immerse themselves in research and jumpstart their senior theses.

''I think this is the best part of being a molecular biology major -- being in the lab,'' said Joyce Tse, who spent the summer trying to unravel the workings of a gene that controls aspects of early development in mice.

''I have worked in other labs but this is my first time having a real research project of my own,'' she said. Tse's work, in the lab of assistant professor Jonathan Eggenschwiler, could help scientists understand how differences emerge between the left and right sides of an embryo as it takes the very first steps from a uniform mass of cells into a complex organism with many specialized parts.

Of the department's 65 seniors, 55 worked in Princeton labs for the summer. Most of the others planned library-based theses that do not require experimental research. The summer research program, funded by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, also included nine juniors and 13 students who were visiting from other schools that do not offer research programs that match their interests.

''I think it's a great program,'' said Elizabeth Gavis, associate professor of molecular biology. ''Being immersed in the culture of the lab -- with the graduate students and with the postdoctoral fellows -- they absorb a huge amount.''

Perhaps the biggest advantage of the program, said Gavis, is the time it affords students to make mistakes. ''In science, more experiments fail than work,'' she said. ''You need to have that time, so you can allow failures to happen and learn from them and change something and move on. If you don't have that time, you never learn and you don't have the experience of working out a difficult problem.''

Neha Jeurkar, a senior who worked in Gavis' lab, is planning to go to medical school, but wanted to have the experience of seeing an entire research problem through from beginning to end. ''With my other time commitments during the year, it would be very difficult to get this much time in the lab,'' she said. ''I love it. This is a great lab.''

A student organizing committee made sure the summer wasn't entirely consumed with lab work. The group planned weekly dinners that allowed students to spend more time with each other and organized a weekly series of lunch seminars at which faculty members talked about their work. ''I have personally enjoyed being on campus for the summer,'' said Rachel Rosenstein, a member of the student organizing committee. One opportunity she appreciated was spending more time in the town of Princeton. ''Now I can see what's going on here when we are all studying,'' she said.