Lab Culture

By Kelley Christensen

It's a common refrain: Michigan Technological University's size allows students to get to know their professors and feel like part of a family. This holds true in laboratories around campus, where students are both welcomed to participate in research and challenged to perform with excellence.

How do you know what you want to do if you don't do it?

In Megan Frost's polymeric biomaterials lab, undergraduate and graduate students alike have a chance to learn about the world of biomedical engineering research. Frost, associate professor of biomedical engineering, says her approach to hiring student researchers is to open the door to anyone who wants to learn.

"Tissue engineering sounds so elegant and exciting," she says. "To actually do tissue engineering, it means hundreds of hours in the lab changing solutions. There are so many aspects of engineering people are not exposed to until they're doing it. How do they know they'll like it or dislike it until they're exposed to it?"

Frost believes students have a better chance of finding their calling if they have the chance to explore and learn in a mentored environment. She takes students as young as incoming freshmen with the stipulation that even if the student discovers the work is not for them, they must finish out the semester. Frost says she's had more than 60 undergraduates work in her lab and can recall only two negative experiences.

"We can't teach enthusiasm and natural curiosity. Getting involved in research is a great motivator," Frost says. She notes that giving students a sense of ownership of the work, and the knowledge that they are working on real problems, imbues their educational experience with greater meaning.

"Research can be a black box that seems out of reach for undergraduates and it shouldn't be."Megan Frost

Genevieve Romanowicz, who graduated from Michigan Tech in 2012 with a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering, is now pursuing her doctorate of dental surgery (DDS) and a PhD at the University of Michigan. She is one of two students accepted annually into the DDS/PhD program. She began working in Frost's lab the summer after graduating from high school.

"The laboratory experiences really developed my inquisitive thinking," she says. "I believe it helped me to perform well in my courses as well as our Senior Design projects. It gave me an early mindset of how best to think about problem solving and to explore solutions."

Romanowicz also learned how to be a mentor herself.

"Dr. Frost emanates a joy and passion for research. She would be whistling and singing as she was showing me how to synthesize some chemicals," Romanowicz recounts. "Now I have to be the one whistling at the bench. I also try to mimic Dr. Frost in much of her mentoring style when I work with undergraduate students because I know she really helped to shape my view of research and my success so far."

The next Einstein may be knocking at your door

For Tarun Dam, associate professor of chemistry, balancing the requirements of teaching and research can be a gamble. Dam says training students can be frustrating at times but is ultimately incredibly rewarding. Rather than a research pedigree, Dam says what he looks for in a student is a passion for the work.

"Research is tough. It's heartbreaking," he says. "I want students to discover early if they want or don't want to pursue research."

Tarun Dam showing students a beaker with liquid.
Dam's Mechanistic Glycobiology Lab welcomes students from different backgrounds who are passionate about research.

Dam adds that he doesn't weed out applicants to his lab based on their academic background.

"If we do not open the door, we do not know who is knocking at the door. It could be Einstein," Dam says. "But students, no matter how bright they are, need supervision. We need to give students fundamental knowledge and train them properly."

A culture of excellence and self-management

Thomas Werner's drosophilid lab is a breeding ground. Literally. Undergraduate and graduate students work side-by-side with 6,000 fruit fly pupae annually to better understand developmental genetics.

But the assistant professor of biological sciences also says his lab is a place where commitment to excellence is required, encouraged, and rewarded.

Thomas Werner working with students.
In Thomas Werner's lab, students research genetic mechanisms.

"I'm pretty strict. Get your job done," he says. "I'm all about quality. Research has to tell an elaborate story in biology. There have to be multiple proofs. You have to prove everything you do."

Werner requires students in his lab to work their way up through the ranks, beginning with lab maintenance and making food for the flies. Once they do those duties reliably, they are given the privilege of helping with research experiments. It's a strict environment, but it gives students a window into the workings of an industrial lab. And based on the number of students in his lab who have gone on to pursue graduate or medical studies, or who have landed jobs in hospitals or industry, it's a model for success.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.