Undergraduates change the world

I’m a big fan of undergraduate research as a way of connecting students to scientific discovery (as opposed to toy example often used in teaching labs). And so there are a lot of undergrads running around the lab, all paired up with either a research scientist, postdoc, or grad student. We had about eight undergrads this past year, four of whom are working on senior theses (and hence are headed out the door soon).

Once a year, I have all of the undergrads give talks in big, festival-style meetings that are informally called Undergradapalooza. Volunteers give 10 minute talks (+ 5 minutes for questions) that are meant to be fun ways to tell the rest of the lab about their projects and progress. The thesis-writers give much more formal 30 minute talks that should cover a whole mini-story.

Undergradapalooza was this last Monday and Tuesday (2 hours per day), and I was blown away by the quality of the presentations and the students’ accomplishments. One student, who started just last semester and had never done mammalian cell culture before, endogenously Flag-tagged a gene in Jurkat cells – all the way from designing the experiment to sequence verifying several homozygously-tagged clones. Another student systematically compared several guide RNA formats (sgRNA vs crRNA:tracr, IVT vs synthetic, etc) and made sgRNAs targeting ninety(!) different genes for an arrayed screen. Yet another student was a driving force behind our sickle cell editing work – internally, all of the sickle sgRNAs are named after her (J1, J2, J3, etc.) – and this semester she used next generation sequencing to test wild type Cas9 vs both improved specificity Cas9 variants at the sickle codon and several off-target loci apiece in biological triplicate. [undergrads reading this blog, if I didn’t mention your project it’s only for reasons of space/length]

This is incredible! These undergrad students are all kicking butt and taking names. Their productivity is phenomenal – some of these experiments would have been a major part of a Ph.D. just a few years ago.

What does this mean beyond the fact that Berkeley has great students? It gets back to my ulterior motive for immersing undergrads in gene editing. Old fogeys like us current PIs are thinking of ways to use next-gen gene editing and regulation that we consider innovative. These are no doubt exciting, but they’re necessarily burdened by our preconceptions about what’s possible. The really surprising advances will come in five to ten years, when students who have only ever known a world with easy gene editing hit their stride. To them, this crazy tech will be routine!

It’s the every day uses of incredible tech that really changes the world. Just this morning I had a video call with my wife, who is doing epidemiological research in rural Botswana. I was walking down the street in Berkeley and she was in the middle of a field in Africa. During the call I pulled up her GPS coordinates and looked at a satellite view of that same field on Google Maps. The whole experience was far beyond what even early 90’s sci-fi imagined for the future. But it’s now routine in our lives and since a whole generation takes it for granted, they’re already dreaming of the next big thing.

Now take the above paragraph and substitute pervasive gene editing for networking and computing technology. It might take longer to filter from the lab to the sidewalk, but surprising applications will abound and no doubt change all of our lives. Viva la undergrads!

Jacob Corn

Jacob Corn is the Professor of Genome Biology at ETH Zürich. Follow him on twitter @jcornlab.


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