Beyond the CURE: addressing the needs of undergraduates through an advanced independent research program that examines the effects of gene regulation in neurodegenerative diseases

Students who engage in research experiences during their undergraduate education exhibit greater long-term retention in science, deeper understanding of the scientific method, and are more scientifically literate. However, most departments at large universities are unable to offer opportunities for novel discovery because one-on-one mentoring relationships are not available at this scale. A solution to this problem is to formalize research experiences within departmental course curricula. Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs), an innovative pedagogical approach, can efficiently offer research opportunities to many more students. The Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology Department (MCDB) at University of Colorado Boulder committed to providing opportunities for research-based experiences to all of our majors early in the students’ education. The department currently offers more than 500 seats in MCDB CUREs per academic year.

Student who have taken CUREs in our department report significant gains in confidence in critical analysis of data, feelings of membership in a department, understanding the impact of the work to the scientific community, and technical skills through iteration. Indeed, about 15% of students exiting these courses continue to express an interest in pursuing research projects in our department. The students are prepared to engage in independent research, yet there remains the problem of providing these students with advanced opportunities that include the honors theses. We have met this need through the creation of a format that provides up to 12 students the opportunity for increased independence in the laboratory. Undergraduates involved in this program conceived a project that focuses on understanding the role of abnormal systemic cholesterol homeostasis in demyelinating diseases like multiple sclerosis. In this setting, with the mentorship of a senior instructor, students developed an experimental approach that involves synthesis and injection of dsRNA into adult Drosophila melanogaster. Assessment of resulting phenotypes involves behavior testing, quantification of gene expression, and measurement of myelin production and levels systemic cholesterol. We present a review of the logistics of this scalable program, a scaffold for adapting the program, preliminary data generated by students, and challenges associated with oversight by a non-research faculty member.