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College of Arts and Sciences

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Biology research course brings fresh perspectives into undergraduate research

When Adara “Auden” Grant registered for the Research in Biology course last semester, they were initially looking to fulfill lab hours needed for their major.

What they found was more than just hands-on experience and results from their experiments. Grant was one student of a small cohort who took BIOL 498, a revamped course offered for the first time last fall. In addition to getting hands-on research experience, Grant says the students got individual attention and support beyond what they expected. 

“It was the most community I’ve felt in a lab space. We didn’t need to compete for attention, and we all felt like we belonged. After taking this class, I feel so much more prepared and more confident in my research skills and in my ability to take risks,” says Grant, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. 

The student-driven course allows up to 15 undergraduates to conduct original research of their own design, under guidance from the course instructor.  

I went into the course feeling scared of messing up or not knowing what I was doing, but I’ve learned that science is really just about trying until you find out the answer, even if it’s not what you expect.

- Auden Grant
photo of a person in blue hat and gray shirt

“We were able to pick what interested us and pursue that,” Grant says. “The level of curiosity amongst my classmates was really inspiring, and we were able to piggy-back off each other’s ideas.” 

The students ranged from freshmen who had never stepped foot in a lab, to upperclassmen who wanted to build their skills and conduct original research. 

Andy Schumpert, instructor in the Department of Biological Sciences, spearheaded revitalizing the course, along with Ph.D. candidate Matt Bruner, with the aim of creating a more representative space. 

Schumpert connected with the TRIO office, which assists first-generation and low-income students in reaching their academic goals. In the first semester of the course, the students were all from underrepresented backgrounds. 

“It’s so important to have students from underrepresented groups in the lab for the full research experience,” Schumpert says. 

“If we repeatedly approach the same questions with the same mindsets, it doesn’t leave much room for growth. With this course, we have an inclusive environment that leads to better problem solving and new advances to further science in better and unimaginable ways.” 

He also says this course encourages curiosity and pursuit of answers over grades. Schumpert focused on the questions the students posed rather than the results of their experiments. 

“We talked about failure, which is a big part of scientific research, and the anxiety that comes with facing the possibility of failing. We removed the burden of the grade and worked together to investigate the questions,” Schumpert says. 

Grant worked with a project partner to examine a longevity gene in Daphnia, known as water fleas, and confirmed a correlation with aging. 

Building on their findings from BIOL 498, Grant has transitioned to another research lab, focusing on subject matter aligned with their interests for graduate school next year.  

Several others from the course will also continue honing their research skills. Two groups will present at the upcoming Discover USC student science fair, one student has applied for a Magellan Scholarship and yet another will continue work with Schumpert this summer. 

A transformative course  

The course is supported by a grant from the Center for Integrative and Experiential Learning. With a different faculty member leading the instruction each semester, it evolves with each iteration. 

Eilea Knotts is leading the lab in the Spring semester. She is having her students focus on aquatic pollution, water microbes and how humans affect their communities.  

Like Schumpert, Knotts wants her students to come away from the course with the confidence to persevere when facing challenges, adopting the classroom moto “no failure, only feedback.” 

“The main goal is to expose students to what research looks like outside of the classroom and how they, as scientists, respond to those experiences,” Knotts says. 

“The students develop a sense of camaraderie with each other. They learn that they do not and should not go through scientific research alone. It is a collaborative effort that encourages open communication and fosters the exchange of new ideas.” 

For Auden Grant, that sentiment has stuck with them. 

“I went into the course feeling scared of messing up or not knowing what I was doing, but I’ve learned that science is really just about trying until you find out the answer, even if it’s not what you expect.” 

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.