Spring 2016 | Biology | Marquette University

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By: Leah Conrath, Biological Sciences B.S. 2016



Leah Conrath Undergraduate Research
Leah Conrath (author) presents her internship research to Dr. John Bennett at the Undergraduate Research Day in April, 2016

All of science can be boiled down to the basic search for truth, and its methods are research and experimentation. It doesn’t make sense then to only introduce these skills after a student has graduated. Here at the Marquette University Department of Biological Sciences, undergraduate students have the opportunity to apply the scientific process in a variety of ways. There are required lab courses of course, but there are also other avenues for the curious and ambitious mind, such as the summer research program or the biological sciences internship program, Launch.


One avenue that has gained more attention recently is the BIOL 4956 independent research course for undergraduate students. This course allows students to coordinate with a professor, and start or continue a research program in the professor’s lab. Slowly but steadily increasing, the program has grown from 23 students in the 2013-2014 academic year to 45 this year.


Bo Kitelinger Undergraduate Research
Bo Kitelinger presents his research at the Undergraduate Research Day in April, 2016

To learn more about the program I talked to Dr. Edward Blumenthal, Associate Professor and Chair of the Biological Sciences Department. He

attributes the growth to an increase in both overall numbers of students with declared majors in the Biological Sciences as well as an increasing expectation of research experience by medical schools and employers. “It’s a great experience,” he said, while still cautioning that a limited number of labs and resources, means not everyone that wants to work in a lab can.


Dr. Lisa Petrella, an Assistant Professor at Marquette, agreed with this assessment.  “I think every professor will give the same answer” she replied when asked about the limiting factor for taking on students “and it will be time.” Between teaching classes, doing research, writing grants, and seeing their family; time is precious for Marquette professors and adding mentoring a student to that workload is not always possible.


Katalin Kenney Undergraduate Research
Katalin Kenney and Dr. Jim Buchanan work with the confocal microscope

One of the ways that professors make sure their time and the students’ time is not wasted, is by picking students that have shown both an interest and dedication to lab work in the past. I talked to Garrett Panno and Katalin Kenney, both students participating the program, about how they become undergraduate researchers at Marquette. They both had extensive experience volunteering and working in other labs before being accepted in their current position. Their acquired proficiency with lab equipment and procedures combined with their upper level coursework made them appealing candidates and has allowed them to work on some very interesting projects. Garrett is in Dr. Fitts’ lab studying the role of the potassium/ATP channel in myocytes in the heart and their relation to heart disease, while Katalin is studying microRNAs in C. elegans with Dr. Abbot.


But even students with extensive research backgrounds can have a lot to learn. “Everyone [else] in the lab has a PhD so it can be a little intimidating” confessed Katalin. Garrett too, admitted that “There is a big learning curve,” but he still found the experience rewarding. They also stressed that lab work is a huge time commitment because it is based on how much you need to get done, not necessarily how much time you would like to spend in the lab that day. So in addition to letting students know what it is like to pursue a career in research it also teaches student personal responsibility and time management.


Garrett Panno Undergraduate Research
Garrett Panno, Biological Sciences B.S. '16 conducting research in the Fitts lab

If you are an underclassman and would like to be an undergraduate researcher, you can start your research career by contacting your professors about work in their labs. It may be introductory work at first, like washing dishes, but you can at least get your foot in the door. Also make sure to attend the Biological Undergraduate Society’s Research Explorations event and fill out an application there to work in a lab. Professors often look through these when looking for student workers. To be part of 4956 specifically, speak with a professor about mentoring you. If they believe you are qualified and have space in their lab, you will get a permission number and may enroll in the course. Don’t be discouraged, if you don’t get in immediately. In the words of Dr. Benedict Kemp, “Research is failing until you can’t fail anymore” so persevering through adversity can only help your future research career.






Biological Sciences Department

Marquette University, Wehr Life Sciences
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P.O. Box 1881
Milwaukee, WI 53201-1881
(414) 288-7355