Training Future Science Researchers
By Maria DiCosola
Journalism & Strategic Communications, 2014
Matthew Gage sits on the edge of the table, slouched back in a baseball shirt and jeans. He speaks to the researchers not as colleagues, but as friends just gathering for a leisurely chat. The students react the same way, as if they are simply gossiping about properties of proteins and cancer cures.
Gage, a Northern Arizona University (NAU) Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, is the faculty mentor for a research lab he created (The Gage Research Lab) that focuses on the interaction between three specific proteins and how they control the growth of blood vessels. He and the students in his lab are studying the proteins' functions in hopes of creating new cancer and cardiovascular medicines.
An interest in protein interactions
Since attending graduate school in the mid-1990s, Gage has spent most of his academic and professional career as a structural biologist. "My interest is in protein studies and how they work," Gage said. "In my training, I have learned how to develop the three-dimensional models of proteins that other people will use for developing experiments. Most of the work I do now is related to using that information to figure out how a protein works, what it interacts with, and how we may be able to change that function in some way if ... a disease, for example, takes over.
Gage explained that by inserting a gene from a normal system into a pool of bacteria, researchers can grow a large amount of proteins quickly and are then able to specify which region they want to study. They can then tag the genes and watch how the proteins interact. Because proteins are undetectable to the naked eye, they use light signals to understand what is happening.
"Gage puts his student researchers through a training program before they begin working in his lab. The program includes completing experiments with known outcomes so the students will develop the correct techniques they will need to use in the lab."
Hands-on learning for students
Gage and his 14 student researchers—only four of them graduate students—work together closely. They are currently researching a group of functional proteins that don't have an organized structure to discover how those proteins recognize what they're supposed to bind to and how promiscuous their interactions are.
While some of the basic techniques they use in the lab are explained in classes, it's not the same as doing actual research. The learning becomes more specific and detailed.
Gage puts his student researchers through a training program before they begin working in his lab. The program includes completing experiments with known outcomes so the students will develop the correct techniques they will need to use in the lab.
Once trained, they can work on experiments. Often, there is a lot of trial and error. "Nine times out of 10 that's where you gain a lot of understanding of what's going on," Gage said. "Sometimes you learn more from things that go wrong than from things that work."
Some of Gage's student researchers have worked with him their entire undergraduate career, while others have come and gone. "I don't ever want a student who stays and works in my lab who doesn't want to be there, and I want to make sure that they're interested in what they're doing," Gage said. "It takes time to successfully complete a project—it usually takes at least a year for someone to be able to understand what they're doing and really complete something."
Positions in Gage's lab are competitive. Gage chooses his undergraduate researchers based upon initiative, their reasons for wanting to work in a lab, and their chemistry with the existing group. "Certainly good grades are an indicator of someone who is a good student, but I have seen some really brilliant students in the classroom who are the clumsiest people in the lab," Gage said.
Hard work pays off
Gage believes undergraduate research experience is of great value to students interested in becoming professional researchers. "The experience of getting to actually figure something out and understanding the difficulty of trying to set up an experiment properly [and] ... the data that you gather are all valuable skills," Gage explained.
Amber Enriquez, a senior microbiology major, started working in Gage's lab as a freshman. For the past two years, Enriquez has been working on the same project. "[Working in a lab] has benefited me tremendously," Enriquez said, pointing out that the techniques she learned in the lab have helped clarify what she is learning in her classes. They have also taught her good time-management skills.