At UConn, the hundreds of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) laboratories and workspaces are full of undergraduate students working with professors on specialized research projects. But some STEM students get something even more out of their research experience: they get professional experience at research companies that are investing in Connecticut’s economic development.
Since the Technology Incubation Program’s establishment in 2001, 20 different Connecticut-based companies have taken advantage of UConn’s laboratory facilities to house their research. In exchange, these companies invite UConn students to help develop new research and test new laboratory techniques. With support from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, students refine their skills in the lab through the TIP Internship program.
Caroline Dealy ’84 Ph.D., founder and director of the UConn TIP Bioscience and STEM Intern Program, says that the program aims to provide students with the opportunity to apply their academic lab skills to a professional work environment.
“For students, the most important aspect of the program is the opportunity to explore research in a mentored, real-world and small technology setting,” says Dealy.
When senior molecular and cell biology major Sarah Gilbert started working at Agrivida this past summer, a small business in the UConn Technology Incubation Program, she quickly learned that being creative in the lab is just important as being precise.
“Some of the experiments wouldn’t work. I would talk to my boss and we would think about ways to improve the experiment and make it better,” says Gilbert. “I definitely got better at the trial and error process.”
Located in the Advance Technology Laboratory on Storrs campus, Agrivida is an agriculture biotechnology company that produces research on biofuels, animal nutrition and industrial enzymes. Gilbert says the lab is working on engineering enzymes that will “turn on” at a high temperatures so that they can better break down sugars for biofuels.
Specifically, Gilbert says her research is focused on determining the number of modified genes that the Agrivida team had successfully implanted in a particular plant and optimizing the high-throughput method of DNA extraction.
“We have limited amount of space in the greenhouse so we have to decide which plants to keep,” Gilbert says. “We select the plants with a lower copy number because a fewer number of genes in the plant make it less complex to study.”
Gilbert’s research mentor was senior biochemist Kit Bonin ’99 Ph.D., who says that learning the different experimental techniques is refined through practice.
“In a company environment, students will gain a deeper understanding of the technique and how it provides value toward our goals,” says Bonin. “Perhaps most importantly, through repetition, [interns] learn how to effectively apply the scientific method to advance project development and troubleshoot issues that come up,” says Bonin.
Bonin says Gilbert’s curiosity about her research projects make her a valuable member of Agrivida’s team.
“She came to us with previous lab experience, excellent organizational skills, and a lot of enthusiasm. She communicates well and asks great questions, which is critically important for team-oriented research.”
Gilbert says she enjoys being part of a team atmosphere at Agrivida, especially when working under pressure to meet deadlines.
“Agrivida has a business aspect; you have to work under a time crunch when there’s a lot of data to run through and you need to get the results out,” says Gilbert.
Since the start of her time at Agrivida, Gilbert says she has grown more confident in both her ability to perform many different experimental techniques and her ability to be a team member in a professional setting.
“I’ve always been curious about molecular science and I enjoy doing experiments and different techniques,” says Gilbert “I enjoy the trial and error aspect, even though it gets frustrating. Because when you do get the right results, it feels good.”
by Sam Ruggiero, CLAS