MIT OpenLabWare: A sneak peak at research @ MIT by Melis A. '08
This new website is sure to change the way that the world thinks about MIT labs and researchers.
Ever wondered if scientific journals like Nature or Science were actually written in English, or that other people could actually understand the papers? What does the abbreviation “PhD” mean to you? When people call themselves “grad students,” do you know what that entails?
Coming to MIT, I didn’t really know the answers to the questions above. I would get excited by a scientific breakthrough featured on the news, but I didn’t really understand that there was a researcher (or more likely, a group of researchers) behind the finding. Granted, I had worked in a scientific lab, so I knew that these mythical “grad students” worked long hours and seemed to get cool results. Beyond that, I knew next to zilch.
This is why I got excited when I ran into a friend, George Zaidan, and he told me about his “big idea.” He was looking for funding to start OpenLabWare, which he explained as being analogous to OpenCourseWare, featuring research instead of class materials. He elaborated by calling it something along the lines of an innovative collection of online educational resources meant to help teachers, students, and researchers understand how research is done at MIT. So, I told him that it sounded like a great idea, and then we parted ways…
Last July, I was sitting in front of my computer at work, freezing as always (why must the government make their labs the temperature of a meat locker? What ever happened to energy conservation?), when I received an email from George. He was writing from Thailand and asked me if I’d be interested in becoming a content creator for OLW. Of course, I got excited about the prospect of contributing to a budding program at MIT that could impact the lives of people around the world, but I was also feeling pretty stressed out about MCATs and my fall schedule. Despite the hurdle of an already overloaded schedule, we worked out an arrangement where I could start building the module during IAP.
My responsibilities were multi-faceted, but I would basically meet with a professor and graduate student to take one of their papers and completely flesh it out. I would have to create a module based on this paper by writing introductory material, annotating the lab notebook pages, developing a glossary, creating a timeline of the project’s progress, and conducting interviews. Now that I knew what I had to do, the next step was finding a professor who was willing to work with me on the module. I wanted to find someone with research interests in biology, chemistry, biological engineering, or mechanical engineering. Hundreds of professors would fit that criteria, but I imagined that fewer would have a graduate student who would actually be willing to work with an undergrad. One rejection and two no-responses later, George suggested contacting Barbara Imperiali, a brilliant professor of biology and chemistry who also happens to teach 5.12 (Organic Chemistry I). I had heard great things from her former students so I was excited about the prospect of working with her (pictured on the left).
In early December, as I was running from my lab to the bathroom (via the Infinite Corridor), I ran into George, who just so happened to be meeting with Prof. Imperiali later that day. I joined the meeting and we formally asked her if she would be interested in helping to develop an OLW module. Honestly, before entering the meeting, I prepared myself for rejection. Luckily, she seemed really keen on the project and almost immediately suggested one of the graduate students in her lab, Beth Vogel, as a possible resource. Beth was about to finish her PhD and move on to a new position (developing a new applications-based curriculum for MIT’s introductory chemistry class), but she also signed-on! She gave me the paper that she wrote based on her thesis work. It had not been published yet, and I understood very little of it at the time, but I knew that I would soon have to explain it inside and out. Needless to say, it was a really exciting day.
Winter Break passed and I had a chance to look over Beth’s paper. I was initially confused by all the synthetic chemistry, since I had only taken Organic Chemistry I and II and Biochemistry. Thanks to the marvelous internet, I soon developed the technical vocabulary and background necessary to tackle the paper. I met with Beth at the beginning of IAP (January) and we walked through three years of her research in about two hours. She showed me the important pages of her lab notebooks (6 of them, total! Over 600 pages of work!) and explained difficulties that she encountered, as well as her big “ah-ha!” moments. It was amazing to hear her talk about what it was like to spend stretches of up to five months repeating the same reaction under every condition imaginable. Eventually, she found out what was going wrong, but I couldn’t believe the patience required to pursue a research career.
I worked on developing the module throughout IAP and conducting interviews with both Prof. Imperiali and Beth at the end of January. It was the first time that I had led a video taped interview, so it was another good learning experience. Prof. Imperiali talked about her life-long love of science, what sparked her interest in organic chemistry, her education in England and MIT, balancing the demands of teaching and research, and managing her lab. I asked Beth similar questions about why she chose to come to MIT, what attracted her to the Imperiali Lab, her future plans, and specific details about her project. The module should be online in a few months, so you will be able to watch video clips of their responses.
In the meantime, you can visit OpenLabWare’s website now, and see the module that George developed with Prof. John Essigmann. As you will see when you visit the site, George’s module is the only one posted right now, but there is much more to come! I hope you all take a moment and browse through it. It is a really great opportunity to see what real research is like. Not only do you get to flip through the real, unedited pages of the lab notebook, but you can learn cool stuff about the researchers themselves (like that Prof. Essigmann’s favorite foods are spaghetti and meatballs, turkey, Thai food, and pot roast). I’ll let you all know when my module goes up. By the way, Anthony has worked on the technical aspects of OLW and blogged about it here.