When Aaron Ring ‘08 finally got a place in “Lab in Electron Microscopy,” he’d been on its waiting list for six months. Despite having sent the instructor an enthusiastic e-mail signaling his interest two weeks before the school year began, Ring was one of many students turned away from the course last semester.
“I’ve had people signing up [for the course] a year in advance,” said Barry Piekos, the course’s instructor and the supervisor of Yale’s electron microscope laboratory, gesturing toward the already half-filled sign-up sheet for next fall’s session.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”14026″ ]
One of the most popular science courses at Yale, “Electron Microscopy” offers students a hands-on approach to exploring biological processes, organs and tissues using state-of-the-art light and electron microscopes. Students enrolled in the course learn how to analyze and prepare samples for study and have full access to Yale’s electron microscopy lab, which houses two transmission electron microscopes, a scanning electron microscope and a light microscope.
Piekos attributes the class’s wide appeal to its philosophy of learning, which he said is unique among laboratory courses at Yale. The course — which assigns no tests, quizzes or lab reports — requires students to undertake an independent research project that involves compiling and analyzing images of an organ of their interest.
“There aren’t a set of prepackaged exercises where everything is worked out,” he said. “Here, you can’t predict the outcome. Students have the opportunity to make mistakes. They get a taste of real science — where things actually go wrong.”
Ring, a molecular biophysics and biochemistry major, is in the course this semester, and he said he thought it was well worth the six-month wait.
“This is seriously the coolest class I’ve ever taken at Yale,” Ring said, his voice rising with excitement.
“You have to see these! They’re absolutely amazing,” Ring said, his eyes lighting up as he pointed to the medulla and cortex on his laptop screen. “No other class teaches you to create images like this.”
Jordan Yelinek, one of the class’s four TAs, said the sense of personal investment students have in their project makes it “a highly rewarding experience.”
“You labor for a full semester to come up with these images,” he said. “You analyze them. It’s your result, your paper — all your work.”
“Electron Microscopy” is unique in both content and approach among peer institutions, he said, adding that, in his time as a TA, he has met only one person who has taken a similar course at another university.
“It’s hard to come up with this type of equipment,” he said. “It’s expensive and needs dedication. I was talking to the Harvard dean, who thought it was a great idea and a shame they didn’t have a similar class at Harvard … We’re lucky, it’s hard to put out a class like this.”
Students speak in superlatives about the course, praising its focus on independent thought and study.
“Spending time on the electron microscope is a rare treat for an undergraduate class,” Ring said. “I’ve taken eight courses in molecular biology, and probably every single one of them has featured an electron micrograph. It wasn’t until this semester that I actually had the chance to use an electron microscope.”
Anuradha Phadke ’07 said the class has piqued her interest in her other science lecture courses by allowing her to fully appreciate the significance of what she was learning.
“The class’s hands-on nature allowed me to put in practice the knowledge I was attaining in lecture,” she said in an e-mail. “Every time on the scope was a mini-adventure. I was never certain what tissue or cell type I would be seeing. It was empowering and thrilling to actually see and understand what was happening within the cells.
The class — which enrolled 24 students split between two classes this term — also has an interpersonal nature rare among lab courses, since the professor and TAs engage at length with individual students, Yelinek said.
The course’s emphasis on independent experimentation and self-guided learning also makes it time-intensive and difficult, students said.
The course description in the Programs of Study warns prospective students that they “must devote two to three additional laboratory hours per week” to the class, though Yian Xiao ’08 said the time she spends outside of class at the lab often reaches up to five hours during her busiest weeks.
But Phadke said that she thinks this “open structure” is actually one of the course’s assets.
“I truly enjoyed the independence of this structure,” she said. “I was never counting down the minutes until the lab was over, but actually came in because I wanted to learn.”
The art of preparing a good sample for analysis under the microscope takes time and practice, and many admit the process can be trying.
“Learning how to cut the blocks properly takes a while and can be frustrating at first,” said Tara Harris ’98, now an employee of the Yale School of Medicine.
Once that hurdle is mounted, she said, the process becomes “a lot of fun.”
Phadke said that practicing the techniques works much like a “positive feedback loop” — as one’s level of skill increases, so does one’s motivation.
“It takes many hours and a lot of concentration to harvest, stain, trim and section a sample,” Ring said. “And you can mess up the whole thing at any point. It makes the electron micrographs in a biology textbook that much prettier.”
The hours of toil are worth the end result, students said, and it is thrilling to finally produce clear and cogent images.
“I’ve often said that microscopy is more of an art form than a science,” Yelinek said. “Students come out of the course with more than just pretty pictures, but having a good picture is worth a thousand words.”
The course, though particular to Yale, is not a recent development. When it was started in 1979, it complemented the lecture course on “Cell Biology.” But it was not until 1985 — the year Piekos took it under his wing — that the class adopted its current structure and approach.
“I added my own philosophy to it, let the students take the reins,” he said. “[They] get more out of it this way.”