Colby 'Jan Plan' Students Get Two Weeks of Science Inspiration at MBL

A Colby College student looks through a microscope at a live squid embryo. Credit: Christina Cota

As generations of scientists will tell you, there’s something special about the MBL. Ten undergraduate students participating in Colby College’s January term (called the “Jan Plan”) recently experienced that MBL magic firsthand. 

The Jan Plan is four weeks long, with students spending the middle two weeks eating, sleeping, and drinking science in Woods Hole. That immersion is one of the things that makes the MBL so unique for the students, said Cristina Cota, course co-director and assistant professor of biology at Colby.

“You get to leave everything you’re normally doing behind and come here and just think about science,” said Cota. “You experience it in every way you can: You see it, talk about it, and do it all at the same time. There’s something about that that really frees your mind.”

Jan Plan students work with butterfly wings in the lab. Credit: Christina Cota
Jan Plan students work with butterfly wings in the lab. Credit: Christina Cota
Jan Plan guest lecturer Anyi Mazo-Vargas from George Washington University does a butterfly egg demonstration with students Credit Christina Cota
Jan Plan guest lecturer Anyi Mazo-Vargas, George Washington University, does a hands-on demonstration with butterfly eggs. Credit: Christina Cota

The Jan Plan course activities centered around the lab experience, offering students the opportunity to build their skills in molecular biology and microscopy and learn CRISPR Cas-9 gene editing. The schedule interspersed lectures and guest speakers with lab time, resulting in a program very different from a typical semester-long lab course where students think of their experiments in neat three-hour blocks. 

“A standard course at Colby does not focus on the research aspect but more conceptually. Here at MBL, we look behind the scenes at how genes work and how different patterns are observed in model organisms,” said Naomi Akagha, a junior at Colby. 

“At the MBL, they have more freedom to think about their experiments in a different way,” said course co-director Dave Angelini, Colby associate professor of biology. “Here they can think of a slight variation on an experiment and come into the lab whenever they want to do it. That’s really exciting.” 

No place can have everything, but “the MBL has things that most places don’t,” said Cota, citing the institution's imaging and microscopy facilities and range of organisms MBL scientists work with. “These are exciting things and things [the students] are happy about and want to go see. It lets them think about the kind of science they can do in different way.”
 

Student looks through a microscope
A student in the 2023 Colby Jan Plan course looks through a microscope in the lab at the MBL. Credit: Cristina Cota
Course director talks to assistant professor in lab. In front of microscope. butterfly pupae on screen
Colby College Jan Plan course director Dave Angelini talks talks about capturing video of butterflies emerging from pupae with Colby assistant professor Yee Mon Thu. Credit: Cristina Cota
Student looks through a microscope, squid embryo on screen
A Colby student looks through the microscope at a live squid embryo. Credit: Cristina Cota
Students tour an axolotl lab. Tanks on right.
The 2023 Jan Plan students tour Karen Echeverri's axolotl lab. Credit: Christina Cota
A student uses a pipette on a lab bench infront of a computer and microscope
CRISPR injections during the 2023 Jan Plan course. Credit: Christina Cota
Students work in a lab at benches covered in microscopes
Credit: Christina Cota
Students look at a box of butterfly specimens in a conference room
MBL Director Nipam Patel shows off his butterfly collection to the students in the Colby Jan Plan course. The course primarily focused on butterflies as a model system. Credit: Christina Cota

Junior biology and music major Nischal Khatri called exposure to cutting-edge research the highlight of his experience at MBL and something he wouldn’t have gotten at Colby. “Several times. P.I.s here have answered our questions with: ‘I don’t know, yet.’ This experience has taught me that research is not always as straightforward as college courses we take, which makes it even more exciting.”

While the syllabus was primarily focused on butterflies, the students were able to observe and work with other model systems used by MBL researchers including axolotl and squid. MBL Hibbitt Fellow Carrie Albertin even loaned live squid embryos from her lab for the students to observe. Cota called them “a hit” with the students. 

2023 colby jan plan course photo
2023 Colby Jan Plan class photo.

“The students really enjoyed babysitting squid embryos for a few days,” said Angelini. “They took excellent care of them and loved watching their development. It wasn’t central to what we were doing, but it was a big added bonus.”

“We’ve gotten them interested in the science and [at the MBL], they’re able to pursue that curiosity in a way that isn’t technologically possible where we are at Colby,” he added. 

Akagha said the MBL experience wasn’t at all what she expected. “I expected to be involved in less research and more coursework but it has been pleasantly surprising just working with different researchers and seeing what they do. As well as learning more about different patterns and systems in organisms I would otherwise have no access to.”

Before taking the Jan Plan course at the MBL, Akagha had planned to go the MD route, but said she’s considering an MD-PhD path now because she would love to be involved in neuroscience research. 

“The scientists here have welcomed us with open arms and have taught and inspired us in so many ways,” said Khatri. “Being here has reignited my passion for research and hopefully, I will be able to continue the research done here at Colby.”

For Cota and Angelini, the Jan Plan course at the MBL reached students in a different way than normal, adding that undergraduate students aren’t always excited about every single aspect of biology and that developmental biology can often be a “hard sell,” but the MBL experience changed that.

“All of a sudden our students are excited. They're excited about development and how they can study it and about taking classes about it,” says Cota.  “That excitement comes from being here and seeing it,” she says.

From seeing cool animals develop, to talking with the people who study them—there’s nothing like the MBL for an aspiring biologist. 

Learn more about MBL's Education Programs