Diving Deep Into Science During Inaugural Semester in Biological Discovery

Students in the lab during the Biodiversity module of the 2024 Semester in Biological Discovery at the MBL. Credit: Emily Greenhalgh

Have you ever wondered how animals regenerate or wanted to unlock the secrets of camouflage? Eleven undergraduate students did all that, and more, this spring in the inaugural Semester in Biological Discovery (SBD) at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA.

Group photo of the 2024 Semester in Biological Discovery class at the MBL
Group photo of the 2024 Semester in Biological Discovery program at the MBL.

SBD, the sister program to the MBL’s long-running Semester in Environmental Science (SES), launched with four three-week modules— Module 1: Introduction to Parasitology; Module 2: Stem Cells and Regeneration; Module 3: Imaging for Biological Research or Biodiversity; Module 4: Dynamic Camouflage or Biological Oceanography—all designed to give these students a fully immersive experience with some of the top scientists in the field.

"The Semester in Biological Discovery gives these students the opportunity to have a much more intense and in-depth research experience than they can get at their undergraduate institutions," said Linda Hyman, MBL Director of Education. "They're getting graduate school-level experience in four very different biology courses. It's an experience they can't get anywhere else!"

Much like how the MBL’s Advanced Research Training Courses are taught by leading scientists, each of the SBD modules is taught by an MBL researcher who is actively engaged in the topic.

“This is a unique opportunity for these students to work in a laboratory with a professor who is an expert in the field and expose them to lab techniques they wouldn’t necessarily be able to get at their home institution,” said David Mark Welch, SBD director and MBL senior scientist.

“With classes I’ve taken before, you cover a lot of topics—it’s very broad. But at the MBL, you’re going into specifics. You get very deep into topics very quickly. It’s so interesting,” said Aurora Juarez Lopez of Carleton College in Minnesota.

Shaping the Future

For Rumbidzaishe Marufu of Lake Forest College in Illinois, SBD has helped shape the trajectory of her future career. She applied to the MBL because of the lab time and access to techniques the program offered. “And I was just curious, too,” she said.

The curiosity sharpened during the first SBD module—Introduction to Parasitology, taught by MBL’s Kate Rawlinson. The course was Marufu’s first experience with parasitology and now it’s what she wants to dedicate her life to.

“This experience has been extremely transformative and has shaped my understanding of the direction I want to pursue in the public health sector and research as a whole,” she said. “I look forward to leveraging the knowledge, experience and connections I have gained at the MBL in my future endeavors.”

While Marufu had no idea that the MBL would shape the direction of her future career, Bruno Jose Teixeira de Melo of the University of São Paulo was sure the experience would be life-changing.

“I’ve always been fascinated by cephalopods, but there's not many researchers studying cephalopods where I’m from in Brazil. It’s been a dream to come to the MBL to study them. I originally came to the program because of cephalopods. But then I got to know many of the other animals here, too, and it's been really awesome.”

SBD Students in the Lab with Andrew Gillis. Credit: Emily Greenhalgh
Undergraduate students in the lab with MBL's Andrew Gillis during the Biodiversity module of the 2024 Semester in Biological Discovery. Credit: Emily Greenhalgh

A Deep Dive into Biological Basics

While most schools offer research opportunities for their undergraduates, what makes SBD unique is the variety of the subjects, the hands-on experience, and the individual attention.

This year’s SBD course launched originally with just four students, who were joined a few weeks later by seven students in the University of Chicago Spring Quarter. The small course sizes is part of what makes the program so unique, said Mark Welch. Classes will top out at 10 students and more modules will be added the more students enroll.

“Whether you’re at Harvard or at Swarthmore or at a state university, you typically have one shot to get into somebody's lab and whatever they’re studying—that’s what you’re going to work on,” said Mark Welch. “In SBD, you’re getting that deep dive in four completely separate aspects of biology that you wouldn’t otherwise get.”

The students clearly agreed that the MBL experience was a unique one. Liam Leeming, a student at the University of Chicago, said he came to the program, in part, because he wanted to learn about advanced imaging techniques without having to take high-level physics courses.

“A lot of the hands-on experience at UChicago doesn't necessarily come from the coursework or labs. It comes from going and getting a job with a professor and then having them teach you. It can leave holes in your education. It’s different at MBL,” said Leeming.

The students weren’t chained to the lab, either. The modules brought students into the field, where they collected samples in the local marsh. The group went on a camping trip to Penikese Island. The Biological Oceanography module went to sea aboard the Sea Education Association’s sailing vessel Corwith Cramer.

SBD Students about the MBL's Collecting Vessel the Gemma Credit: Andrew Gillis
SBD Students about the MBL's collecting vessel the Gemma. Credit: Andrew Gillis
SBD Students on Penikese Island. Credit: Andrew Gillis
The SBD students on a trip to Penikese Island. Credit: Andrew Gillis

The MBL Magic

One of the biggest things that makes the SBD program unique is the same thing that makes the MBL unique—the people and the science happening in Woods Hole. SBD students were embedded into an MBL campus that welcomed them with open arms. More than 500 visiting students and scientists come to the MBL every year and form lifelong professional connections and personal friendships. The inaugural SBD cohort was no exception.

“I feel like everyone at MBL is so nice. You’ll just be talking to someone and saying, ‘Hey, I really like your research, can I just see what you do day-to-day? Can I come into your lab?’ and they say ‘Absolutely, of course,’” said Ashley McCray of Wellesley College in Massachusetts. “I love the accessibility and the opportunities here. People are really open.”

“There are a lot of little things both in the field and in the lab that I feel like I would never get to see on my own or have the opportunity to witness without the MBL,” said Claire Fu, University of Chicago.

From parasitic worms and axolotl regeneration to sampling in salt marshes and building their own microscopes—the SBD students got the full MBL experience this spring.

The student’s advice to people thinking about applying to the program?

Don't even think—Just do it. Every time I've been here, I have had life-changing experiences.

Claire Fu, UChicago

Just do it. Apply. You're kind of guaranteed to have a good time. You'll meet a lot of really fun, Interesting people. It's just a really fun program. I don't have any regrets.

Daniel Bourland, UChicago

Resounding yes. You should apply…It’s been a lot of fun. I've got to meet a lot of amazing people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. And I’ve had a really great time in Woods Hole.

Stacia Konow, UChicago
Learn more about SBD Apply for the 2025 Semester in Biological Discovery