My crazy summer research life – Part 1

Summer research can feel like a little bit of everything. There are mentoring moments, experiments to run, instruments to repair, and places to travel…in this post, Dr. Keri Colabroy talks about her summer research style – sunny, with a little bit of crazy.

I love summer research. I do.

I love getting to know the students, actually (hopefully) making progress on my research, going to a conference or two, and my personal favorite – NOT GRADING PAPERS!

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At Muhlenberg College (that’s MULEnberg, like a Mule – yup) where I’ve taught for the last 11 years, summer research is a way of life. We have students from all disciplines participating in summer research projects mentored by faculty. Some of those projects are more developed, and the student was awarded a grant to support their summer work, while other funding sources support the research for less experienced students under the guidance of a faculty member. The students get a stipend, a credit and housing on campus. Since Muhlenberg is a small, residential, private, liberal arts college, we don’t have a busy summer session and most of the students on campus are here to do research (or perform in the theater program).Throughout the summer, research students give seminars (in a seminar series I coordinate) and eventually present their work in a fall poster session. Many students will also travel to national conferences to present their research.

One of my students presenting on his work at the summer research poster session

Out of the 50 or so summer research students we have on campus this semester, most of them come from chemistry/biochemistry, biology and neuroscience. The halls of my building are alive with voices, the autoclave is gurgling, the centrifuge is humming and the flasks are shaking….ah…summer.

But wait – the title says “crazy” summer research life…the scene you’re painting is pretty idyllic?

Ah, yes – well, perhaps your morning looked something like mine.

(inhale) Run child to orthodontist (orthodontist spends way too long talking to me about his organic chemistry experience over 40 years ago…), drop kid at camp…kid forgets water bottle…turn around and return water bottle to camp…communicate with my research students by iPhone (I hope my data plan isn’t up!), go and get an allergy shot (because well, I live in the northeast) where I lock my keys in my car…husband can’t rescue me, he’s at work…call my dad…dad picks me up and takes me to campus (how lucky am I to have my dad living nearby!),  meanwhile on campus the chromatography instrument breaks (because, well – that’s what chromatography instruments do)…communicate with support by phone…try to fix chromatography instrument…give up 2 hours later, spend 40 minutes I don’t have talking to a senior colleague in my office, check on student’s experiment to discover abject failure…encourage student while inwardly cringing at the 2 weeks just lost…show other student how to blot an SDS-PAGE gel…have phone conference with collaborator…

I just run around like a crazy person. Did I mention that I have to get my grant revised – “emphasize the novel not the plausible” says the program officer. In my free time, I’ll update the undergraduate research website, and move all my course materials to our shiny new learning management system before the fall semester starts. I’m running the organic lab in the fall…which I haven’t done in a few years, and will require a lot of prep. Meanwhile, my super lab-intensive and writing-intensive fall -semester majors course Experimental Biochemistry has more students enrolled than ever before – phew!

Yeah, I’m crazy…and part of that is just me.

But, I’m having so much fun.

These are my summer students, B- and K-. Both are rising juniors. They are naive and precious. Everything is not working right now – so I am cheerleading, big-time. The lab is also really messy…(sigh).


Is it just me, or does it seem like when I finally have the time,
space and energy to run really hard on my research, all kinds of stuff breaks or stops working!!! Gah!

Lab gremlins?

We also recently realized a long-term dream this summer with a new Mass Spec  for direct or LC injection of liquids (AH!!!! so excited), so B- is prepping culture samples to look for a biosynthetic intermediate we think is accumulating. K- is on a different project making protein in order to investigate the pre-steady state kinetics on an alternative substrate.

Stay tuned, hopefully by next time we’ll have fixed the chromatography instrument, successfully purified the protein, and B- and K- will have given their summer research presentations.

At least I will have gotten my keys out of my car…

KeriColabroy-0258~Dr. Keri Colabroy is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Muhlenberg College, where she is also the coordinator of undergraduate research on campus.



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