Strobel's Students Rediscover Scientific 'Wonder' on Rain Forest Expedition

Starting at about the fourth grade, schoolchildren have their interest in science slowly driven from them, says Scott Strobel, chair of the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale. 

They are asked to memorize thousands of facts that they must cram neatly on graph paper and are graded on how closely the experiments they perform conform to preordained results.

The casualties, he contends, are surprise and wonder.

“The average third grader asks all kinds of great questions; they probe, poke and manipulate,’’ Strobel says. “Then somewhere around fourth grade we drive the interest in science right out of these kids. People conclude they can’t do science, but in reality they have been doing science all their lives.’’

Strobel was determined to fix the problem, even if he had to drag students to another continent. With the help of a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, that is exactly what he did.

In late March, Strobel returned from his second trip to the Amazon River basin, where he and his team led 18 undergraduates who had signed up for the popular “Amazon Rain Forest Expedition and Laboratory.” In the rain forest of Ecuador, they searched for exotic plants and took plant samples back to Yale labs. This summer they will culture microorganisms they found in plants, design experiments to characterize those organisms, and screen them for novel, and perhaps even therapeutically useful, molecules.

The real payoff from Strobel’s perspective won’t come until later — when and if the students develop a love and appreciation for science.

When Strobel, a world leader in understanding catalytic reactions triggered by RNA, was searching for a way to trigger a love of science in students, he knew he had to instill in them the thrill of scientific discovery. He found his inspiration in the research of his own father.

Gary Strobel of Montana State University is one of the few scientists in the world who studies endophytes, a class of microorganisms found within the tissues of plants. He has discovered many novel and potentially beneficial organisms, including an endophytic fungus found in the yew tree that produces the blockbuster cancer drug Taxol.

Almost no one goes bio-prospecting for endophytes in the Amazon rain forest. Scott asked his father to guide them on the expeditions. Both men knew the students would likely find things no one before them had discovered.

Scott Strobel also wanted to give students control of their own research. Each undergraduate had to define his or her own project. The research could be seemingly pragmatic, like that of one student who went searching for plants native women use to alleviate monthly cramps, or it could be whimsical, like that of the student who went hunting for plants similar to the ones found in Harry Potter novels.

The practicality of the students’ projects made no difference to Strobel. “The goal of the course is to give students ownership of their projects,’’ he says. “It energizes them in a way no other course I have been involved with does.”

When students from the 2007 trip got back to the lab, every student found novel endophytic organisms, and most screened the compounds from the organisms for biological activity. Strobel expects students on this year’s trip to do even better.

And if the 2007 trip is an indication, Strobel will again get the payoff he was hoping for.

“This has been the experience of a lifetime and a key reason why I’m pursuing graduate work in the biological sciences,” says Carl Ma, a member of the 2007 expedition. Ma, who graduated last spring, will be studying next year in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California at Berkeley.