New teaching lab at UCSF Mission Bay helps students get ahead in research

Joe DeRisi (far right) believes in hands-on learning. He designed the new teaching laboratory, located in S227 Genentech Hall at UCSF Mission Bay. Photo: Alok Srivastava

This August, a select group of UCSF graduate students will get an accelerated start to their research careers in a teaching laboratory custom-designed by Joe DeRisi, PhD, professor of biochemistry and biophysics, and funded by QB3. Students in Biophysics or Bioinformatics who chose a special emphasis in systems biology will report to a bootcamp in the new laboratory to get up to speed on techniques. An intensive, hands-on, quarter-long practical course will follow.

“We’re going to push back rotations [the six-week trials that most students do before settling on a PhD supervisor] by a quarter,” DeRisi says. “It’s a massive cultural shift in how we’re going to run training.”

The lab course, advertised while when recruiting this year’s class, was likely a reason that the number of applicants accepting a place at UCSF was the highest on record.

Students often start their PhDs unprepared for the challenges and setbacks of research, DeRisi says. Several years ago he thought it would be a good idea to offer an introductory program in which he could teach students how to tackle real, unsolved problems. From 1999 to 2001, DeRisi had been an instructor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which is famous for its hands-on learning courses. He wanted to base his course on that model, not least because of the strong social network it creates.

Alok Srivastava, PhD, is course coordinator for the Dynamical Systems Project Lab, held in the new teaching space. The famous whiteboard looms behind him.

“Professors have too easily fallen into this trap—that the only way you teach is by sitting people in front of PowerPoint presentations,” he says. “When you come out of that course [at Cold Spring Harbor], you remember the people you were in the course with forever, and you know them really well because you’ve worked really hard with them. It’s a very different environment than going to a class and sitting there.”

Looking around Mission Bay, DeRisi found there was no space to hold a hands-on course. “Zero, in the entire campus,” he says. He planned some lab classes, and with money from a training grant, was able to teach them—but the location kept changing. “We squatted in unused lab space,” he says. “But that dried up a couple years ago, so we hatched this plan to convert the old Genentech Hall library [which has moved to the William J. Rutter Center].”

“We got the endorsement of nearly every PI on every training grant at UCSF in basic sciences, and the deans of all the major schools,” he adds. “Nobody thought this was a bad idea.” The room, which can hold 50 people, is now booked from August through next March for a variety of classes.

QB3 provided the funds for renovation. DeRisi designed the space himself, on a simple plan ensuring maximum flexibility. It’s one big room that you could hose down, with equipment on movable carts, special power conduits, and what looks like a 40-foot-long whiteboard that covers the longest wall. When the room is in use, the wall is entirely covered in scientific scribble.

“The cost of a whiteboard that big would be astronomical,” DeRisi says. Instead, he had the wall painted with IdeaPaint, a write-on, wipe-off surface he discovered on the internet. “You can paint right around the outlets and switches,” he says.

Cell biology demands infrastructure, but there are no flow hoods, fridges, or freezers in the teaching lab. Luckily, the room is next door to QB3’s Center for Advanced Technology which has all the essentials. “There’s no way we could afford to put that stuff in the teaching lab, and it takes up a lot of space,” DeRisi says.

DeRisi says the first graduate practical lab course, due to start in September, goes far beyond the basics. “It includes computational and hands-on sections,” he says. “It’s a large-scale genomics project that evolves into gene expression pathway modeling, validated in the lab.”

Students in the course are organized into 4-person teams. DeRisi tries to arrange the groups so each team member’s background complements the others and they can make use of each other’s skills.
DeRisi specifies the goals of the course, but doesn’t plot a fixed route. “The students make their own choices,” he says. “It cannot be a handholding exercise.” However, teaching assistants will help with the details, and DeRisi plans to hire a fulltime instructor for the space, like a core facility.

Once the course is done, it’s on to rotations and real research for the students. But they will remember their experience for a long time. Just as with the Cold Spring Harbor course, they will have formed a social network they will use for the rest of grad school and beyond.