Keith G. Kozminski / Biology

The absolute best experience for an undergraduate science student is “doing science.” That expression covers a spectrum of experiences from formal laboratory courses to independent research in a faculty member’s laboratory to running your own research laboratory. Of these, the latter experience is the most rare for undergraduates, but without doubt the most valuable. At the University of Virginia, this latter premier experience is encapsulated in the Virginia Genetically Engineered Machine (VGEM) Team. Therein, students not just “do science,” completing a defined project in a faculty laboratory, but engage in the “business of science.” As a team, VGEM students move a project forward from conception to completion, with the capstone event being an international inter-institutional competition at MIT each November. As with an Independent Research project in a faculty member’s laboratory, these students must learn experimental design and protocols. The difference is that VGEM students are not in faculty member’s laboratory, but manage their own laboratory. VGEM students develop their own project, write a time-line for completion, fundraise and write grants to buy reagents, engage in advertising, interact with competing teams, write assessments of the human and environmental impact of their research, as well as recruit, interview, and train next year’s team. This is a year-long experience in which students are mentored by participating faculty. It is a thrill to watch these students face and overcome all the difficulties faced by a practicing scientist each and every day. In many respects, our VGEM students have a better understanding of what it means to “do science” than most Ph.D. students.

Because the VGEM experience is interdisciplinary, enhances the intellectual bar of the University, and helps students find the best in themselves, I volunteered to serve as the VGEM mentor from the Department of Biology. My first year with the team was passive, as I learned the ropes of the competition and how to interact with students from a multitude of departments. This year, my second year, my mentoring has been more active as I seek ways to support the aspirations of the VGEM (“my”) students.

I propose to use Dream Funds in the following ways to enhance my interaction with the VGEM students.

1. This year’s VGEM team consists of five students working to develop a biosensor for toxic metals. The team has asked me to accompany them to MIT (November 5-8) for the international Genetically Engineered Machines competition, where they will have their project judged. Although I have never traveled off-Grounds with students, I see this as an incredible opportunity to interact with students as well as a test of efficacy. When in Boston, I will host a memorable dinner for the students to celebrate their teamwork and individual achievements.

2. With the start of the Spring term, graduating 4th Year Students will have completed their tenure with the VGEM Team. At the same time, these students are in greatest need of faculty contact as they deliberate over a choice of professional schools or employment opportunities. I will host a dinner in late March for these students so they will have that contact with faculty as well as to celebrate their time at the University.

3. Each May the new VGEM Team initiates their project. It has struck me that the students set straight to research without even sharing a moment of community with themselves or the faculty, outside the classroom. At the end of May or in early June, I will host a kick-off event for the new team and their faculty mentors. This event will occur along the lines of a BBQ and hike.


Boston Dinner ([5 students + 1 faculty] x $100) plus transportation to/from dinner. $ 660
(1) Faculty transportation to/in Boston $ 300
(1) Faculty (3 hotel nights in Boson at $225/ night) $ 675
Spring Dinner ([3 students + 1 faculty] x $80) $ 320
Kick-off Event ([9 students + 3 faculty] x $25) $ 300
Grand Total $2,255