Following years of outstanding mentorship of honors students, Department of Integrative Biology Professor Jaga Giebultowicz was named the Margaret and Thomas Meehan Honors College Eminent Mentor for 2018. This award recognizes one honors faculty member each year for their mentorship of honors students, particularly through the thesis process. Students and recent alumni can nominate their mentors, and a panel of past recipients selects the honoree.
“Because this nomination is from students,” Jaga says, “it’s even more precious to me.”
The Giebultowicz lab at Oregon State investigates biological clocks and clock disruptions by looking at tiny animals, Drosophila, or fruit flies. Students can experience the entire research process in Jaga’s lab because fruit flies only live for about 60 days. However, since more that 75% of human genes have their counterparts in the fruit fly, honors students working in her lab can still take away significant and far-reaching insights into the biology behind human health.
“I feel that every undergraduate student who comes into my lab needs to have the full research experience and scientific adventures,” Jaga explains. “They do the whole scientific process: hypothesis, testing the hypothesis, and evaluating their data. They thoroughly develop a project and learn to write, to speak, to analyze data and statistics and, in my lab, genetics. They’re not repeating anyone else’s data; they own it.” She adds: “The mentoring is a team effort and Eileen Chow, who is an excellent Research Assistant in the lab, trains students in everything from keeping flies happy to measuring gene expression.”
Jaga brings undergraduates in her lab into meetings with her entire research team, and students share their findings as full members of the group. “They see that scientific research is both an individual project and teamwork,” Jaga says. “It’s rewarding to see how they blossom and develop their own ideas.”
Trevor Nash, a senior majoring in biology with minors in chemistry and psychology, has experienced this firsthand. He was testing what happens to fruit flies when they live their entire lives in the dark, expecting that fruit flies living in complete darkness would have shorter lifespans.
“But he comes in with the data and says, ‘They live longer,’” recalls Jaga, “and I said, ‘Are you sure?’ He repeated the experiment with the same outcome, and this led the team to look at the effects of blue light on flies, to consider, maybe there is a part of the light spectrum that’s harmful. We credit him with discovering this, and now the whole lab is working on it.”
“She has so much understanding and patience,” Trevor says. “She was always teaching and re-teaching, allowing us to make mistakes on our own and trusting our analyses. I feel really lucky. Jaga has been sort of a saving grace for my undergraduate experience. To get involved in research and have success – it’s not an IQ contest. It’s more about the experience you’ve had. Jaga gave me that experience. She was able to take a student like me, who didn’t have a strong background in science or in a lab, and give me the best OSU experience and education I could have.”
Trevor says Jaga also helped him improve his writing as he practiced compiling findings for journals. He has co-authored posters with Jaga, and she helped him apply and prepare for conferences at Harvard, the University of Central Oklahoma and Stanford – where his poster was recognized as most outstanding. She urged him to apply for Oregon State’s Undergraduate Research Awards (URSA), to complete a 20-hour certification with the Genome Research Center and she nominated him for various Honors College scholarships and for the
College of Science Student Advisory Board. “Literally half of my resume is from things she’s encouraged,” Trevor says.
“Time and time again,” Jaga says, “I’ve found [the thesis process] mutually beneficial. It’s a nice contract between student and professor, culminating in an honors thesis. It motivates me to look deeper into scientific questions. Their data are oftentimes part of a bigger project, and I show their data when applying for grants. These students really do help us move the research forward. Without them, we wouldn’t have as many hands, and I wouldn’t be as stimulated to form good questions for them.”
“Beyond the lab, she’s just a fun person to be around.” Trevor says. Jaga knows everyone’s birthdays and has cake or celebrations for all the lab members’ special occasions.
“I try to build their confidence even outside of research. In the lab, we’re like a family. They have a place to come study at night, and we chat as I come to prepare a lecture. They’re part of a group and feel they belong.” She continues to keep in touch with students she’s mentored over the years, even attending many of their weddings.
And no matter what students go on to do in the future, she says, it is important to her to give them a strong foundation in research, which sets them up for success in many fields.
“I want them to have a more fulfilling college experience,” Jaga says. “They learn critical thinking that you can’t get in regular classrooms; in research, you’re always asking, ‘How should I interpret my experimental results?’ I love that they take away that basic research is vital for understanding human health.”