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Undergraduate Research at Core of Holistic Approach to Science

April 6, 2009 – When not in his laboratory conducting malarial drug-resistance research, chemistry professor Paul Roepe tries to impress upon his students the importance of undergraduate research and taking a holistic approach to science.

“When people ask me why am I so passionate about undergraduate exposure in my lab, [I tell them it’s] because I feel I owe people,” says Roepe, who is also chair of the chemistry department and co-director of the Center for Infectious Disease at Georgetown. “I had that experience at a very young age, and that’s the kind of thing that really gets people off to a good start.”

The biochemistry expert says being exposed to – cross-disciplinary experiences as an undergraduate at Boston University that nurtured his passion for the research he performs today.

Roepe started off working as a bottle washer in a research lab at Massachusetts General Hospital just to make money, but the job soon turned into something more as he worked around medical doctors and scientists. He quickly progressed to more complicated tasks on the job – conducting biopsies on rat kidneys and helping to make monoclonal antibodies.

Roepe went on to continue his academic studies at Boston University by obtaining a master’s and doctoral degree in chemistry.

A Dedicated and Demanding Teacher

Much like his lab specimens, Roepe’s intensity is infectious. Physics professor and Roepe collaborator Jeff Urbach says this passion spills over into the classroom.

The rigorous studies in Roepe’s biochemistry classes can be daunting for a graduate, let alone and undergraduate, Urbach says.

“At first, I think they were terrified,” says Urbach. “But they learned to stay on their toes and keep up and quickly understood that Paul was actually on their side.”

Former biochemistry student, Kateri DuBay (G’02) recalls how Roepe’s assignments challenged her as an undergraduate in the classroom and lab.

“It was really an accomplishment to struggle through the difficult language of the research papers and finally come up with a good synthesis of the research,” she says.

DuBay later received her master’s in philosophy from Cambridge University. She is now doing doctoral research in chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley.

“In the lab, Dr. Roepe was tireless, animated and driven and excited to figure out something new about malaria or cancer,” she recalls. “I always came out of a science discussion with him feeling as if my head were spinning with all the new possibilities I needed to consider.”

Roepe credits his graduate students for often taking undergraduates like DuBay under their wings, giving them additional exposure to undergraduate research. Through those connections, undergraduates are able to get a broader perspective of the discipline.

“You can’t approach science as a chemist or a biologist or a physicist,” he says. “You have to approach science as a scientist, and you have to think about problems. Don’t think about approaches or techniques; think about problems.”

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