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Mentor for future scientists

Published: August 24th, 2008

Category: Spotlights

Karen Koch

Karen Koch

Molecular biology professor
College of Agricultural and Life Sciences

In Karen Koch’s lab, everybody helps with what she calls the “scut work.”

And everybody – even the undergrads – gets to do real science.

“We do not use our undergraduates for washing dishes,” she said. “Everybody gets a piece of the fun stuff.”

Case in point: A few months ago, the team realized that to meet the requirements for one of its grants, they needed to quickly get hundreds of genetically specific kernels of corn ready to go to labs around the country. So everyone in the lab – professors, graduate students and undergrads – sat around a table and spent hours studying and selecting genetically unique kernels.

It’s that sort of share-the-work-and-the-fun philosophy that’s earned Koch’s lab a reputation for nurturing young scientists. And it made her one of the winners of a 2007-2009 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Distinguished Mentor award.

The molecular biology professor has always been one to help younger students, back to her graduate student days, when she volunteered to mentor high school students.

“I don’t know … they were so enthused, it was infectious,” she said. “When I was a graduate student, I learned a huge amount from mentoring high school students.”

Not only is lab known for nurturing young scientists, it’s also become a place where young science-minded students want to be. In the last five years, roughly half the lab’s staff has been minorities.

Asked a couple of years ago to speak at a conference about ways to best attract minority students to science, Koch did some quick research into why students choose historically black colleges and universities.

“Basically, it boiled down to them wanting to be with friends,” she said. “And hey, is that such an unusual concept? So here, they’ve kind of come with their buddies, or they’ve gotten a recommendation from one of their buddies and we’ve sort of gotten a reputation for camaraderie and being a place where maybe you go out of your way for a student from time to time.”

Koch’s enthusiasm for science is infectious. She was once talking to an elevator attendant while at a genetics conference. After he pronounced the conference “cool,” she invited him to stop by the lab to see what the work was really like. He’s now an undergraduate biology student at UF, genetically transforming plants.

But ever the mentor, she takes pains to ensure he’s living his dream, instead of hers.

“It’s easy to get into self-affirmation mode,” she said. “And I really, truly want people to find their own path.”

Photo credit: Ray Carson — University Photography

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