Projects at Jonathon Hill’s lab at Brigham Young University generally take between two and five years to complete and his team of about twenty is composed entirely of undergraduate researchers. The setup inherently sees a lot of turnover but because Jonathon plans for this, it’s a highly successful one.

Jonathon’s lab studies how the heart develops within an embryo. About 1% of all births involve a heart malformation making them the most common birth defect. Jonathon and his team are working to understand how the heart forms without defects, and they use zebrafish to investigate the process. Zebrafish offer a few advantages to this anatomical research – they have a short lifecycle, produce a large numbers of offspring and have nearly transparent embryos which make for easy and rapid observation.

Zebrafrish embryo.

There’s a lot that goes into such complex research. “This research doesn’t fit into a box very well,” Jonathon said, “We use bioinformatics and do a lot of computer work and data analysis. We look at huge gene lists and use molecular biology and developmental biology in the lab, too. From the computer to the lab bench and back again – we do it all.” 

In a similar (yet also very different way) to the zebrafish they study, Jonathon’s undergraduate researchers are here today and gone tomorrow, spending on average only one to two years in the lab. This adds another layer of complexity to already sophisticated work.

“My undergrad researchers spend eight to ten hours in the lab each week. I put them into teams because I need them to help/train one another and to hand off experiments to each other during the course of each day and when they graduate. LabArchives really helps us with that,” Jonathon said. Digital scaffolding enables the lab to transition smoothly from hour to hour, day to day and year to year. It also ensures work doesn’t get lost as students come and go.

Undergraduates working in Jonathon’s lab don’t just do prepared lab assignments. They get to do real, impactful research that’s part of a larger effort to achieve better health outcomes. As soon as they arrive in the lab they can view past methods, data, results, successes and failures of the lab all within LabArchives. They then get to build upon that data in a highly tangible way that also trains them to document their work properly.

Recording metadata becomes second nature to Jonathon’s students in almost no time as they add pictures, files, figures and analysis of their work to their LabArchives notebooks. “We keep all of our procedures, for example, in LabArchives. With time, students see the value of digital documentation and recording metadata. Really what I’m teaching them is what to record and how. With time they realize how much they would’ve missed without those metadata clues.”

Brigham Young University

Working digitally allows the team to stay cohesive even with high turnover and, in many ways, has allowed them to keep working despite COVID-19. With many students living locally, Jonathon’s team has continued to research by spacing out in the lab and handing off work digitally when change-overs occur throughout the day. The students are still benefiting from real and mentored research despite the disruptions all around them. “Contributing scientific information instead of just consuming it is really cool,” Jonathon noted, “You realize that sometimes you’re the first person ever to know a certain fact or data point, and to experience that as an undergrad is just great.”