Name: Lewis J. Feldman
Profession: Professor of Plant and Root Development (Plant & Microbial Biology Dept. at UCB)
“Students tend to think that it is a one way street, where the faculty simply lecture the students. That, in fact, is a mistake because it is a two way street, where the faculty also feeds off of the students. If you want a good experience in a class, you should come to the lectures. This is a problem in Bio 1B because it is a webcasted 8 a.m. course. Currently, only about 20% of the students attend. That has an impact on some faculty because they feel they are not appreciated after working very hard to present the topic. It diminishes their regard and respect for the students as well. It changes their attitudes towards their lectures and class itself, and also how serious they want to be. I believe that the students can help the faculty do a good job by simply attending lectures. For some faculty, much of their existence is invested in the presentation and the students getting something out of it.”
“I also think it’s important that you do not feel reluctant about going up and talking to the faculty members even if it seems intimidating. When I go to office hours, maybe 50 students out of the class of 700 regularly come. Some faculty even get angry – they see 20% of the class coming to lectures each day, and then they find 90% of the class at their review session right before midterms. This makes the faculty feel like the students are only there for the answers and not really there for the material. There are some really good professors here at Berkeley, and it’s a shame not to experience that while you are here.”
You’ve stressed the importance of attending lectures regularly. From your own experience as an undergraduate, what other advice would you like to give to the students?
“I think it is really good for students to have a gap year. By being away from academics for a while, it gives you a chance to reassess your goals in the absence of all the surrounding peer pressure and to try out different things. I think a gap year, a time to go out and do something different, helps you solidify in your mind whether you really want to go into this field and gives you a chance to try something you maybe thought about but didn’t have time for while in college.”
*If you would like to learn more about Professor Feldman, particularly his research, please continue reading.*
“I came to Berkeley 40 years ago before Molecular Biology was even imagined. While I was working on plant development and physiology as a biochemist/physiologist, molecular biology came out on scene. It was very different from the kinds of researches that had been conducted before; it was expensive and time-consuming, and required a large number of people. Although we do molecular biology in our lab, I don’t consider myself a molecular biologist, because I would like to do experiments where you can see the organisms rather than focusing so much on the molecular aspects of life.”
“Right now we are focusing on two different areas of research. One area of interest is on how redox status (oxidizing and reducing environment) affects plant development. We have developed GFP (green fluorescent protein) to measure the redox status in real time without having to kill the tissue. The second area focuses on the roots of the plants. In particular, we have been studying the region of the root called ‘transition zone’ where cells stop dividing and begin to elongate and differentiate.”
“Other work we have previously done includes genetically engineering the plants to be their own reporters of their physical needs. We made the plants express, again, GFP when it was subjected to high temperature. What would happen in response to heat stress is that fluorescence would be measured through a light meter directly linked to the control system of the greenhouse and turn on the air conditioning without humans getting involved.”
“As I said earlier, molecular biology is a field that involves a huge amount of people. Many of the faculty have a lot of undergraduates as well as graduate students in their research. In fact, a recent paper on the transition zone from our lab involved two undergraduates as coauthors.”
Often, students have hard time looking for an undergraduate position in lab. Do you have any advice for undergraduate students seeking research experience?
“I tell this to students who ask me about getting research experience. The very first thing is to look through the variety of undergraduate experiences that are available to you. Now you know, we have URAP (Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program), and some of the colleges like mine (CNR) have other undergraduate programs; however, they are very competitive. The other thing to do is to look through the roster of the faculty to see if there is somebody who really interests you, and to write a very personal letter to that individual. Basically say like, “I have read some of your research papers. Could I talk to you sometime or perhaps come to one of your lab meetings?” That really makes an opening, and it’s not a letter that could be addressed to anybody. So that’s the very first thing. Then, the second thing is, faculty likes undergraduates to make a commitment. Most faculty want students to be in the lab at least six hours a week because they are going to train you. I think you want to be dedicated and conscientious, and you really want to be reliable because that’s what people look for.”