Standing at my research bench, I was holding two petri dishes over a Bunsen burner flame comparing bacterial growth between the two plates. Culturing bacteria may not fall on most people’s summer bucket list, but I spent a substantial amount of time last summer doing just that. Having received a grant to work on an independent project in professor Shaun Brinsmade’s lab, I began many of my work days growing bacterial cells for the experiments I planned to run later.
In bacteriology labs like Brinsmade’s, experiments typically involve applying an experimental condition to different genetic variants of a single bacterial species. Gene editing in bacterial species is technically easier than in humans, in addition to being more ethically permissible, given the simpler structure of bacterial genomes. The goal of creating a genetic mutant is often to inactivate a particular gene in order to observe how the capabilities of the bacterium are altered. In an experiment, the genetic mutant is compared to a wild type, the normal genetic form of the species. This wild-type classification, however, is restricted to a microbiology research setting. On the Georgetown University campus there is no wild-type, prototypical student, and no one way to make the most of one’s time at Georgetown.
As a first-semester freshman, I was convinced there was a standard path I should follow as an undergraduate on the Hilltop. Wandering between rows of tables at my first CAB Fair, bombarded in all directions by music and handmade signs advertising student clubs, I signed up for as many listservs as possible, eager to find the wild-type combination of clubs. I quickly learned, however, that there is no right way to engage in campus life at Georgetown, as evidenced by the diversity of ways biology students engage in campus activities.
At the introductory meeting for the “Foundations in Biology I” teaching assistants last fall, icebreaker introductions included sharing something we did for fun on campus, outside of class and the biology department. I had formerly considered biology student teaching assistants to be a somewhat homogenous group, but as we went around the room and shared interests ranging from concert choir to creative writing to sports, I realized just how much of a multifaceted community we were outside the classroom.
In addition, there is no wild-type academic path. Georgetown students forge incredibly diverse academic experiences, even within a particular major. For me, class registration is always accompanied by an odd mixture of excitement and fear of missing out. I love scrolling through the semester schedule of classes and imagining the topics, discussions and perspectives a particular course might introduce. Selecting classes, however, requires choosing which not to take. I found it particularly challenging to make schedule selections for my senior spring, knowing I would never have another opportunity to take the classes I opted not to take in my final semester at Georgetown.
I will graduate Georgetown having never taken a class in economics or government, despite the popularity of those courses. In contrast, it is strange for me to imagine other students will graduate without taking a lab-based science course, a staple of my undergraduate semesters. Even students within a particular department are likely to have taken different combinations of classes due to a wide range of course offerings, minor coursework and additional elective courses. At Georgetown, there is no single correct combination of courses to take — no wild-type schedule. I am proud to be graduating Georgetown having taken classes that have been useful and relevant to me and, as my friends and peers have pursued different academic paths, I have loved being surrounded by diverse academic perspectives.
In bacteriology, wild-type bacterial strains are important because they allow for genetic mutants to be effectively analyzed. On Georgetown’s campus, however, there is no wild-type student; each student has the freedom to pursue an experience that will be valuable for them. As my senior spring speeds by, I am thankful to have taken classes and involved myself in activities that have been a good fit for me and my interests. The lack of a Georgetown wild type allows for a richly diverse community, and I am grateful to have been surrounded by peers with such a varied array of interests and engagements for the past four years. I encourage other students to remember that there is no wild-type Georgetown student and no wild-type Georgetown experience while seeking experiences that will be worthwhile for them.
Sarah Reuter is a senior in the College. Molecular Musings appears online every other Wednesday.