Tails up, heads down, thousands of tiny worms burrow into their bed of torn paper towels in a tank in Bruce O'Gara's lab. The worms are deep red, slender and hairlike. Some inch across the surface or squirm in wriggling burgundy clumps at the corners of the turquoise tank.
As the tank pump burbles in the quiet lab, O'Gara generates his own steady frequency, a murmur of advice, tips and questions for the two undergraduates standing beside him.
On their study animal: "Remember, brains and annelids are almost a misnomer."
On preparing solutions in advance: "You will run out of any solution you need, when you need it."
On their tools: "Lurking in this drawer is a calculator, a calculator that is older than you two. The five key is a little sticky."
O'Gara, a AAAS member, is a professor of zoology and chairman of the biology department at Humboldt State University in the far northwestern corner of California. He's a compact man, gone mostly to gray, with a thick mustache—and a way of weaving leech lore and planarian horror stories into his lab advice. As chair of the largest department at Humboldt State, O'Gara is mostly an administrator these days, with very little time for research or the teaching he loves. But he carves out a few hours in his lab each week with one main goal: helping students transition from the classroom to the real world of a working scientist, able to tease meaning out of a chaotic mass of data.
O'Gara and a handful of student researchers are working with Lumbriculus variegatus, a slim, pond-dwelling worm that he buys by the quarter pound from a worm farm in Fresno.
Like earthworms and some other annelid worms, the species is a virtuoso of regeneration. Slice off a tail, lop off a head, and it regrows within days, building short segments that gradually elongate. When it's under attack, it may split off in defense. Leave the animal alone and it will keep growing new segments until it's long enough to split in two. That's one of the ways it reproduces in the wild, although sexual reproduction also is common.
For the past few years, O'Gara has had students looking at how regeneration and nerve conductivity change when the worm spends time in waters laced with different amounts of Bisphenol A (BPA). The synthetic compound, which is used in plastics and food containers, can disrupt estrogen. Canada and European nations have gone further than the United States in restricting is use.
One of O'Gara's undergraduate students, Araik Sinanyan, won a travel award to present some of their early results in February at the Emerging Researchers National Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), co-hosted by AAAS and NSF.
Now, the team is trying to assess the effects of BPA on the arrangement of muscle fiber. It is slow work, a research project as segmented as its study animal. That's because O'Gara's goal is not just to find an answer, but to teach his students how to find an answer. He carves the problems into semester-sized chunks, working with just a student or two, helping them to frame questions and select the best strategy for testing hypotheses. Bit by bit, they record data that could one day make its way into publication.
He started his undergraduate-fueled research of BPA in 2010, and anticipates something might be ready for submission, with a long list of student co-authors, by 2015 or 2016.
O'Gara's methods can make a huge difference for students at small teaching universities who might not picture themselves as scientists, said former student Michael Smeaton, who's now doing post-doctoral cancer research at Stanford.
"Bruce really treated me like a colleague, even though I was green and didn't know much. He asked my opinion. That was huge," Smeaton recalled. "I wasn't just following directions. I was part of the research plan."
That inclusiveness gave Smeaton the confidence to apply to a doctoral program at Johns Hopkins and to go on to postdoctoral work at Cal-Tech and Stanford. Now he's looking for a teaching position and a lab of his own—where he can teach the same way that O'Gara taught him.
"I try to do a lot of thinking out loud in front the students," O'Gara said. "Helping them see how they can take the next step themselves."