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Mentoring Tomorrow’s Scientists Comes Naturally for Biology Professor

Randall Roper, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Biology, School of Science

Assistant Professor of Biology Randall Roper knows the value of good mentors. It was a high school science teacher who “brought biology alive” for Roper, and a group of mentors during his undergraduate years who convinced him he had skills they needed. Today, it’s not uncommon for this successful genetics researcher with a PhD in immunology and genetics to spend hours each day helping students in his lab with their experiments. An important part of Roper’s philosophy, the mentoring has come full circle. 

“I feel very passionately about teaching and training the next generation of scientists,” says Roper, whose lab is a tight-knit group of usually no more than ten undergraduate and graduate students – a size he finds ideal for individualized instruction. “Hopefully there are things they learn here that they’ll take with them wherever they go – critical-thinking skills, hypothesis-testing skills – that will be an important part of who they are.”

Helping to define who they are is something Roper tries to do with the students in his lab from day one. Rarely does he assign projects to students; instead he prefers to listen.

Dr. Roper works in lab with masters student Samantha Deitz“I usually have a couple of projects that I’ll place before students, but then I ask, ‘what would you like to do?’ or “what do you find most interesting?,’” he explains. “Sometimes the student has an idea, then we’ll discuss it to see if there’s something there that ties to our research.”

Roper has spent more than a decade – the past five years at IUPUI – exploring the mechanisms by which genes in three copies on human chromosome 21 (Trisomy 21) cause developmental abnormalities leading to specific Down syndrome traits. Using mouse models of Down syndrome, Roper’s work provided the first experimental evidence that trisomy adversely affects neural crest cells – the precursors to formation of the craniofacial structure, nervous system and digestive tract, which are all affected in Down syndrome.

For their part, the students each work on a specific project connected to the lab’s common research goals. There’s very little turnover in Roper’s lab, with most of the students choosing to stay for more than two years. When there are open positions, it’s usually current lab students who recruit their friends – a testament to Roper’s reputation as both an accomplished researcher and committed mentor.

“We tend to find good students – those with a passion for science and a desire to do research – and keep them,” says Roper. “It’s fulfilling for me to find opportunities for students to learn, grow and develop skills they’ll take with them.”