Lori Robins develops students into researchers

Lori Robins

Peering through microscopes, the researchers in Lori Robins’ lab slice and dice genes with enzymes that act like scissors. They’re studying exactly how those “scissors” work – how they can snip out one sequence of “bad” DNA and replace it with “good” DNA.

These young researchers – all bright-eyed undergraduates – are helping scientists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research center make progress toward life-saving discoveries in treating and curing diseases like cystic fibrosis and hemophilia.

“A lot of students have that heart where they want to save the world from cancer or genetic diseases. This research gives them insight on how you have to start at the very beginning and understand the basics before you can actually solve each of these problems,” says Lori, an assistant professor of biology in the School of STEM and a 2015 Worthington Distinguished Scholar.

Their findings could have profound impacts on advancing medical, biotechnology and agricultural research. That’s impressive, yet Lori and her students rave more about the impact their research has had on them – as people and as a team of insatiably curious scientists.


Virkamal Dhaliwal, a pre-med student who graduated in 2015, beams when she talks about the perseverance she’s developed troubleshooting in the lab, collaborating with her peers to solve a puzzle, and then seeking out the next challenge.

Many of the researchers who have worked in Lori’s lab started out in one of her organic chemistry courses. They thrive in the small-class setting, learn about her research and emerge eager to learn ab out the ins and outs of setting up controls and protocols. As they gain confidence, they realize that mistakes can be even more insightful than getting it right. “They learn what science is all about and they become unstoppable in the lab,” Lori says. “I have to kick them out sometimes because they want to keep going and going.”

As undergraduates, Virkamal and others in Lori’s lab – many of whom are the first in their families to go to college – have more research experience than most first-year graduate students. “This research,” Lori says, “is something that never would have been on their radar five or six years ago. I could pull up data forever, but in the end, when my students leave, it’s the person they’ve become that makes me so proud.

“They grow so much. They do things independently. They show more confidence in the classroom. It’s amazing.”

This story was originally published in 2015. Since then, Lori Robins has been promoted to Associate Professor, and her work in bio-chemistry is consistently funded by a number of generous organizations, including Briotech Inc. and Oxiscence LLC.