Enabling Undergraduates to Experience the Excitement of Biology
INCORPORATING INDEPENDENT UNDERGRADUATE RESEARCH EXPERIENCES
All students should be encouraged to pursue independent research as early as is practical in their education. They should be able to receive academic credit for independent research done in collaboration with faculty or with off-campus researchers.
“Undergraduate research is not only the essential component of good teaching and effective learning, but also that research with undergraduate students is in itself the purest form of teaching.”
Quote from committee member James M. Gentile in Academic Excellence, a report of the Research Corporation on the role of research at undergraduate institutions (Research Corporation and Doyle, 2000)
Many research scientists regard their undergraduate research experience as a turning point that led them to pursue research careers (Doyle, 2000; Hakim, 2000; Rothman and Narum, 1999). By working as a partner in an active research group, undergraduates experience the rewards and frustrations of original research. They learn from mentors, who can be faculty, industrial scientists, postdoctoral fellows, and sometimes graduate stu-
dents (NRC, 1997b). They can gain experience working as part of a team and learn effective oral and written presentation of scientific results. A written thesis as a product of the undergraduate research experience can be an opportunity for a student to learn to review a field and coherently describe his or her contribution. Such undergraduate research sometimes leads to peer-reviewed publications and student presentations at national and international scientific meetings. While the richness of experience for the student likely will not be the same as working in a research group, it also is possible to provide meaningful research experiences for undergraduates in research-based courses or in teaching laboratories that are designed to be open-ended and to encourage independent investigation.
At smaller schools, undergraduates often work directly with a faculty member or in a research group consisting of a faculty member and other undergraduates. At larger institutions, such as research universities, undergraduates become part of a research group along with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Early career faculty who have not yet built up large research groups can play a particularly effective role in providing research opportunities for undergraduates. Sometimes participation in research can even begin in formal laboratory courses, in which students become involved in the research of the teaching fellows, other students, or the faculty. While undergraduates can derive much education and inspiration from these advanced students, it is important that they still have significant interaction with their faculty mentors. Undergraduates should in all cases play a full role, giving oral reports to the group on their research and participating in all group seminars and social events.
It is important for institutions to realize that the time faculty spend mentoring undergraduates in the laboratory is teaching and should be recognized as such. This is a particularly important issue for pretenure faculty. The faculty investment in mentoring and guiding student research represents a large commitment of time and resources. This must be recognized as an important teaching responsibility and integrated into the overall workload of the faculty member. At the same time, students should receive appropriate course credit for their research. The National Research Council’s Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering (NRC, 1997a) can assist faculty in this important role.
Undergraduate research is a discovery-driven effort that must be carried out in the setting of a strong and supportive natural science community. A key factor in the program is the close professional partnership be-
tween the student and faculty member. While faculty members may be excellent research scholars, they are not necessarily all equally adept at being research mentors for undergraduate students. Indeed, many institutions make attempts to train good mentors by holding workshops for faculty and graduate and postdoctoral students, and by pairing junior faculty with successful and respected senior faculty as peer mentors. In the best of circumstances, the faculty mentor works in the laboratory with the student, resulting in extensive informal student-faculty interaction and helping the student to build self-confidence in the research endeavor. The mentor guides the student in all aspects of the scientific process, including literature searches, experimental design, construction and/or operation of scientific equipment, carrying out experiments, and interpreting results. The mentor also assists the student in professional development, including giving course advice, discussing career path options, and introducing students to key individuals at graduate institutions. Faculty play the lead role in educating students to effectively communicate their research results through regular group meetings, weekly student research seminars in the summer, presentations at off-campus research symposia, poster preparation, and manuscript writing. Student attendance at regional and national meetings with their mentors should be a priority. When individual mentoring is combined with excellent science, the student becomes strengthened not only in a particular research agenda, but also gains a foundation for success in science that extends beyond the immediate institution.
Many undergraduates get their sole experience doing independent laboratory research in the summer. In biology, most of those students go to universities where they are supported by the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program of the National Science Foundation or undergraduate education grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. These programs are predicated on the notion that an active research experience is one of the most effective ways to attract talented undergraduates to science and to retain them in science and engineering careers. These programs stress the importance of interactions between students and faculty or other research mentors in addition to research productivity at larger institutions. For smaller schools with insufficient campus research opportunities, summer research both for students and faculty is vital to the educational development and enrichment of life sciences majors. However, research takes time and where possible, the continuation of summer research throughout the year, even if a few hours a week, can greatly increase the learning experience.
Other groups are also active in promoting research experiences. The Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) is a network of faculty members devoted to providing experiences for undergraduates. CUR has 3,000 members representing over 850 institutions in eight academic divisions. Most members are from primarily undergraduate institutions. CUR encourages faculty-student collaborative research and investigative teaching strategies, as well as supports faculty development and attempts to attract attention to the benefits of undergraduate research. Additional information is available at http://www.cur.org. Professional societies, such as the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), also play an active role in stimulating undergraduate education and research. ASM often holds sessions on education at its annual meetings and provides independent conferences on education such as the Ninth ASM Undergraduate Microbiology Education Conference entitled “Emerging Issues in Microbiology: Expanding Education Horizons.” Additional information is available at http://www.asmusa.org/. An extensive annotated list of professional societies active in undergraduate science education, as well as links to other resources for science education, can be found at the Sigma Xi Web site: http://www.sigmaxi.org/resources/overview/index.shtml.
Opportunities for learning also exist beyond the classroom and the faculty laboratory. The range of research opportunities available to undergraduates can be further broadened by drawing on the strengths of a wide range of public and private institutions. Independent work in faculty laboratories, biotechnology companies, pharmaceutical companies, agricultural chemistry companies, engineering firms, national labs, and independent research centers should be encouraged. Real-world research is generally more interdisciplinary than traditional lab courses. Biotechnology companies, as well as established pharmaceutical and agricultural chemistry companies, have a major stake in the vitality and quality of undergraduate education for future research biologists. Industry will employ many life sciences majors in the years ahead. To abet the academic advising process, they and their teachers need to acquire an understanding of the spectrum of industry activities from basic research through product development. The formation of partnerships between life science corporations and academic institutions can enhance student learning in the undergraduate years so that scientists of the future prepare to play leadership roles in the private sector. Such partnerships could consist of summer or academic year research internships for students.
Another possible collaboration would be corporate sponsorship of un-
dergraduate research on college or university campuses. Corporate sponsorship for faculty to work in industry during summers or sabbaticals would help transfer knowledge into the academic setting. Similar types of benefits might be possible by arranging for scientists and engineers employed by local companies to regularly come to campus and interact with faculty and students.
Many independent research institutes also offer summer programs that provide students with opportunities for laboratory work at very high levels using the most modern equipment. For example, Cold Spring Harbor has carried out for many years an Undergraduate Research Program that has been very successful in encouraging students to enter the profession, and has given others an appreciation of how research is done. Colleges and universities should make maximum use of such research opportunities, and both public and private research institutes should be encouraged to develop undergraduate research programs.
Biology undergraduates also should be given opportunities to study and carry out research in foreign countries to broaden their education and enhance their appreciation of the international nature of science Case Study #9). As research science is increasingly an international endeavor, future researchers will benefit from experiences that give them the opportunity to work with researchers from other countries in Web partnerships or other projects, or to spend time in research laboratories in other countries. The University of California at Irvine maintains a list of programs available for undergraduates to do research abroad at http://www.cie.uci.edu/iop/research.html
SEMINARS TO COMMUNICATE THE EXCITEMENT OF BIOLOGY
Seminar-type courses that highlight cutting-edge developments in biology should be provided on a continual and regular basis throughout the four-year undergraduate education of students. Communicating the excitement of biological research is crucial to attracting, retaining, and sustaining a greater diversity of students to the field. These courses would combine presentations by faculty with student projects on research topics.
Real problems reveal the connections between the different scientific disciplines. One benefit of using real examples is the demonstration to
CASE STUDY #9
BRAVO! (Biomedical Research Abroad: Vistas Open) gives research-experienced undergraduate students an opportunity to become part of the international scientific community by conducting research in another country. With funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Minority International Research Training (MIRT) Grants from the NIH Fogarty International Center, and NSF’s Recognition Award for the Integration of Research & Education Program (RAIRE), the BRAVO! program has sent 88 undergraduate students, 9 graduate students, and 6 minority faculty members from the University of Arizona (UA) to work in 23 countries since 1992. In addition, 15 foreign faculty mentors and 16 foreign graduate students have made research visits to UA. BRAVO! aims to help students learn to do research in a different cultural setting while gaining independence and confidence. It tries to inspire them to discover who they are as Americans, by providing an opportunity to contribute to the worldwide scientific community.
In the early years of the program students generally spent only a summer doing research abroad. More recently, the trend has been toward longer foreign stays since these result in more scientifically productive visits. The level of productivity is shown by the 61 publications and more than 65 presentations at scientific meetings that include the work of BRAVO! students. In addition to benefiting indi
students with a quantitative bent that biology is not a purely descriptive science. These courses should be offered to all students; however, they are especially important for first-year students in colleges where biology courses are normally started only in the sophomore year. Through such courses, biology students can retain and increase their interest in the field.
Recent advances in biological research are exciting; exposing students to the current research at an early stage in their education will help them to see this excitement. Research can be presented by inviting faculty or other scientists to talk about their work; it does not necessarily require students to work in labs immediately. Presenting students with numerous questions that remain to be answered encourages them to imagine their own future role in research. Topics and faculty members should be chosen carefully,
vidual students and science in general, BRAVO! gives the undergraduate curriculum at UA a more international perspective. Upon returning from abroad, each BRAVO! student gives a “datablitz” (presentation of research and experience accompanied by a meal typical of food in the country visited) to students, faculty, family, and friends. Students also write an article for the monthly Undergraduate Biology Research Program newsletter.
BRAVO! helps prepare students for the international nature of today’s world. It recognizes that the problems facing humankind cut across national boundaries. For example, an increase in vector insect populations in northern Mexico has implications for the spread of diseases such as dengue fever into the United States. Modern travel leads to the spread of infectious diseases, such as West Nile fever, previously known only in developing countries, and spreads diseases such as TB, HIV, and AIDS throughout the world. To understand and treat such diseases requires not only scientific knowledge, but also the ability and the will to work with people from other cultures. BRAVO! provides an innovative model for how research universities can internationalize the curriculum for science students. Similar programs at other institutions have developed as others recognize that undergraduates can thrive in an international research setting.
For more information: http://www.blc.arizona.edu/UBRP/bravo/default.html
with an eye to the type of material and presentations that will engage students with limited scientific backgrounds. As a supplement, students could investigate a topic related to one of the presentations. Their investigations could include finding review articles or interviewing graduate students or post-docs in the faculty member’s lab. More ideas along these lines are presented in the report Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology (NRC, 1999b, p. 5). One program that advocates the idea of engaging students by presenting science in context is called SENCER (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities) and is organized by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. SENCER attempts “to connect science and civic engagement by teaching, through complex and unsolved public issues, such
as natural catastrophes, water quality, HIV disease, the Human Genome Project, energy alternatives, and nuclear disarmament,” according to its Web site (http://www.aacu-edu.org/sencer/).
Many students enter college more interested in interdisciplinary courses or seminars than in the traditional introductory science courses. Others have not decided on their major when they enroll. Interdisciplinary courses are a useful way to provide students with exposure to science without limiting their potential choice of majors. Interdisciplinary courses are also prime spots to convey the spirit of science and examples of unsolved problems that are ripe for attack. They are appropriate for students of all levels, but can be used specifically for first-year students to excite their interest.
Physics, chemistry, and mathematics underlie much of biology and it is therefore advantageous for students to take courses in those fields early in a scientific career. This means that some potential biology majors do not take a biology course until their sophomore year. The appropriate inclusion of biological topics in chemistry, mathematics, and physics somewhat alleviates this difficulty, but they are not a totally adequate substitute for a true biology course. One way to address that problem is to design an interdisciplinary course linking the various scientific disciplines. For example the Science One program at the University of British Columbia is designed for first-year students as an integrated sequence that melds the topics together, giving students a sense of interconnections right from the start of their collegiate career (Case Study #10). For students taking more traditional science courses, a seminar of this type described can be appealing. Another seminar designed for first-year students is described in Case Study #11. This course could be modified for more advanced students, or another seminar centered around an exciting biological theme like infectious diseases could be designed.
INCREASING THE DIVERSITY OF FUTURE RESEARCH BIOLOGISTS
To increase the number of qualified students considering a career in biological research, the committee discussed diversifying the applicant pool through two ways: increasing the number of students who are majoring in other sciences and making the life sciences more accessible to students of both sexes and from all populations.
CASE STUDY #10
Science One is a first-year integrated science sequence that presents biology, chemistry, math, and physics in a unified format. This 25-credit course includes lectures, laboratories, and tutorials. Students who complete Science One satisfy requirements for entry into all second-year courses in UBC’s Faculty of Science. The program emphasizes critical, independent thought as the basis of scientific inquiry. Students are encouraged to ask focused questions, suggest solutions, communicate, discuss, and defend their findings, ideas, and visions.
Scientific coursework covers topics from multiple different angles. For example, waves are presented as physical and mathematical descriptions of classical phenomena and then related to the quantum nature of matter. Each year a field trip to a marine research station provides field and laboratory exposure to shore-line ecology, marine biology, physical oceanography, and chemical ecology.
Lou Gass, a Science One faculty member, has also created “Science First,” a series of informal lunchtime seminars in which faculty talk about their research, why they became scientists, and what science means to them. He says, “Students come boiling out of Science One and are causing a ruckus in their other classes because they hear something and their hand goes up. Once students get their curiosity tweaked and start making connections they take off like a rocket” (University of British Columbia, 1996).
For more information: http://www.science.ubc.ca/~science1/
Making Biology Attractive and Accessible to Majors in Other Sciences
Undergraduates majoring in the physical sciences, mathematics, and computer science will constitute an even larger proportion of the research community in the life sciences in the years ahead because of the heightened importance of these disciplines for biological research and the reach of many aspects of the life sciences into these other disciplines. The committee recommends that these students be given a sense of the excitement of biology
CASE STUDY #11
This first-year seminar, Plagues: The Past, Present, and Future of Infectious Diseases, at the University of Oregon examines diseases such as malaria, bubonic plague, smallpox, polio, measles, and AIDS. In addition to the biology of the diseases, it also addresses their effects on populations and their influence on the course of history. Students investigate the conditions that influence the rate of spread of contagious diseases, and ways to prevent it. They discuss a number of ethical issues that arise in treating the sick, as well as development of policies intended to halt epidemics. Infectious diseases are used to introduce important ideas and issues from the life sciences and a variety of other disciplines. Approaches include reading assignments, film presentations, discussions, writing, and small group activities and projects.
One segment of the course uses readings, discussions, computer modeling and lab activities to help students understand (1) how the immune system works and why in some cases it doesn’t; (2) why antibiotics work with some organisms but not others, and why many organisms are becoming resistant to antibiotics; (3) why so many new diseases seem to be suddenly appearing; (4) how vaccines work and why in some cases they don’t; (5) how infectious diseases are transmitted; (6) why and how disease-causing organisms make humans sick; and (7) why most infectious diseases are usually not lethal.
Another segment examines the issue from a global perspective. Students study current global trends for diseases such as AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. They research the public health policies of international organizations and of representative countries; try to place these patterns into historical perspective; and develop some predictive models of the social, political, economic, and demographic consequences of these patterns.
A third segment examines what is happening locally. With the help of guest speakers, field trips, and group projects, they examine public health policies and practices in the state of Oregon, the city of Eugene, and at the University of Oregon. For example, they learn about vaccination and other public health programs offered at the Student Health Center and about the treatment of AIDS patients in Lane County.
For more information: http://biology.uoregon.edu/Biology_www/Online_classes/Bi199w97u/syllabus.html
and an appreciation of how the physical and mathematical sciences contribute to biological research.
Many outstanding research biologists were originally educated and trained in fields other than biology. Many geneticists and neurobiologists, for example, were educated as physicists. It is important for biologists to encourage the continued movement of other scientists and engineers into biological research. To this end, biologists need to convey the excitement of their field to students in other areas. The interdisciplinary or applied seminars mentioned in the previous section provide a good opportunity for interesting a wide variety of students, as they present material in a real-world context and can often illustrate topics that are relevant to students lives. It could also be advantageous for the future of research if some biologically trained students migrate toward specialties related to physical, information, and mathematical sciences. Their biological backgrounds will make them more approachable collaborators.
Students interested in highly quantitative approaches to biological research should be given opportunities throughout their undergraduate careers to develop their expertise in this domain. The committee recommends that schools establish and support interdepartmental programs that will enable these students to pursue quantitatively intense life science programs, such as biophysics, biomathematics, and computational biology.
Life science majors with an interest in and aptitude for mathematics and computer science should be encouraged to prepare for research and innovation at the interfaces of these disciplines and biology. These quantitatively oriented students will need a more extensive and deeper education in mathematics and computer science than is provided by the four-semester mathematics sequence mentioned earlier. Quantitatively oriented students should be permitted to take advanced mathematics and computer science courses in place of biology courses in meeting degree requirements. Biophysics major programs typically provide this flexibility, and new computational biology programs are also likely to do so (Case Study #12). A complementary approach is to establish interdisciplinary options or concentrations within existing majors. For example, biology courses normally taught with little quantitation could be expanded, using special sections, to teach relevant mathematical concepts. This could readily be accomplished in areas such as physiology, ecology, and genetics. Project-based courses with significant quantitative content would also be very appropriate. In addition, quantitatively oriented students can be given opportunities to develop software tools and programming skills in relation to biologically
CASE STUDY #12
Carnegie Mellon offers instruction in computational biology through three courses that are taught in a coordinated fashion. Students without programming experience who are interested in learning about the diverse ways in which computers are being used to solve biological problems can take Introduction to Computational Biology. This course has three major sections: Computational Molecular Biology (seven weeks, primarily focusing on sequence analysis), Biological Modeling (six weeks), and Biological Imaging (two weeks). Students with similar backgrounds but who are mainly interested in sequence analysis can take just the first half of the course. These courses are mainly taken by biology majors looking for basic knowledge of this important new field, as well as first-year biology PhD students who are not interested in doing their thesis in computational biology.
For students with strong programming skills and knowledge of computer science fundamentals, the computational biology course covers the same three topics in more detail. It makes use of the same lectures but has an additional one-hour class session per week in which methods are discussed with greater computational and mathematical sophistication, both through lectures and by reading papers from the literature. This course is taken by all computational biology majors, by double majors, by computer science majors with at least an introductory-level biology course, by biomedical engineering majors, and by computational chemistry students. It is also taken by first-year PhD students in biological sciences (interested in computational biology thesis projects), a few PhD students in computer science, and by computational biology MS students. The three courses combined typically have 40 students.
There are two major hallmarks to Carnegie Mellon’s computational biology degree programs. Students receive extensive formal training in computer science by taking at least four courses from the normal undergraduate sequence in the School of Computer Science. This permits those students to be taught by faculty who are experts in computer science and gives them the skill set and vocabulary to frame computational problems and communicate with (non-biology-oriented) computer scientists. The second hallmark is the exposure of the students to a full range of computational biology topics, not just sequence-oriented methods.
For more information: http://info.bio.cmu.edu/Programs/Undergraduate/compbio.html
significant objectives. This could be accomplished by offering courses in database management systems, information systems, computer graphics, and computer simulation techniques.
At some schools, it will be optimal to offer majors in biophysics or computational biology; at others, select classes in those topics could be designed. Biochemistry is already a common major at many institutions, providing opportunities for students to explore the connections between those two fields.
Computational biology is not currently a common undergraduate major. Other schools that offer it include University of California at Santa Cruz; University of California at San Diego; Cornell University; University of Pennsylvania; Rensselaer Polytechnic University; Clark University; Towson University (Maryland); and Yale University.
Another undergraduate major that requires extensive use of quantitative skills is biophysics. The typical biophysics major takes three or four semesters each of mathematics and physics. The mathematics courses tend to cover the traditional subjects: calculus of one and more variables, linear algebra, and differential equations. In addition, students are generally required to take two upper-level biophysics courses. Some universities also have a physical chemistry requirement. Biophysics curricula should also have a broad biology component. The Biophysical Society provides a comprehensive listing of undergraduate biophysics programs at http://www.biophysics.org/products/programs.htm
Increasing the Ethnic, Cultural, and Gender Diversity of Life Science Majors
The retention and graduation of African American, Hispanic, and Native American students continues to be low. An NSF-sponsored project has shown that the most frequently cited reason for students of all backgrounds leaving science was the poor quality of the teaching they encountered in their science courses. They also state that poor K-12 preparation, difficulties with university courses, and the attraction of nonscientific disciplines diminish the number of minority students preparing for scientific careers (Seymour and Hewitt, 1997). A particularly serious problem is that such minority students often enter college with little exposure to the culture of science and find it difficult to see the relevance of their science courses to their future careers. The scientific establishment needs to find effective ways to gain access to this pool of potential scientific talent. Improving the
quality of teaching in the sciences may help retain more students. The committee encourages programs designed to increase the diversity of life science majors.
While the curricular changes recommended in this report would improve the learning and skills of all students, it is important to consider that additional changes may be necessary to enable underrepresented minorities to fully achieve their potential as biomedical researchers. Summer bridge programs prior to entry into university, mentoring, study circles, and participation in integrated teams are often found to be helpful. Such initiatives should be made available to all students as needed, but focus should be on making biological education accessible to ethnic and cultural minorities who may have had less exposure to the sciences in their secondary education.
The NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) opportunities are an excellent way to reach broadly into the nation’s student talent pool. The program provides students with the opportunity to be a part of a research lab and see for themselves what graduate education is like. NSF is particularly interested in increasing the participation in research of women, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities. REU projects are strongly encouraged to involve students who are members of these groups. The success of these types of programs is critically dependent on the advising process. Students typically do not learn about such opportunities by themselves. They need ongoing faculty guidance and encouragement to steer them toward such programs.
Demonstrating that biological research is an exciting and appealing area of work is the best way to recruit and retain the most talented students. Interdisciplinary topics that reflect real examples of how science helps to alter and understand the world help convey that excitement. Interdisciplinary topics are also among the most studied today and undergraduate students who begin to grasp the connections between the various approaches to science will be well positioned to contribute to future research.