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Bridging the Divide Between Research and Teaching in the Biomedical Sciences

Research Summary

Diane O'Dowd is identifying new ways to help current and future faculty maintain productive research careers while teaching more effectively in large classrooms and introducing undergraduates to the thrill of original scientific discovery.

Faculty at research institutions teach hundreds of talented undergraduates each year, but they often lack the training and support needed to help their students excel. When instructors create more interactive learning environments, students abandon the role of passive consumer and become partners in the learning process. With our first HHMI Professor award, we introduced demonstrations, interactive projects, and other active-learning techniques into several large biology classes at the University of California, Irvine. Faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students embraced these strategies after seeing evidence of improved student attitudes and learning outcomes, and institutional support for implementing the changes.

During the second 4-year award, we continued to promote active learning by creating more class time to reinforce scientific concepts by altering the traditional course learning cycle. These revamped courses included "learn before lecture" modules, online exercises that teach textbook facts and concepts before students come to class. In the classroom, students apply these concepts to recent scientific discoveries while guided by the professor and teaching assistants. This offers students access to the prime commodity of a research university—new knowledge not yet available in textbooks. It also allows them to learn about the process of scientific discovery and to develop their critical thinking skills, with guidance from faculty who are actively involved in research. Our data demonstrate significant learning gains associated with several online modules and related in-class exercises that were piloted in our large introductory class. We are continuing to create additional pre-class modules in a variety of formats, exploring partially and fully flipped sections. Our goal is to develop classes that combine the best of online and in-class learning. Preliminary data from our most recent studies indicate that less-prepared students who participate in an Introductory Biology Prep MOOC (massive open online course), which covers the basic material and provides opportunity for practice problem-solving in a free, online environment, experience increased success when they enter our freshman biology class. We are excited by this data and are conducting follow up studies to confirm these findings and evaluate the effectiveness of this program in a broader context.

Using an apprentice model, we train graduate student TAs and more recently postdocs who learn pedagogical theory while teaching students associated with our undergraduate classes. The majority of future faculty participants not only gain valuable teaching experience but they have also been a tremendous source of inspiration, contributing to development and assessment of novel teaching materials for onsite and online classes. In my neuroscience lab we continue to provide undergraduates access to quality research experiences by working with graduate students and postdocs in developing research mentoring.

To disseminate the information gained from our educational research, both within and beyond our institution, we maintain Web-accessible resources, give frequent talks and workshops at research universities and conferences, and publish our results in peer-reviewed journals.

Research in the O’Dowd Lab

Current studies in my neuroscience lab are focused on understanding cellular mechanisms underlying human epilepsy. A number of human seizure disorders are caused by mutations in ion channel genes. The SCN1A gene, encoding Nav1.1 voltage-gated sodium channels, has more than 600 mutations that result in a wide spectrum of epilepsy syndromes including genetic epilepsy with febrile seizures plus (GEFS+) and Dravet Syndrome (DS). GEFS+ is characterized by frequent febrile seizures in early childhood that persist beyond 6 years of age. Individuals with DS exhibit febrile and afebrile seizures that occur in the first year with developmental delay a common comorbidity seen by the second year of life. The limited ability to evaluate neural activity at the cellular level has made it difficult to define the mechanisms contributing to generation of seizures and has hampered development of new therapeutics.

To tackle these problems we have been developing two new complementary genetic models: knock-in Drosophila with SCN1A mutations and iPSC-derived neurons from patients with the same mutations. Analysis of the GEFS+ knock-in fly has revealed a novel cellular mechanism underlying heat-induced seizure. In addition, consistent with disease symptoms in humans, our preliminary data demonstrate the seizure phenotype is more severe in a Drosophila knock-in compared to GEFS+. We are using the knock-in flies and iPSC-derived neurons as platforms to study the mechanisms underlying SCN1A epilepsies and facilitate discovery of new therapies to treat SCN1A epilepsies and febrile seizure.

Last updated May 2014

Scientist Profile

HHMI Professor
University of California, Irvine