Typically, laboratory-based science instruction has little in common with laboratory-based research. Lab exercises change little from year to year; students spend all morning or all afternoon trying to make results look like what the manual says the data are supposed to be. Introductory courses are particularly challenging because of the scale of effort that is needed to shepherd hundreds of students a semester through lab classes at large public institutions. Often, undergraduate biology majors are also required to take a substantial dose of mathematical and physical science instruction, but skills gained from these are poorly integrated in most biology curricula. As a result, biologists tend to lose these skills by the time they become useful in research. My goal was to develop a new approach to teaching introductory biology lab classes that makes the experience more similar to a true research experience, demands the use of mathematical tools for analysis of large data sets, and better integrates biology with the principles that the students are leaning from their chemistry and physical studies.
My plan was to hire a few PhD-level staff with expertise that covers biology, statistics, computing and physical sciences to work with me and a handful of undergraduates over each summer to develop three new modules of the 12 modules that make up a typical semester of introductory biology class. Over the course of four years, we revised the entire curriculum. Then the staff worked with me to implement the modules in the fall offering of the course and refined them in the spring.
Examples of modules developed included the following:
- The benefits of much biomedical research will be limited if people remain reluctant to deal with personal genetic information. In one of the modules, students in the lab prepared buccal samples, which were then sent off for commercial sequencing of the D-loop of the mitochondrial DNA from each student. The D-loop is the most variable, and hence informative, region of the human genome. The students then analyzed their own sequence and the sequences of the class, in the context of information on human migrations and the National Genographic Project, to learn how individual DNA sequence is analyzed and what can be learned from it.
- Introductory students often have difficulty with the principles of clonality and population genetics, and they are fascinated by viruses. In this module, we used fecal samples from the zoo to discover new bacterial viruses, measure their growth on bacterial hosts, and seek to isolate mutations in the virus and host affecting host range.
- Another module focused on photosynthesis. This topic is a natural for linking principles of fluorescence and fluorescence detection to biology. A colleague at University of California, Berkeley, has isolated thousands of mutants of photosynthesis in Chlamydamonas, which were divided up for characterization by the students in the lab.
My lab's research has spanned many areas of genetics and cell biology. We discovered the SIR(silent information regulator) genes, which control the formation of heterochromatin in yeast. We also discovered the first mutations linking ORC to DNA replication and silencing, and we pioneered the study of epigenetics in Saccharomyces, with single-cell resolution. In other work, we demonstrated the link between cholesterol synthesis and Ras protein function through prenylation of Ras and identified several of the enzymes dedicated to prenyl-protein processing. We also developed the first comprehensive linkage map of the dog genome and the dog olfactory repertoire. More recently our attention has turned to the pathogenic fungus Histoplasma capsulatum and the genetic basis of natural variation to Histoplasma infection. Our most recent work focuses on evaluating the biochemical significance of variations in the human genome sequence, the issue of personal genetic information, and evolutionary genomics of gene regulation in fungi.
Last updated September 2006