Current Research

Catherine Drennan is creating resources to help students recognize the underlying chemical principles in biology and medicine, recruit tomorrow’s top scientists from a diverse pool of freshmen chemistry students, and equip graduate student teaching assistants to be the future’s leading teacher-scholars.

For the next generation of researchers, health workers, and policymakers to tackle the nation’s toughest scientific problems, today’s students must have a strong chemistry background and be equipped to make interdisciplinary connections. Addressing the challenge that the creation and maintenance of new interdisciplinary courses can be prohibitively expensive for many schools, we used our 2006 HHMI professor grant to develop resources that can be used to integrate biology into general chemistry without removing any of the chemistry content. We created over thirty succinct (2- to 5-minute) in-class examples for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology general chemistry course (5.111) that relate each chemical principle taught in the course to a topic in biology, medicine, or MIT research. To reinforce in-class connections, we also developed a set of biology and medicine-related homework problems. These innovations satisfy newly issued American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC)-HHMI recommendations in their report Scientific Foundation for Future Physicians, which calls for educators to teach basic scientific knowledge with connections to the underlying scientific principles in human health and medicine.

The changes in the course were a resounding success. In addition to dramatically improving lecture attendance and course ratings, a multiyear assessment conducted in collaboration with the MIT Teaching and Learning Laboratory revealed that the biology examples increased student interest in chemistry, and 86 percent of students reported that the examples helped them see the connection between biology and chemistry. All materials developed for our general chemistry course (5.111) are freely available via MIT OpenCourseWare ( Additionally, we developed laboratory modules for an undergraduate chemistry curriculum that introduce students to standard biochemical techniques in the context of investigating a current and exciting research topic: acquired resistance to the cancer drug Gleevec (resources are available at

With our new HHMI funding, one of our projects will be to create 2- to 3-minute video segments to supplement general chemistry lectures. The videos will feature graduate students discussing how a specific general chemistry topic relates to their research. Like the biology-related examples used in the course, these brief videos will provide context and inspiration to students, while requiring minimal class time. By showcasing the “many faces of chemistry,” including women and minorities, we hope to reach and inspire the diverse student body in freshman chemistry. We will also redesign and create new biology-related examples to specifically address the AAMC-HHMI premedical competencies. The most successful examples will also be altered to fit into high school chemistry classes, with help from our collaborators at a local science magnet school.

One significant problem in many large lecture classes is that students do not feel engaged in the course. To help address that issue, we will develop best practices for the use of clickers, handheld electronic devices that let students respond to questions posed by professors in real time. When used effectively, clickers promote classroom engagement and illuminate areas of weakness for students in large lectures. We have observed that creating clicker competitions among recitation section (discussion group) “teams” results in students perceiving their recitation section as a supportive unit and identifying themselves as a valued contributor. Based on studies indicating that the success of underrepresented minority students increases in courses where they feel supported and valued, we believe that clicker competitions can have a positive impact on the experience of underrepresented minority students in freshman chemistry. We are eager to carry out more in-depth studies on the impact of clickers and ultimately share best practices for this increasingly common classroom technology.

The second major component of our 2006 HHMI professors project was a teaching assistant (TA) training program for graduate students. We implemented an approximately 20-hour TA-training “boot camp” for incoming chemistry graduate student TAs, with the goal of creating a supportive teaching community and improving undergraduate recitation sections by increasing TA confidence and enthusiasm. Boot camp activities include discussion-based teambuilding exercises, active-learning workshops, sessions on how to teach the most challenging course topics, role playing and discussions with former TAs, a diversity workshop, and a videotaped teaching critique session that allows TAs to present a lesson and get feedback from their peers. In year-end evaluations, undergraduates gave their TA-led recitations extremely high marks, and TAs attributed positive recitation experiences to their boot camp training. The MIT chemistry department has now expanded department-wide TA training to include many of the successful elements of our boot camp.

After multiple iterations and assessments of our TA boot camp, best practices have immerged for leading effective TA training in a multiday format. To complement our publications on this topic, we will prepare a detailed guide for dissemination on our MIT OpenCourseWare Website. Since elements of our program are now being implemented in department-wide training, we plan to assess and disseminate best practices for leading TA training courses that occur on a larger scale with more time restrictions. We will also produce a Web-based guide for leading diversity workshops, which can be an intimidating component for many educators. This is an area where a step-by-step resource will be of significant value.

Our goal for the next four years is to expand our current programs by translating them to a nationwide scale, while continuing to create and evaluate new resources for chemistry educators. Our continued focus is to create and disseminate interdisciplinary materials that will fit into any general chemistry curricula and that have a low barrier for use by other educators.

Related HHMI Project Publications

Taylor, E.V., and Drennan, C.L..2007. "Bringing the Excitement of Biological Research into the Chemistry Classroom at MIT." ACS Chemical Biology 2:515-517.

Taylor, E.V., Mitchell, R., and Drennan, C.L. 2009. "Creating an Interdisciplinary Introductory Chemistry Course Without Time-Intensive Curriculum Changes."  ACS Chemical Biology 4:979-982.

Taylor, E.V., Fortune, J.A., and Drennan, C.L. 2010.  "A Research-inspired Laboratory Sequence Investigating Acquired Drug Resistance." Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 38:247-252.

Anderson, W.A., et al. 2011. "Changing the Culture of Science Education at Research Universities." Science 331:52–153.

Anderson, W.A., et al. 2011. "Competencies: A Cure for Pre-Med Curriculum." Science 11:760-761.  

Research Summary

My laboratory uses X-ray crystallography to study the structure and function of metalloproteins. Our research focuses on enzymes that contain complex metallocofactors and catalyze challenging chemical reactions, such as those that use organic radicals or form organometallic bonds. We are interested in providing detailed three-dimensional information about the nature of the complex metallocofactors and in understanding how the protein environment modulates the reactivity of these metal centers. Through biochemical and biophysical analysis, our long-term goal is to use crystallography to capture structures of proteins in various conformational states to investigate enzyme mechanisms and the role of conformational change in protein function.

Within the area of metalloprotein biochemistry, the systems that we study fall into three main categories: carbon fixation, radical reactions, and metal uptake. Many metalloproteins in these categories have historically eluded crystallographic characterization due to issues of oxygen sensitivity, conformational flexibility, heterogeneity, or structural complexity. My laboratory has specialized in tackling and solving these difficult crystallographic problems.

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