New Paradigms for Scientific Communication
As a student, Susan McConnell dreamed about following in the footsteps of primatologist Jane Goodall, conducting intensive studies of animal behavior in exotic locations. Today, McConnell travels several times a year to capture intimate photographs of wildlife on the velds of Kenya, Namibia, and Mozambique. Afterwards, she returns to her lab at Stanford University, where she is revealing how neurons in a developing brain form the connections that enable the rich range of behavior that she has always found captivating.
“I was always fascinated with the difference between behaviors that are innate and those that are learned,” she says. “It gradually occurred to me that that really boils down to neural circuits.” Studying how those circuits form during fetal development could lead her to deeper answers to her questions than she might find as a field biologist, she realized.
At Stanford, McConnell uses cellular and molecular tools to learn how neural circuits are established. She is equally committed to equipping her students to explore their own questions with persistence and creativity, as well as to communicate effectively about the science that inspires them.
In the lab, McConnell explores how the core circuitry of the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for mammals' highest cognitive and emotional abilities, is set up. In a set of experiments designed to determine whether cells in a developing brain possess innate factors that guide their fate, her team transplanted neurons at different stages of development into brains. Cells that were transplanted early in development were guided by cues from their new environment. But if the neurons were allowed to begin their migration through the developing brain before transplant, the opposite was true.
Further experiments revealed that cells in this part of the brain activate one of two genetic programs, driving them to either connect to the spinal cord or to form cortical connections within the brain. These programs mutually repress one another, ensuring that each cell cleanly adopts one fate or the other, McConnell says.
As a professor of neurobiology, McConnell says her approach has evolved. “I've come to appreciate that teaching biology is less about delivering content, and much more about equipping students with the information they need to come up with their own hypotheses and suggest their own experiments,” she says. This philosophy has helped earn her two of Stanford's highest teaching honors, the Hoagland Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and the Walter J. Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching.
McConnell is also driving change outside her own classroom. From 2010-2012, she co-chaired a university-wide commission that evaluated undergraduate education at Stanford. The intensive analysis culminated with recommendations for a wide variety of changes, including new breadth requirements based on “ways of thinking” and “ways of doing,” instead of traditional academic disciplines.
The experience highlighted for McConnell limitations in the way Stanford's biology students were taught to write effectively about their field. As a result, she worked to revise the biology courses that fulfilled Stanford's “Writing in the Major” requirement. Instead of writing and rewriting lab reports, biology majors can now choose to fulfill this requirement in a course that supports them through the writing of an honors thesis, or in an alternative course devoted to composing and revising a personal essay about biology for a mainstream audience.
McConnell also came to recognize the value of “capstone” experiences – year-long projects in which students integrate and reflect on their knowledge of their field. For many biology students at Stanford, senior-year honors research serves as a capstone experience. But McConnell wanted to extend the opportunity to students who chose not to do independent research. So she created the The Senior Reflection in Biology.
Students in the year-long course undertake a creative project about a scientific topic that is meaningful to them, refining their projects through workshops and peer critiques. Past students have composed a jazz score depicting the immune system; told of parasitic infection in a village in Ghana through sand animation; and commented on poaching of elephants in Namibia through spoken word poetry.
As she watches her students journey from an idea to a finished piece, McConnell recognizes parallels with the scientific process. “One of the things that happens when you get into a lab is you learn that science can be like banging your head against the wall,” she says. “It's not easy. You learn about failure, how to try it a little bit differently, how to be persistent. At the end, you have an incredible sense of ownership of the project and of your success. In these creative projects, students are going through almost precisely the same set of challenges of confronting the abyss.” After overcoming confusions and frustrations, she says, her students create powerful pieces that move their audiences.
McConnell knows firsthand that art has a unique power to communicate. The stunning images she captures of wildlife in Africa have been featured in magazines and blogs, including a cover of Smithsonian magazine. Others she donates directly to conservation organizations or sells in gallery shows, often with proceeds going to support conservation efforts. “I love the act of creating, of seeing through the lens of a camera and thinking, 'What do I want someone to feel?' as I compose an image.”