Teaching undergraduates
professional skills

Published August 08 2016

As educators who spend most of our time teaching biochemistry to undergraduate students, we can become mired in developing subject-specific proficiencies. Developing our students’ writing and other professional skills is not always a priority. But surveys have shown repeatedly that employers place tremendous value on the ability to work effectively in a team as well as verbal, critical thinking and written skills.

To help our students acquire the skills necessary to be successful in their scientific careers, we have designed and implemented writing projects in two sequential courses in our biochemistry curriculum that work synergistically. The first semester is designed around a putative protein that students research using bioinformatics tools and write up as a paper. The second semester is a grant writing project that builds upon the skills gained in the first semester.

Like most things, we arrived at the current version of the project after several rounds of trial and error. The first semester already had a writing project, so we started by adding a grant writing project into the second semester of a biochemistry course. A grant writing project had the potential to meet our desired outcome of teaching critical thinking, verbal communication, writing and teamwork. However, we found that while students could propose ways to test novel hypotheses, they struggled with the initial novel hypothesis generation.

To address this problem and increase student exposure to bioinformatics methods, we next replaced the first-semester writing project with what we now call the Putative Protein Project. At the time, the first semester had a literature-based project in which students were asked to choose a well-characterized enzyme and write a review paper about its structure and function. While this assignment did give students experience with scientific writing and searching the primary literature, it did not give students the experience of generating novel hypotheses or results. In the new version of the writing project, students now choose a putative protein and use bioinformatics resources and the primary literature to generate a hypothesis for that protein’s biological role.

By all accounts, this new sequence of projects improved the ability and confidence of our students to develop novel hypotheses, which they could then put into practice during their grant writing project in the following semester. Some groups even used their putative protein as the springboard for their grant proposal.

Of course, over time, both projects went through further rounds of revision. It became clear that the most interesting putative protein projects tended to come from putative proteins of non-mammalian origin since there often are very close homologs of mammalian proteins that have been studied extensively. In fact, the best putative proteins most often come from interesting bacteria or fungi. For example, students have identified previously uncharacterized drug-resistance transporters from pathogenic strains of bacteria and novel proton pumps in halophiles. For the grant proposal project, we introduced additional assignments, such as turning in a draft of the research methods section, to allow the instructor to give feedback earlier in the semester and to help keep students on task.

Based upon student feedback and our general observations, we made a concerted effort to increase the peer review portions of the grant writing exercises. The first full draft is carefully peer-reviewed by multiple groups of students. Students report that reading the drafts of other grant projects helps them present and refine their own ideas and helps them understand how the grant-review process works. In addition, the students critique the presentations of the proposals so students can receive feedback on their oral communication skills and content.

Although the two-semester sequence of writing projects was designed to allow students to develop the skills necessary to generate high quality original written grant proposals, we have found that one of the most important outcomes is that the projects give students practice with critical thinking, oral communication and teamwork skills. The writing assignments work well for two semesters of biochemistry, but the assignments could be adapted to other life science courses that are taken in sequence. We believe that the progressive building of skills — beginning with the experience in the first semester of generating and interpreting data and following it with the practice of hypothesis generation and experimental design in the second semester — is more important than the specific content of the courses.

Student reflections

I learned how to write a grant proposal according to standards of the National Institutes of Health (and gained an appreciation for researchers that have to do this all the time). It was tough to keep certain sections — like the specific aims — down to one page but it was a good lesson in being concise and to the point in our writing.

– Alex Rogalski at St. Mary’s College of Maryland

Although we didn’t continue with our bioinformatics project from last semester, we were able to apply our skills at finding and reading through appropriate scientific journals and working together as a team (splitting the work/sections) to the grant proposal this semester.

I learned the exact components that make up a grant proposal and the importance of making sure that your research will be novel and significant. I also learned about the significance of the peer review process.

– Sarah Lock at St. Mary’s College of Maryland

The grant proposal project allowed us to research cutting-edge (science) which is always really awesome. When I was researching internships for the summer, I actually knew a lot about the different projects based on the research I had conducted while doing this (course).

I think one of the most challenging aspects was trying to come up with novel ideas. It took a lot of research into figuring out what we currently know about a particular topic, and then determining the gaps in our current knowledge and how we can address this.

Learning how to use all of the bioinformatics sites was really useful because we all had tons of tools at our disposal for preliminary research. For example, if we wished to look at a particular drug’s interaction with an active site we could model it in Chimera and see exactly how it worked.

– Taylor Engdahl at St. Mary’s College of Maryland

One of the most challenging aspects of this project was learning how to do deal with differences in opinion and learning how to compromise in order to work as a cohesive team. This is a life skill (that) will be necessary in professional environments.

– Megan LaSavage at St. Mary’s College of Maryland

I learned that it is OK to completely drop your original grant idea and work on something else with more potential.

– Stephen Swanson at St. Mary’s College of Maryland

The grant project allowed us to integrate what we had learned in class with our interests and apply it in a real-world situation. It made us think critically about which techniques would be the most useful in a given situation and how we could use them to further the research in that particular area. It also gave us a chance to better our scientific writing, which we can normally do only on lab reports. I think working in partners also helped prepare us for our careers, where we will often be working with a partner or team and need to produce a single, cohesive document, such as a report, grant or paper.

– Autumn Bernicky at Albion College

Pamela Mertz Pamela Mertz is an associate professor ofchemistry and biochemistry at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
Craig Streu Craig Streu is anassistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Albion College.