December 2009

Letters for A Teachable Moment


Kudos for your column in the October issue of ASBMB Today. For someone of your stature to write 2.5 pages on science education issues marks a major step forward for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. We’ve come to expect columns about God, tales of your training background or ideas for the next research challenge and how to attack it, so this was a nice change of pace.

It may be a symptom of my advancing years, but the issue of training the next generation has become very important to me. I attended the ASBMB-sponsored Colorado College conference, "Student-Centered Education in the Molecular Life Sciences," for two reasons: First, I had a renewal application due for our Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science for Life Program for undergraduate research and education, and, second, because I promised myself that I would attend one conference per year that was not entirely focused on my personal research interests. While the plenary lectures were interesting, the best part of the conference was the morning and afternoon workshops that explored new approaches to teaching topics in biochemistry and molecular biology. For me, these were real eye-openers, and they fulfilled my goal of coming back with new ideas.

It’s only a small point, but I want to mention that our HHMI program here is designed to get early undergraduates into research laboratories of all kinds as soon as possible. We believe that many freshmen coming out of high school today are prepared to handle complex research questions and to utilize challenging laboratory techniques with a minimal amount of training by graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty mentors. I find over and over that the details of chemistry and biology related to the projects under way in my own laboratory are not difficult for these young students to master. Thus, the age-old bias of faculty in general, and especially senior faculty, to avoid undergraduates in their labs "until after they’ve had two semesters of organic chemistry" no longer holds true. The advantage of having students start early in the research laboratory is that frequently they are able to accomplish more than enough to merit getting their names on at least one publication from the lab, which helps them in all future steps in their careers.

Best wishes and keep the hits coming,
Ben Dunn

University of Florida

Dear Greg,

I was pleased to read your President’s Message this month ("A Teachable Moment"), which described the findings and directives of the Teagle working group and proposed a role for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the revitalization of biochemistry and molecular biology education. I was especially struck by your observation that "there’s a disconnect between what we believe and what we are doing" with regard to the importance of skills in BMB education.

I would like to propose that one of the most powerful changes we could make as a society to help improve student preparation in speaking, writing, teamwork and other skills is to change how each of us views ourselves as teachers in these areas. As a group, scientists who teach at colleges and universities tend to regard the teaching of these essential professional skills as someone else’s domain. For example, few of us received formal training in English composition and, therefore, we are most comfortable leaving the teaching of writing to our colleagues in the humanities. Yet, what many of us fail to recognize is that most of us who have reached the position of professor know a lot about what it takes to be a good writer, speaker or team player in the sciences.

Once we realize that having these skills is a small step from being able to teach these skills to our students, our outlook on what is possible in the science classroom becomes radically different. Seeing ourselves as experts not only in our area of scientific interest but also in scientific writing, speaking, etc., empowers us to consider how to blend the teaching of content and the teaching of skills so that learning of both happens simultaneously.

Thanks for your interest and creative perspective on teaching. Improving student learning in BMB is the only guaranteed way to ensure a bright and productive future for our field.

Jenny Loertscher

Seattle University

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