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Unformatted text preview: Interdisciplinary research and the
undergraduate biology student
Manuel Ares Jr
With scientific research becoming more interdisciplinary, it is important to consider changing the way we teach
undergraduates about science. Recently much has been said about the need to
remodel undergraduate biology curricula1–4.
The reasons are sound. Research in developmental, cell and molecular biology has been
radically transformed by new technology over
the past 25 years. New instrumentation, automation, micro-miniaturization and parallelization, along with massive data sets and the
computational analysis methods necessary to
digest them, are creating profound change. And
yet, the teaching solutions of 25 years ago remain
in wide use by all but the most creative teachers. For most of us with combined research and
teaching responsibilities, the sense of urgency
we feel to keep our research blades honed has
no real correlate in our teaching life.
For those of us who want to integrate
research and teaching at the interface of biology and engineering, the target keeps moving. As interdisciplinary research funding
increases, a new, more collaborative research
practice seems ready to supplant the ‘one PI,
one laboratory’ model. The transformation of
biomedical research by automation and computation is hastening this along, as many new
instruments are now priced beyond the budget of the typical laboratory. Interdisciplinary
research also requires extra effort on the part
of the PI. Learning unfamiliar jargon, knocking the rust off of long-dormant math skills,
and understanding the cultural vagaries of academic or company life in other disciplines take
more work, and this places additional pressure
on teaching time. This challenging transition
The author is in the Department of Molecular,
Cell and Developmental Biology, University of
California, Santa Cruz, California 95064, USA.
e-mail: [email protected] 1170 E. Boyle © 2004 Nature Publishing Group http://www.nature.com/nsmb C O M M E N TA R Y “I don't know what it does, but the data look great!”
promises to put even more distance between
research and teaching. Although it can be predicted that research will become more interdisciplinary, forces that constrain teaching to
be strictly disciplinary will remain strong.
If we believe that the best research is sustained by excellent teaching and that the best
teaching includes rapid transport of researchbased thinking to the classroom, then we ought
to admit that devoting attention to undergraduates will eventually accelerate research.
At this time, most undergraduate biology students are not engaged in a curriculum that
prepares them to think like interdisciplinary researchers2,3. It might be imagined that
undergraduates are more malleable, and thus
more receptive to interdisciplinary thinking.
But the seeds of disciplinary entrenchment
are sown in undergraduate classrooms. Time
spent unlearning these too-disciplinary habits and prejudices is part of the work required to
become an interdisciplinary thinker. What can
we do to encourage interdisciplinary thinking
in our undergraduate students from the start?
To explore this question I have been running
an experimental undergraduate research laboratory class with the support of the Howard
Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) professors
program (http://www.hhmi.org/research/professors/). In this laboratory class, which runs
continuously like any good research-based program, I try to create an environment in which
undergraduates majoring in computer science
and bioinformatics work together with molecular, cell and developmental biology majors. A
1,200 square foot teaching laboratory has been
converted for this purpose and is equipped with
servers, a microarray spotting robot, an array
scanner, a real-time PCR machine and other
toys, as well as standard molecular biology VOLUME 11 NUMBER 12 DECEMBER 2004 N ATURE STRUCTURAL & MOLECULAR BIOLOGY © 2004 Nature Publishing Group http://www.nature.com/nsmb C O M M E N TA R Y
equipment and materials. I have a number of
diverse projects for them to explore, primarily
high-risk and technology development efforts,
or early-stage technology application ideas that
require analysis and validation.
In many ways this little room models the
Janelia Farm concept5 at the undergraduate
level. It’s a place where similar ‘metabolic’ activities happen on a less grand and more decorative scale, a kind of Janelia flowerbox. Already
some very interesting things have emerged that
(of course) will require further testing and
assessment. But it seems clear to me that the
idea that we need not be concerned about interdisciplinary thinking at the undergraduate level
is wrong. In fact there are numerous traditional
practices that work against interdisciplinary
thinking in early and insidious ways. Some of
these disincentives are strongly practiced and
may be hard to overcome, as they are traditions of the undergraduate experience. Others
could be countered with efforts to encourage
students to reach across their experiences and
connect ideas more broadly. There are many
opportunities to teach students how to remain
open to adjacent disciplines before they learn
otherwise. Below are a few observations that
might benefit from more systematic analysis.
I become my major
After “what’s your sign?”, the question heard
most often on campus is “what’s your major?”
Admissions officers ask it, advisors ask it, parents ask it, and peers ask it. And students ask
themselves. For many, the choice of a major is
tied up with their own process of self-definition,
and can be less about what they want to learn
than about who they want to be. The process of
choosing a major is important for a variety of
reasons. It helps students structure a course of
study, provides an area for focused study while
ensuring sufficient breadth, allows campus
planning for resource allocation, and launches
careers. But as it provides students with a sense
of identity about their scholarship, it also too
often identifies what the student is not going to
do. The darker side to choosing a major is that
it begins the process of disciplinary allegiance,
and this leads to an expectation of limitations
that may not be necessary.
Part of this is simple human nature. The
need for identification with others like us is
one of those deeply primitive things that no
number of editorials will erase. The trick is to
make the students aware of how the process of
choosing may limit their own view of their true
interests and potential. It follows that the best
time to make this point is when the decision
on a major is being made. If we can encourage students to see this choice as a reflection of
what they want to learn, without viewing it as a decision about who they will be for the rest
of their lives, then interdisciplinary thinking
will come more easily to them later. Clearly,
the major is an inextricably entrenched feature
of undergraduate education around the world.
It should be far easier to construct a more
interdisciplinary biology curriculum than to
change how we view the traditional major. But
it seems likely that interdisciplinary thinking
will develop more easily for our students if we
cultivate the view that selecting a major doesn’t
involve an irreversible intellectual step away
from important topics.
If it doesn’t count toward my degree...
Once the major is chosen, the degree requirements become apparent. For majors in the
molecular and cell biology area, with a large
number of course requirements and an inviolate
prerequisite structure, getting it all in can be
constraining. This was recently brought to my
attention when my engineering colleagues Josh
Stuart and Peter Schattner launched a course to
teach the computer programming language Perl
and its biological applications to biology majors
lacking any previous programming experience.
My sense was that this course was exactly the
thing for the graduate student or postdoc of the
future to have under his or her belt. I talked it up
in the undergraduate laboratory class and more
than half of the biology students in the group
bought the idea. I personally believe such a class
should be required for all biology majors—not
so they can do their own programming, but
rather so they understand how computers are
used to study biology.
A problem arose when they discovered that
(as it was a new course) there was no mechanism to count it toward their degree. Several
students balked at this point, as they could not
afford to take an extra course and graduate on
time. (For a variety of complex reasons, a substantial fraction of University of California students take four years plus one term to graduate,
and this costs them extra money and time.) We
talked about curricula, how they evolve, and
how requirements in place today represent
the needs of the past—some of which are still
appropriate and some of which may be less
important—and that their goal should be to
learn for their future. In recognition of the fluid
nature of higher education, most universities
have a petition process that allows substitutions. Before the petitions could be approved,
the amount and type of work and its ‘equivalence’ to a molecular biology elective needed to
be determined. In this case, the course was considered equivalent to a ‘laboratory’ course, as
it required hands-on activity and analysis, and
had a practical character. Thus credited, the
students happily took the risk, and the class. N ATURE STRUCTURAL & MOLECULAR BIOLOGY VOLUME 11 NUMBER 12 DECEMBER 2004 Playing nicely with others
One day in the laboratory, two team members
were chatting when a biology student happily
suggested an approach to a problem, and a
bioinformatics student responded in a sweetly
mocking tone that it was a good idea, but that
“in order to do that you’d have to know something about computers.” Apparently some line
had been crossed in their relationship and
boundaries were gently being reestablished.
This and similar chatter I have heard suggest
to me that in interdisciplinary research it may
be more important to know simply how to
communicate with someone in another discipline than to know that discipline intimately.
I have found this to be true in my own interdisciplinary efforts, and it is already observable
in undergraduates from different majors who
work together. Identity and roles are established. Value systems and language differ. What
constitutes a contribution, how results are communicated, and how credit is apportioned are
different in different fields. Ultimately the best
science will come when interdisciplinary team
members can address the same question in a
coordinated fashion using diverse approaches.
But before that can happen, culture gaps must
be breached, communication must take place,
and some roles must be established.
I have tested this a little in both cultural directions. Each bioinformatics student is encouraged to get directly involved in wet-laboratory
experiments, usually a simple PCR reaction followed by agarose gel electrophoresis. Most can
stand to do only one or two gels before going
back to the keyboard, but a few really do enjoy
it. At the very least, they learn the challenges
and labor necessary to produce even a small
wet-laboratory result. By the same token, the
biology students get some programming experience in the Perl class, and most have not left
the bench for the keyboard. But each side learns
what the other is up against. Each side learns
the physical demands and time constraints of
the other’s activities and some of the language,
challenges and rewards of what the others do.
This kind of cultural exchange is exceedingly
valuable in their team efforts as each has more
appreciation for and patience with their teammates. Although it may seem that this activity
ultimately more strongly reinforces roles and
constrains the activities of individuals, it actually broadens experience and seems to make
better interdisciplinary teams.
Beige box syndrome
Growing up with a dad who is an electrical engineer did not create for me any special attraction
to computers or electronics. But my dad fixed
every electronic item in our house, multiple
times if necessary (as was often the case), and 1171 © 2004 Nature Publishing Group http://www.nature.com/nsmb C O M M E N TA R Y
this gave me the opportunity to see the interesting guts of these things splayed about. Thus,
although I have never completely understood
how they work, I have never been afraid to open
them up and look inside, especially if they are
already broken (and also unplugged). The electronics industry no longer builds things that
can be opened up and put back together easily,
so our children have a harder time becoming
exposed to the inside of the box. Perhaps this
is safer, but I believe this has had a negative
effect on the relationship between people and
machines, leading to fear of the box.
How then will biology students learn to think
about instrumentation? The current state of
affairs seems to indicate that it is best they simply call the tech support hotline. We probably
all have made the same observations regarding new instruments that have come along.
Oligonucleotide synthesizers, DNA sequencers,
laser scanning imagers, colony pickers, microarray scanners and microarray printers have
been hatched as large bulky machines with
tubes and wires everywhere, bolted to vibration
isolation tables, filling substantial parts of the
rooms they occupy, and priced beyond the reach
of most laboratories or departments. After commercial metamorphosis we find them as beige
boxes priced almost within reach of the average
laboratory. Biologists may be especially happy
not to worry about instruments, as although
their training may demand that they open frogs,
it rarely demands that they open machines. But
if you see only the box, and you can’t open up
the box, how are you going to conceive of an
instrument that does for you what you currently
do with your hands, or does it faster and in parallel on more samples than you can imagine?
I wanted to observe undergraduate students
working in the laboratory with an unboxed
instrument, and the microarray printer, built
during a summer course taught by Joe DeRisi, 1172 does nicely. It is finicky enough and has enough
exposed cables that it cannot be described
as refined, and it is big, bolted to an isolation
table, and there are places you shouldn’t stand
while it is running. There is not a spot of beige
on it. Of course instruments like this need
carbon-based units as essential components.
We have Lily Shiue, our expert arrayer technologist, to mother this big baby, and to explain
to us its care and feeding. But the students have
responded very well to the opportunity to work
with this machine, even when it means staying
up all night. Unfortunately, there is not much
relevant to instrumentation in the current biology curriculum, and most of the students who
take jobs in the biotechnology industry see
and operate such instruments only after they
graduate. Biology curricula ought to include
something more concerning the operation,
capabilities and limitations of instruments,
perhaps through connections with analytical
chemistry or physics.
Back to the future
What can we do at the undergraduate level
to enhance the success of students in the
interdisciplinary research of the future?
Emphasizing the major as a mechanism
to explore an area of interest rather than a
lifelong vocational commitment may help
students retain their interests in multiple
disciplines. Revolutionizing the curriculum
seems impossibly political and laboratoryintensive, but where special new courses
can be offered, every effort should be made
to allow them to satisfy requirements. An
important common language that allows
interdisciplinary communication is math
and statistics, and in these areas biologists
often bring rusty skills2,3,6. It may not be
necessary to overhaul the entire biology curriculum if appropriate courses in statistics, beginner programming, and instrumentation are available and can satisfy existing requirements. Research experiences in
which undergraduates can be members of
an interdisciplinary research team should
also be cultivated, as it is widely held that
doing research has a profound impact on
The above recommendations are simple to
implement at the grassroots level. On the part
of those of us engaged in research and teaching at research universities, they ask only that
we stay aware of the changes in our field, and
recognize when interdisciplinary opportunities
become apparent. Even if we are not engaged
in interdisciplinary research ourselves, we
can advise our students to keep their minds
open, challenge them to look ahead to a time
when they will lead, and support a more rapid
evolution of our curricula so that important
new courses survive long enough to become
established. Hopefully these ideas are practical
enough that we can all get started right now,
without having to write another grant.
I thank G. Hartzog for stimulating discussions and
Y. Mandel-Gutfreund and S. Srinivasan for their
expert mentorship of undergraduate researchers.
1. Committee on Undergraduate Biology Education to
Prepare Research Scientists for the 21st Century.
BIO2010: transforming undergraduate education for
future research biologists (National Research Council,
National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2003).
2. Bialek, W. & Botstein, D. Introductory science and
mathematics education for 21st-century biologists.
Science 303, 788–790 (2004).
3. Gross, L.J. Interdisciplinarity and the undergraduate
biology curriculum: finding a balance. Cell Biol. Educ.
3, 85–87 (2004).
4. Handelsman, J. et al. Education. Scientific teaching.
Science 304, 521–522 (2004).
5. Cech, T.R. & Rubin, G.M. Nurturing interdisciplinary research. Nat. Struct. Mol. Biol. 11, 1166–1169
6. May, R.M. Uses and abuses of mathematics in biology.
Science 303, 790–793 (2004). VOLUME 11 NUMBER 12 DECEMBER 2004 N ATURE STRUCTURAL & MOLECULAR BIOLOGY ...
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This document was uploaded on 01/03/2012.
- Fall '09