Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Grad publication: Tracy Larson

New Neurons Replace Naturally Dying Neurons in the Adult Brain

            Neurogenesis, or the birth of new neurons in the adult brain, occurs widely across animal species, including mammals (and humans) but to a more limited degree than birds and fish. In mammals, neurogenesis occurs in its highest levels after physical injuries to the brain following stroke and traumatic brain injuries. This type neurogenic response to injury-induced neural death is called reactive neurogenesis and is thought to repair neural circuit and restore ‘normal’ behavior.

            Neuroscientists were previously aware that injury-induced neural reactive neurogenesis occurs, however no previous studies had described reactive neurogenesis following ‘natural’ neural loss such as that which occurs with aging, depression, and other neurodegenerative diseases. To ask whether natural reactive neurogenesis occurs in the adult brain, the authors exploited the natural neuronal death that occurs in the brain circuit that controls singing behavior in Gambel’s white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophyrus gambellii).

            This study discovered for the first time new neurons are produced in the adult brain to compensate for neural loss that occurs naturally in the brain. Moreover, the researchers found that if neuronal death is prevented, reactive neurogenesis does not occur, suggesting neuronal death is absolutely necessary for reactive neurogenesis to occur. Describing the phenomenon of neuronal birth following natural neuronal death in the adult brain will allow future exploration into potential mechanisms that give rise to this process and the function adult-born neurons serve. We can now ask: What genes and signals are naturally dying neurons producing to initiate the production of new neurons? Can we exploit these signals to prompt brain repair during aging, depression and other neurodegenerative conditions? If we can induce reactive neurogenesis in the pathological brain, will these new neurons restore normal behavior? Investigation of these questions could ultimately lead to the development of therapeutics that reduce neural death, stimulate neural regeneration, and restore lost functions and behavior in the human brain. Thus, this research has the ability to transform the way nonscientists think and the way clinicians treat patients with neural damaging disorders.

Written by: Marianne Cole, Undergraduate Student, University of Washington, Department of Psychology

Edited by: Tracy Larson, Graduate Student, University of Washington, Department of Biology
Original article: Larson TA, Thatra NM†, Lee B†, Brenowitz EA. (2014) Reactive neurogenesis in response to naturally occurring apoptosis in an adult brain. The Journal of Neuroscience. 34(39): 13066-76 doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3316-13.2014 PMID: 25253853

Related Press:
Local and National
S Hines, University of Washington News and Information. (2014) Dying brain cells cue new brain cells to grow in songbird
Three Sentence Science. (2014) Dying brain cells cue up new ones in songbirds


Monday, October 13, 2014

Carrie Glenney: Why lactation rooms matter

Edited to add: This post does not mean to imply that the University of Washington is not meeting the legal requirements for providing lactation facilities. There are 6 buildings on campus that provide lactation facilities

A lack of access to lactation rooms might be a widespread issue for women in academia. As demonstrated in the Biology Department at University of Washington, it can also be a relatively simple problem to solve. Ensuring lactation room access for all women in academia would send a very important message: we support you.
Although women make up more than 50% of science PhDs earned, they are more likely than men to leave the academic sciences at every stage on the way to obtaining a tenured position at a college or university. A study by Marc Goulden, Karie Frasch, and Mary Ann Mason suggests that becoming a mom may be one major determinant of this trend: married mothers with young children are less likely than both single and married women without young children, and 35% less likely than married fathers, to achieve tenure at a college or university.

PhD students and post-docs specifically may face obstacles that make having a child feel antithetical to continuing in academia: a lack of paid and limited unpaid parental leave, limited affordable childcare, or lack of advisor or departmental support. Although many of these issues affect fathers as well as mothers, surveys with University of California post-doctoral scholars at both the beginning and end of their programs showed that of those who had children during their post-doc, women were twice as likely as men to change their career goal away from “professor with a research emphasis”.

Why does having a baby seem to hinder a woman’s academic career but not a man’s? What unique obstacles do female PhD students and post-docs with children face on the pathway to a career in academia?
I had my son during the third year of my PhD and I anticipated and experienced some of the issues addressed above. But the complete lack of one resource in particular surprised me the most. In many cases, this resource is actually a legal right. It’s relatively straightforward to provide. And I think mandating its presence in every department would go a long way towards making mothers in academia feel more accepted and supported.
Lactation rooms.
Returning to work after having or adopting a baby can be HARD, no matter where you work, and no matter how much you might love your job. You might be operating on a handful of hours of sleep a night. Your body might be still healing from childbirth. You might feel a mix of emotions about returning to work and physically being apart from your baby. You might not feel physically or emotionally ready to come back to work but at the same time feel that you don’t have a choice. And for those mothers who are able and chose to breastfeed, there’s the where, when, and how to navigate around pumping.
Logistically, continuing to breastfeed even when you’re not physically around your baby can be tricky. For those who aren’t familiar, here are some of the logistics. A woman’s body produces only the amount of milk it thinks the baby needs. The body forecasts how much milk it thinks it should make based on how much was used in the past. If less is used, less is made in the future. In order to convince your body to continue making the same amount of milk even when your baby isn’t around, you need to remove milk at least as frequently as your baby would (in the range of every 2 to 4 hours) and sometimes more often (because pumps don’t remove milk as efficiently as a baby). Pumping frequently and for enough time is important for maintaining milk production, but it’s also essential to prevent a very painful infection called mastitis. Once the milk is pumped, most moms store it in the fridge or freezer and it’s given to their baby through a bottle when the mom isn’t around to breastfeed. Removing the milk requires a pump (most women use electric pumps), plastic pieces that need to be washed after each use, cold storage, and a stress-free environment. 
The last requirement may surprise you. Milk flow actually requires the release of the hormone oxytocin (the “love” hormone), a process usually stimulated by baby. In the absence of baby, women use other methods to encourage milk flow (like looking at a photo of her baby), but stress, fatigue, or even being cold can make this very difficult. Therefore, a private, clean, comfortable space with a locking door is essential. Ideally, there is also a sink for washing parts, a fridge for milk storage, and desk space so work can continue if desired. Most PhD students and post-docs share an office with others so they cannot or understandably might not want to pump in their office. Often women are relegated to bathrooms to pump, but any place where you would not want to eat lunch is also not a place where a mom will want to pump milk for her baby. Pumping can take 10-30 minutes a session and has to happen every 2-4 hours, so location convenience is also an important factor for accessibility. 
Source: milkitkit.com
When Hannah Kinmonth-Schultz (also a PhD student and mom) and I decided to ask the Biology Department for a lactation room, we first conducted a departmental survey to determine the need. We found that the need was far greater than we’d anticipated: 7 of the 86 total female respondents (8%) said they anticipated a need for a lactation room within the next 12 months or have a current need. 81% of respondents who already have children said they would have benefited from a departmental lactation room.  Convenience was an important factor: only 1 mom reported using the campus lactation facility located about a five minute walk away. Other moms used the bathroom (and one mom reported throwing all her milk away for sanitation purposes) or borrowed other people’s offices if they didn’t have their own. One mom commented, “I can't tell you how many uncomfortable places I have pumped!”

Beyond the need for a space to meet the physical needs of pumping moms, providing an accessible lactation room for every mom in academia sends an important message: we support you and your family. Many women in academia who want to have children are hearing a different message: this is not the time or place for a baby. In addition to the implicit message sent by the lack of resources and support from the institution itself, many women may be discouraged outright by mentors, advisors, or even peers. I have had personal experiences with this* and I’m sure others have as well.  Academia is an environment where there’s often little distinction between “work” and “life”, let alone a balance, and it’s easy to feel like family planning should take the back burner or you’ll risk harming your career. So returning to work to find that the most basic of necessities, like a place to pump, aren’t available to you can make you feel like your choice to have a child is not supported. In addition, some advisors may not understand the importance of providing the time and physical space for pumping (although my advisor was wonderfully accommodating); or a female graduate student might feel understandably reticent about broaching the topic of breastfeeding with a male advisor. In the comment section of our departmental survey, one mom addressed the emotional toll of having no place to pump by saying “having a lactation room in the biology department while I was nursing would have gone a long way towards helping me feel accepted. I felt extreme guilt and very alone. As a result I think that my research progress suffered much more than it would have if impacted just by my new time constraints.” Another said “stopping pumping because of lack of convenient facilities was especially hard for me and not ideal for baby.” Even though breastfeeding is hard, many moms want to keep at it because it can have such wonderful benefits: money savings from not needing to buy formula (~$100/month), nutritional and immunity benefits for baby, and the baby-mother bonding that breastfeeding facilitates. Yet ¼ of the respondents in our survey said they quit breastfeeding earlier than they wanted to because they had nowhere to pump.
This is just a snapshot demonstrating the need for a lactation facility in one department at one university, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that other departments have a similar scenario- and they may not even know it.
As Stanford University stated in 2006 “… a woman's prime childbearing years are the same years she is likely to be in graduate school, doing postdoctoral training, and establishing herself in a career." If we want to support women in academia, one of the most important things we can do is acknowledge that some will want to start their families during this time and to support them when they do. I’m proud to be of a department that is taking steps in this direction by establishing a lactation room** (it should be available soon). Even when space is limited or money is tight, a little creativity can help convert a space to be used for this purpose. For example, our department is currently converting the departmental break room in the Kincaid building into a shared space that can function as a private lactation room during non-meal hours.   
Of course, we need a multi-pronged approach to support women in academia and to support both women AND men who want to start families while in academia. Ensuring access to lactation rooms is only one step… but a meaningful one.
Other than the departmental survey we conducted last year, I don’t know of any studies that have been done to look at whether there is a widespread lack of access to lactation rooms in universities and colleges. In hopes of getting the dialogue about this issue rolling: if you are (or know of) someone*** at a university or college who needs a lactation room and doesn’t have access to one, or has a story about starting a lactation room at another department or institution, or just wants to lend your support, please visit our facebook group Lactademia.
* I would like to extend a thank you to my own advisor (Ben Kerr) and the Kerr lab. They have given me nothing but support, including moving offices around so I would have a place to pump. Thank you!
** Special thanks to all who helped make the UW Biology Department lactation room a reality: Hannah Kinmonth-Schultz, Diversity committee members Horacio de la Iglesia, Andrea Prado, Rose Ann Cattolico, Greg Wilson, Linda Martin-Morris, Sarah Eddy, Julian Avila, and Camilla Crifo; Executive committee members Toby Bradshaw, Michele Conrad, Carl Bergstrom, David Perkel, and Jennifer Ruesink; Graduate Program Director Marissa Heringer.
*** The issue of access to lactation rooms also affects lab technicians, faculty, and many others in the academic world. This article focuses primarily on post-docs and graduate students because those are the individuals I’ve interacted with the most about this issue and the levels of academia with which I am most familiar. But the ultimate goal is “access for all.”

Monday, October 6, 2014

Grad publication: Camilla Crifò

Plant fossils consist mostly of isolated organs that are poorly informative of plant life form and ecosystem structure. Therefore, questions like “when did the first Neotropical forest originated?”  are still debated. We used leaf vein density (a trait visible on leaf compressions) as a tool to reconstruct the occurrence of stratified forests with a canopy dominated by angiosperms. In fact, this trait (similarly to others) is particularly variable in flowering plants, whereas it is scarcely plastic in all other plant groups. Leaf physiological traits are know to vary within a forest depending on the strata where a leaf is located, reflecting ecological adaptation to different microenvironments. The main trigger of these variations is light availability, especially in Neotropical forest, where no other factor is limiting plant growth. 

Leaf vein density is positively correlated with conductance and water vapor; increasing vein density allows more efficient transpiration. Previous studies had reported higher vein density in leaves from top tree branches (fully sun-exposed) and lower vein density in leaves from bottom tree branches (shaded). However this trend had never been studied before on a large spatial scale. 

Using a 40-meter-tall canopy crane equipped with a gondola, we were able to collect leaves from the very top of the tree. We measure leaf vein density of 132 species from two Panamanian tropical forests and one temperate forest in Maryland (US), and we compared the values of canopy-top and forest-bottom  leaves. We show that venation density is higher in the leaves located in the forest canopy and decreases in the lower levels. Furthermore leaves from the forest litter conserve this pattern. Because the forest litter is the closest analog to fossil floras, leaf vein density can be used in the fossil record to reconstruct the emergence of flowering plants in the upper forest strata. Vein density data from the literature from the Hauterivian (132.5 Ma) to the Paleocene (58 Ma) show that vein density values similar to present ones appeared at least 58 Ma. Therefore, the emergence of flowering plants in the canopy occurred at least in the Paleocene.

I plan in the future to extend this study to other environments (e.g. more open, gymnosperm-dominated), and to herbaceous plants.


Read the paper here! Excerpts of this came from a review written here.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Departmental retreat recap

Now that the academic year is in full swing, the leaves are changing colors, and our schedules are filling up with grant applications and office hours, let's take a moment to reflect on the glory that was the 2014 Biology Department Retreat two weekends ago.

Per department custom, the 2014 retreat was held at our gorgeous marine lab in Friday Harbor, WA (note, you can take classes and do research there!).  The weather was perfect (we've been told it's always like that at FHL) and wildlife viewing was plentiful. Lot's of mammals, reptiles, birds, and invertebrates were spotted, not least of which included a particularly friendly red fox, black-tailed deer, racoons, harbor seals, harbor porpoises, California sea lions, killer whales (!!!), California quail, ravens, red tailed hawk, pine siskin, brown creeper, red-breasted nuthatch, band-tailed pigeon, garter snakes, rough skinned newt, alligator lizards, sandlance, pacific herring, possibly cod, metridium, hydramedusa, and more.

Also seen were beautiful starry night skies and shooting stars (too many to count!) up above and bio-luminescence in the water below.

If you missed it, take a look at the photos below and be sure to make it to the next one!

Sunrise as seen from the labs. Photo by Yasmeen Hussain.
Looking out at the FHL dock. Photo by Will King.
Pacific madrona and the harbor. Photo by Yasmeen Hussain.

Rough skinned newt and a banana slug. Photo by Leith Miller.
Red fox! Photo by Jared Grummer.

A member of the southern resident killer whales, as seen from shore on the west side of San Juan island. Bonus points if you can ID the individual. Photo by Jared Grummer.

A biology grad watches killer whales from shore in the morning before science talks. Photo by Jared Grummer.

Gorgeous stained creatures in the Summers lab. Photo by Katrina van Raay.
Little blue skate. Photo by Katrina van Raay.
FHL dock and town in the distance. Photo by Yasmeen Hussain.

The Centennial and night sky. Photo by Jared Grummer.

The milky way or the Salish sea? Looking straight up from the dock. Photo by Katrina van Raay.

Night lighting off the dock. Photo by Katrina van Raay.

The glow of the mainland. Photo by Jared Grummer.

In addition to this spectacular scenery, we also heard from biology grads, post docs, and faculty who gave research presentations on a diverse array of topics.
See you next year at the retreat! Photo by Jared Grummer.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Review: Climate change course in China

BioGrad Foen Peng spent several weeks in China learning about climate change this summer. Read about his experience below!

This summer, I was enrolled in the Ecology of Climate Changecourse in Xishuanbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Yunnan, China. This course lasted for about one month. We had 26 classmates in total, who were from 16 countries in Asia, Europe and America. Our lecturers were also from diverse countries.

It was really fun to communicate with students from diverse countries. A lot of our lecturers asked students to connect the impacts of climate change with our respective background, like local agricultural changes, farmers’ experiences, and vegetation changes. For example, the oral history class asked us to do an interview with one or two local farmers in our own countries. When we were discussing our data, we were surprised to find that our results were so different: farmers in some regions like Kashmir, India have experienced dramatic changes in recent decades– as a result of water availability and increased temperatures they have changed the major agricultural plants they grow. However, in some regions of America, farmers don’t believe and even refuse to talk about climate change.

The course schedule was very tight. We learned a lot about climate change in that month. I think what I got most from this course is an understanding of the importance of multicultural communication, especially in dealing with the global issue of climate change. 


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Sonia Singhal: Exploding Bacteria!

 "…very small living creatures in rain water."

The evolution course I took as an undergraduate was co-taught by two professors, one who studied butterflies and the other (my advisor at the time) who studied viral ecology and evolution. For one of the classes, the butterfly professor brought in models and pinned specimens to show off their beautiful patterns. My advisor decided he couldn’t be one-upped. “I had organism envy,” he explained to us as he passed around Petri dishes on which some viruses had been grown.

The organisms we study are all interesting and dynamic, but that can be easy to forget when they’re things that are not publicly “charismatic”, not bright and colorful or cute and cuddly, or just too small to see. For example, I only see bacteria when there are millions of them in one place, enough to turn liquid turbid or form a small, moist-looking dab on a Petri dish. At this scale, it can seem as though things are fairly static. The liquid only becomes so turbid. The moist dab only grows to a certain circumference. 

But during a synthetic biology course from Eric Klavins (UW Electrical Engineering), I had a chance to see my bacteria as individuals, rather than a collective. We decided that we wanted to characterize how individual bacterial cells were growing, so we turned to microscopy. Looking through the microscope, where little oblong cells zipped about or turned abstractedly in circles, was like discovering an entire new world. Oh—this is what my organism looks like! This is how it behaves! Then we added antibiotics and watched the cells explode, which was ay more fun than it should have been.

Video credit: Sonia Singhal, Rashmi Ravichandran, Gregory Rowe, Rob Egbert
Time series taken over 16 hours, with one hour of growth preceding the addition of antibiotic (ampicillin). Original (and larger) video here.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Grad Publication: Emily Bain, Anna McCann, Larissa Patterson

Pigment pattern is a defining characteristic of many animals that is more than just beautiful to look at; stripes, spots, and bright colors function in many behaviors such as warning coloration, mate recognition, and camouflage. Even among closely related species, pigment patterns can be stunningly diverse. In the Parichy lab, we use the pigment pattern of the adult zebrafish, Danio rerio, to study molecular and cellular mechanisms of pattern formation and how these processes evolve between species.

The stripes on a zebrafish are composed of three different cell types: black melanophores, yellow orange xanthophores, and iridescent iridophores. We know from previous work that interactions between pigment cells are crucial for stripe formation, but cues from the environment tell the pigment cells when and where to show up.
In this paper, we discuss the role of thyroid hormone in the development of different pigment cell lineages and metamorphosis using genetic mutants as well as a new technique to ablate the thyroid follicles in living fish. We find that no thyroid hormone results in no xanthophores, more melanophores, and a host of other developmental delays. On the other hand, too much thyroid hormone in the opallus mutant yields many more xanthophores, fewer melanophores, and other heterochronies in developmental milestones. Interestingly, the pigment pattern and anatomical features of the opallus mutant resemble D. albolineatus, a species that is closely related to D. rerio suggesting that the thyroid hormone pathway is involved in the divergence of these danios. By ablating the thyroid follicles in the other species, we learned that D. albolineatus have evolved a distinct pigment cell population that is independent of thyroid hormone while other functions of the hormone remain conserved.

These are just a few of the exciting new findings in this jam-packed report. Be sure to check it out (even if it’s just for the stellar pictures)!


Read the paper here!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Grad Publication: Edith Pierre-Jerome

The plant hormone auxin is involved in almost every aspect of plant growth and development.  Auxin has been studied for well over a century and while many aspects of its function have been elucidated, the details of how this one molecule can coordinate so many critical responses have remained a mystery.  A large facet of auxin function has been tied to its regulation of gene expression through a signaling pathway composed of only a handful of key components, each of which belongs to a large gene family. One attractive hypothesis for the diversity of auxin signaling responses is that functional divergence between signaling component family members could provide variation in response to a generic auxin signal.  Thus, different component family members can be used in combination to elicit distinct responses depending on the cellular complement of components. (For more details, see the review I co-authored that was published last summer). However, this pathway is complicated by genetic redundancy and co-expression of signaling component family members, auxin trafficking, and feedback that buffer perturbations to the pathway.

To simplify matters, I worked as part of a collaborative team between the Nemhauser (Biology) and Klavins (Electrical Engineering) labs to introduce all of the components of the auxin response pathway from the plant Arabidopsis thaliana to the fungus Saccharomyces cerevisiae (Baker's yeast).  In this way, we could test and expand our understanding of how auxin signaling components work together to generate diverse responses to auxin.  In our recent publication, we were an;e to show that the core auxin signaling components can reproduce auxin-induced gene expression in yeast - a feat possible thanks to the remarkable conservation of cellular machinery in eukaryotes. By applying the tenets of synthetic biology to recapitulate auxin signalling in yeast, we could systematically incorporate and vary individual components and component family members to precisely quantify the timing and performance of auxin signaling circuits. As a result, we were able to generate a new suite of tools for engineering complex synthetic systems and also gained unexpected insights into why plants can use auxin so effectively.

Check out a review here and read the most recent paper here!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Summer Plans: How can you not want to be a scientist?

      The grads of UW Biology will be spending the next few months diving into their research and soaking up some of that delicious and outrageous Seattle sunshine.

Brandon Peecook: "I'll be land-cruisin' around Africa collecting 1/4 billion year old fossils, discerning patterns of extinction and recovery, and trying to not be eaten by several known man-eaters."

(Dr.) Kelsey Byers: "I'll be traipsing around the Alps collecting floral scent and tissue from alpine orchids!"

Jack Cerchiara: "I'll be spending my summer studying the physiology of aging in Magellanic penguins."

Jake Cooper: "I'll be modeling how sex with neighbors is different from sex with randos."

Yasmeen Hussain: "I'll be watching sperm swim and making (urchin) babies."

Michael Dorrity: "I'll be pitting millions of yeast against each other in fiercely competitive agar-digging tournaments."

Stephanie Crofts: "I'll be playing with fish and finding new ways to crush shells."

David DeMar Jr.: "I'll be the field crew chief in northeastern Montana for the Hell Creek III project with hopes of finding a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton for the UW Burke Museum."

Melissa Eng: "I'll be collecting time lapse images of developing fruit fly larvae to understand what contributes to maintained distinction between axons and dendrites (transmitters and receivers of information)."

Derek Smith: "I'll be following up on 2300-year-old benthic settlement experiments started by ancient Greek and Roman sailors when their ships and artifacts went down throughout the Mediterranean Sea."

Joshua Swore: "I'll be looking at and comparing babies... baby invertebrates found in the Puget Sound while they develop."

Leander Love-Anderegg: "I'll be exploring how Rocky Mountain forests deal with drought by shooting trees with a shotgun."

Stephanie Smith: "I am going to dig up some tiny fossil teeth and help Dave find that T. rex that he wants so much. "

Casey Self: "Defending, then starting a project measuring cranial suture patency in adult humans"

Jennifer Day: "I'll be watching digital critters make babies."

Jonathan Calede: "I'll be spending part of my summer digging up western Montana for fossil mammals and another part of it looking at gopher skulls. Lots of burrowing and burrowers!"

Emily Grason: "I'll be trying to guess what snails are thinking, and cleaning up lots of crab poop - and maybe doing some hiking."

Myles Fenske: "I'm spending my summer making petunias glow in the dark--to a rhythm!"

Emily Bain: "I'll be checking out expression of pigment cell genes in zebrafish and drinking lots of beer on a boat on Lake Washington."

Sweta Agrawal: "Seducing flies with magnets wasn't enough -- this summer, I'll be adding lasers to my system, so I can start to CONTROL FLY MINDS."

Matthew George: "I'll be yanking critters off of rocks."

Shawn Luttrell: "I'll be here on campus doing a ton of in situ hybridization and staining of neural tissue in regenerating hemichordates."

Katrina van Raay: "I'll be watching one of the world's smallest animals eat tiny multicellular algae from the inside out."

Charles Beightol: "I'll be in Zambia hunting prehistoric big game therapsids, and then finish off the summer at Petrified Forest National Park, AZ searching for lost croc relatives!"

Ian Breckheimer: “I’ll be torturing alpine plants on Mt. Rainier, where only the strong survive!”

Laura Newcomb: "I'll be pulling mussels off of aquaculture lines on board a mussel harvesting boat to help me understand how elevated temperature and ocean acidification may weaken mussel attachment strength."

Lauren Debey: "I'll be taking undergraduate students and K-12 teachers to Montana to dig for dinosaurs."

Lauren Vandepas: "I'll be subjecting the ctenophore Pleurobrachia bachei to immune challenges to characterize the innate immune system of a basal animal group and enjoying the gorgeousness that is summer at Friday Harbor Labs."

Jiae Lee: "I'll be zapping the fly neuron with a laser to find out what happens inside them with overcoming the pain and struggling to grow back."

Melissa Steele-Ogus: "I'm going to be indoctrinating undergrads in assisting me in my nefarious schemes to take over the world! Er, I mean, I'm going to quietly work on my research and not plot any sort of mad science."

Alexander Lowe: "I'll be recording eelgrass and oysters (De-?)acidifying the ocean."

Rochelle Kelly: "I'll be studying bat ecology on the San Juan Islands this summer."

Audrey Ragsac: "I'll be taking a course on tropical botany in Miami."

Leith Miller: "I'll be microCT scanning bat nose leaves and ears, as well as getting elbow deep in mammal masticatory muscles."

Aric Rininger: "I'm going to spend this summer watching weeds grow and taping leaves to microscope slides."

Edith Pierre-Jerome: "This summer I will be be gene cloning, gene cloning, and maybe do some more gene cloning."

Itzue Caviedes Solis: "I will spend my summer under the stars walking along the rivers looking for frogs in Mexican forest!"

Matthew McElroy: "This summer I'll be sequencing DNA from Puerto Rican lizards in order to study physiology and population differentiation."

CJ Battey: "I'm in Mexico surveying the avian biodiversity of the mountains of southeastern Nuevo León."  

Frazer Meacham: "I'll be speculating on some problems in fields only vaguely related to biology, while using some math."

William Hardin: "I'll be taking movies of reproducing Giardia, while listening to Pandora."

Eliza Heery: "I'll be sorting through worms, clams, snails and more in sediment samples from an experiment I'm running off of Alki Beach."

Jared Grummer: "I'll be collecting and analyzing genomic data of western North American lizards and frogs, while preparing for and subsequently presenting at the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists in Tennessee!"

Monday, June 23, 2014

Course Evaluation and Grad Publication: Hannah Jordt

Filling in that bubble sheet: An evaluation of a course you should have taken

Evaluator’s note to her fellow biograds:  Just as twelve of us were taught to do in Bio 505B this past quarter, I’m going to start off by stating my educational objectives up front. The goals of this blog post are 1) to inform N-12 of you that you missed out on a great class last quarter, 2) to convince you to accommodate it in your schedule next spring when it’s offered again, and 3) to fit in a slightly retroactive grad publication post.

Course: Bio 505B: Problems in Biological Instruction

Instructors: Scott Freeman, also featuring Mary Pat Wenderoth

Q1: What aspects of the course contributed most to your learning?

Short Answer: Active learning and peer instruction (take this course so you can role your eyes at the obviousness of this statement).

Longer answer: I admit that I’m fairly biased in how much importance I give to teaching and to having an understanding of evidence based teaching practices.  But we’re biologists. We all like evidence and critiquing design flaws for not flushing out those alternative hypotheses. We like admiring a well-designed experiment that gives us information about something relevant to our lives. In Bio 505B we spent one morning a week gathered around a table over coffee and scones, doing just this. We read papers regarding student demographics and mindsets, the best way to design a course or classroom, and various teaching techniques. We shared them with our peers in groups and then had lively debates about the merits of each, and about how we could use the results to shape our own teaching practices. There is evidence out there about what works and what doesn’t. Being exposed to this evidence through these discussions, and realizing that this knowledge will actually help you become a better teacher are the best parts of this class.

Q2: Did the instructor(s) seem knowledgeable about the material presented?

While I know we’re all pretty well aware of how great of a scientific research department UW Biology is, we’re also at the forefront of cutting-edge biology education research.  Members of the department’s Biology Education Research Group (BERG) regularly publish research articles, some of which include the #2 and #3 most cited papers in Life Sciences Education and publications in Science and PNAS. Scott and Mary Pat are two of the pillars of this group and being able to discuss biology education with them for a quarter is an opportunity you don’t want to miss out on. They are great guides to the current literature, and as you would expect from two people who have devoted their lives to improving biology education, excellent instructors. 

Q3: Do you have any recommendations for improving the course?

Advertise it more. Convince everyone to take it. Make it a mandatory graduate student requirement. Any or all of the above. As biologists and graduate students, teaching is relevant to all of us, and we can become so much better at it simply by being aware of the best ways (backed up with evidence!) to teach and communicate science. Plus, it’s fun! Trust me, grads, you want to take this class.

Q4: Do you have any additional comments?

Here’s the part where I subtly slip in a grad publication post and hope you all don’t realize it’s several weeks late. However, we were so excited about the results I wanted to encourage you all to take a look at it anyway. In our paper, “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics” (Freeman et al. 2014), we meta-analyzed 225 studies that compared active learning to traditional lecturing and found that active learning reduces failure rates and increases student performance on exams. We’re hoping this paper helps put to rest the long-held debate on whether active learning or traditional lecturing is more effective, so that education researchers can turn their focus to 2nd generation research, i.e., exploring which forms of active learning are best, and how to optimally incorporate them in the classroom.

The paper can be found here!

A follow up commentary published in PNAS is here.

And UW Today’s take on it is here.