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Biology Class Builds Research Skills, Autonomy in Underclassmen

June 22, 2018

Students in BIO 213

Photos by Jordan Stein.

This piece is part of the new DrexelNow series showcasing "A Day in the Class" for some of Drexel University's most interesting and impactful courses.

The subtle tip that students congregated outside of room 202 in the Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building one Wednesday last term aren’t about to step into a lecture is that there are lab coats and safety googles being pulled out of backpacks and thrown on.

When they enter the classroom, the teams of students also start pulling on latex gloves and finding their places behind large microscopes. Lab assistant Olivia Pagán, a recent graduate in biological studies, wheels in a cart with hundreds of small vials wherein thousands of tiny fruit flies and larvae are moving. Each team receives a box with nearly 100 of these vials.

The students diligently start working through today’s task — collecting data on the effects of various enzymes by measuring and recording both the larvae and the adult flies’ movements. Throughout the classroom is the sound of vigorous tapping as the students hurtle the adults to the bottom of the vial to see if they can crawl back up within 18 seconds.

Some teams chat quietly through the process, discussing allergy season or asking their instructors about forthcoming presentations. Some sit wordlessly focused on the task at hand. But what’s notable is that these students very much know what they’re doing — each individual carrying out their important function — as they push forward unphased while a few fruit fly escapees buzz around the room.

“Since we only meet two times a week, we’re trying to simulate a true laboratory experience or research experience,” said Edward Waddell, a PhD candidate and adjunct professor in the Department of Biology within the College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel University.

Waddell was made an adjunct professor this term to teach this course, BIO 213 — “Drosophila Neural Research” — in the absence of his mentor, Daniel Marenda, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Biology. Marenda is away working as a program director for the National Science Foundation in Washington D.C. The opportunity to teach the course is also highly applicable to Waddell’s position within the Pedagogical Readiness Oversight For Future Educators in Stem Subjects (PROFESS) program offered through Drexel’s Center for the Advancement of STEM Teaching and Learning Excellence (CASTLE).

The course is offered only to freshmen and sophomores studying biology, and is capped at 15 students each term. The aim of the class is to introduce students to the basics of performing directed research in Drosophila genetics and neurobiology. Though conducted on fruit flies, the students are testing for potential genetic modifiers associated with neurological diseases in humans, particularly CHARGE syndrome.

It is a true elective for any of these young students who wish to get their feet wet early with hands-on research.

“It’s a really great experience for them because one, it’s building their resume, and two, it’s giving them that more in-depth look into how science actually functions,” Waddell said. “The concept building, thinking through the problems, drawing their own hypothesis, testing them — those are the skills that you’re not going to get in a lecture-style classroom.”

What makes BIO 213 even more of a rarity, Waddell said, is that it is not a “cookbook style laboratory” where students are simply going through the motions and already aware of what the results will be. These assays, he said, are aiding potentially publishable future research. In fact, the class has been named in published papers in the past.

“We could find something really interesting or we could find nothing at all,” he said of the students’ assays. “That’s the nature of science and so it’s really cool that we can expose the students to that at such an early stage in their undergraduate career and hopefully inspire them to get more involved in research at the University.”

This inspiration is certainly taking hold on this term’s class of students. Alyssa Rae Massa, a freshman studying biological sciences, said she hadn’t been seriously considering research as a career path, but upon learning about this class she figured she should give it a try.

“It’s actually been really cool,” she said. “I’m starting to think a little more diversely about what I want to do, just because it’s opened up my mind to the possibilities.”

For Taylor Lifer, also a freshman in biological sciences, the class has helped bring her more confidence in a future career in pharmaceutical research.

“Since I just have one partner and we are expected to present our data, I have become more confident with what I’m putting out there,” she said. “I think that’s important because when I’m doing research I’m going to have to be able to stick up for all the data I come up with and everything that I believe in.”

Lifer is also taking nearly 20 credits this semester as she didn’t want to miss her chance to take this lab.

“I was like, ‘I have to do this,’” she recalled. “It’s a great opportunity for me to start understanding the environment of research and being collaborative.”

As the teams complete today’s tasks one-by-one, they wash their hands and disrobe, stashing their gear back into their backpacks. Once they’re done, they’re free to go. No need to check in with Waddell or Pagán, or have their work scrutinized.

This autonomy means a lot to Krisna Mompho, a freshman in biological sciences, as it mimics what it would be like in a research-based employment opportunity.

“They’ll go around and ask us how we’re doing, but it’s not like they’re babying us,” he said of the instructors. “We have that level of independence that is necessary in the job field, because your superiors are going to want to see that initiative, which I feel like this class definitely provides.”

For his teammate Therese Mathew, a freshman in biological studies, it’s the opportunity to do this novel, meaningful research so early in her college career that she thinks will be really advantageous to her future.

“It’s an open environment,” she said. “You get to do what you want. You’re responsible for your own data. It makes you feel like an adult. … We need more research classes like this at Drexel.”