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The Good, The Bad and The Dicty

March 22, 2018


To most people, the mention of bacteria and microbes sends them running for a hot shower or a palm of hand sanitizer. But for Karen Kabnick, PhD, a molecular biologist and teaching professor in Drexel University’s Department of Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, microbiology is an opportunity to create a one-of-a-kind course and embrace a passion for teaching. Among other biology courses, Kabnick oversees an entirely student-driven research course called “Dictyostelium.” The class allows students, in biology and related majors, to participate and contribute to actual research that will be published without the usual brisk time constraints of a research lab. Students not only gain meaningful laboratory skills but also learn how to problem solve real issues which arise in scientific inquiry.

Having been taught for the past four years, the course was inspired by a student’s desire to pursue a senior capstone project in a laboratory setting. The idea to study Dictyostelium discoiduem, a single-celled soil-dwelling amoeba, came from Kabnick’s examination of literature on the microbe’s genes and what best suited a course oriented around student-driven projects. From her vast research experience at GlaxoSmithKline, a large pharmaceuticals and healthcare company, she knew which gene functions were unknown and guided students through the necessary analyses and exploration.

One of the main hallmarks and drawbacks of the course is how a new wave of students, each quarter, with no prior knowledge of the Dictyostelium amoeba, manages to pick up where others left off. While the ability to carry on research through collaboration and previous data is a testament to the scientific process, Kabnick explained how between each quarter she and her trusty co-captain Brian Thiel, co-instructor of the course and assistant laboratory manager, have to essentially streamline all the data students collected in such a way that it’s easily understandable and accessible to the next batch. Not to mention it takes a few weeks for students to surmount the learning curve of working incredibly hands on and mostly autonomously with an organism they have no previous exposure to.

“The real beauty of the course is when returning students contribute to the teaching process alongside Brian and myself. It’s validating for them, plus when students learn from their peers it enables them to be more comfortable with the material making the class an enriching experience,” stated Kabnick.    

Much like the spores of the Dictyostelium amoeba, the course stands out in a realm of classes dominated by lectures and prepared labs. While other similar research based courses exist, the highlights of Dictyostelium are the tremendous student involvement and the experienced guidance of Kabnick and Thiel.   

By Anirudh Singh, a senior biological sciences major in the College of Arts and Sciences and a Pennoni Honors College student, as part of the winter 2018 “Writing for Drexel Publication” Pennoni Honors College course.