In Biology, how do we prepare students to conduct research?

by  Malinda E.C. Fitzgerald, Ph.D.

Research, according to the Webster’s Dictionary is: a “Noun, The systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.”  Or it can be a Verb, “To investigate systematically.”  Each of the majors in science requires a capstone experience that consists of some type of research; generally it involves an internship of 10-12 weeks. These experiences can also consist of courses that are managed and taught by different faculty, according to the discipline, within the school of science. The purpose remains the same, to instill knowledge of the research process. This does not happen over night and in each of the science classes faculty build on experiences that reinforce research methodology.

In the biology department, we place students on the path to the capstone course, Mentored Research, as early as possible, sometimes as early as their freshmen year.  Many of the learning objectives of science laboratories have tasks that are hypothesis driven and also have components that introduce the development and implementation of a novel experimental procedure.

The following are but a few examples from the biology department.  The students in Dr. Fitzgerald’s BIOL 112 class tested the effectiveness of an Iphone app to determine the species of plants around the School of Science (AH and CW).  They used the app, instead of the traditional dichotomous key. to develop a landscape map.  The students in Dr. Ogilvie’s biology honors class, investigated “What types of microbes are found on fruit from the grocery store?”  They will present their results next week.  Another class project was in Dr. Eisen’s Parasitology class.  Students investigated parasite infections from fecal specimens collected in dog parks within Memphis.  The hypothesis was that  samples from the more affluent areas would have fewer parasites.  Lee Curbo presented their results in a poster at the TAS meeting.  Dr. Thompson-Jaeger has her Genetics students utilize siRNA techniques in C. elegans cultures to observe how phenotypic and behavioral modifications can be expressed.  In her Microbiology lab, the students spend a great deal of time running tests on an unknown bacterial culture to identify the sample.  Dr. Moore has had students conduct their capstone project, with him as a mentor, as well as independent research projects and class projects.  Several of these experiments have investigated the relationships of plants grown together as well as the growth of different aged plants during flood conditions (see previous newsletters and TAS abstracts).   Students in Ecology and Wetlands Ecology have learned about experimental design and testing hypotheses.  In animal behavior, Dr. Ross has her students analyze journal articles and then present the data to the class.  This method, reading and reporting on primary literature, is used in several upper division classes.  In the biology Junior Seminar, students not only listen to seminars by local researchers on a variety of topics, but they also present a journal article in a poster session.

Albert Eistein

Albert Eistein

Two of my favorite quotes are by Albert Einstein, the individual that many of us closely link to successful scientific research.He said “If we knew what we were doing it would not be called research, would it?”He also said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”In research we try to get the same results, but frequently they turn out differently!

I have frequently required students in both my Physiology and Neuroscience classes to conduct research, using equipment that we have at CBU.  The students are required to develop a testable hypothesis, write a short research proposal, collect data, and present the results of their study to the class. This semester in Neuroscience students involved me as a research subject; generally I don’t get involved, although other faculty have participated in the past (Newsletter, March, 2012 and Feb, 2010).  The results of their research will be presented on May 1, at 3:30 pm in CW 118.

The Hypothesis tested Neuroscience, Spring 2013:

Cold Hands

Cold hands!

Project 1:  Hypothesis:  Cold hand temperature will limit the speed of texting and warm hands will be faster than the control (at room temp).Methods:  Participants used their own phone and were their own control.  The first phase was to text a statement (at room temp) that was timed and then the subject placed their hands in an ice bath for 30 sec (I couldn’t keep mine in there that long!) then re-text the statement.  The last phase was to place their hands in warm water for 30 sec and then re-text the statement. Times were compared within and across individuals.

EKG loud noise experiment

EKG loud noise experiment

Project 2:  Hypothesis:  A random loud noise will increase heart rate, the closer the noise the greater the increase.Method:  Subjects were placed in a quiet room, with a blindfold on and an EKG protocol was started within Biopac.  Random loud noises occurred and the subject’s heart rate was compared to their own control (prior to the noise).  Additional data on the time for the subjects’ heart rate to return to control levels was calculated, and heart rate responses were also compared with proximity of the noise.

Dr. Fitzgerald doing the timed task experiment

Dr. Fitzgerald doing the timed task experiment.

Project 3:  Hypothesis:  Caffeine will improve short term concentration and awareness during a timed intense situation.Method:  Subjects completed a one minute timed spatial task before, and 20 min after, drinking one cup of Columbian dark roast coffee.  The time and responses were recorded. Responses will be compared both for individuals and all participants.

While all of these short-term experimental studies are all completed in one semester, and are simple compared with the capstone research, they assist in setting the stage for the capstone research. In the biology capstone course, students spend three semesters collecting data (summer internship), writing a journal style article (fall) and finally in the spring they prepare a power point and poster presentation (see TAS article). The poster session is sponsored by the CBU TN Theta chapter of Alpha Chi, which this year is the 17th in a row and will be held on April 16 in the Sabbatini Lounge of the Thomas Center.  The function of this biology three semester process is to take inherent curiosity and rekindle it to its full potential within the interests of the student using the guidelines of the research process unique to a family of sciences. In addition, the students will have seen the three ways scientific research is presented.  These two tools, inherent curiosity and the methodology of the research process, are not about students becoming research scientists, but rather going into life prepared with the tools to solve problems.

While some faculty at CBU do conduct research (see Feb, 2013 and other Feb issues of newsletters), many faculty depend on sabbaticals or summer faculty development funds to conduct research projects, write manuscripts or books.  It is very difficult to be active in research and be effective and committed to teaching.  It is also difficult to get back into research after a hiatus.  I have been very lucky to continue any involvement in research through my collaborators, particularly Dr. Anton Reiner.  Recently, Dr. Siripong Malasri established an informal group called the CBU unofficial R and D Forum.  The purpose of this group is to create synergy among CBU faculty members or staff as well as providing a forum for them to interact with others interested in research.   Since January the group has met three times and there has been a featured speaker at each meeting.  The meetings will begin again in the fall semester, 2013.    Contact Dr. Malasri or visit his website if you are interested in topics and attending (