Q&A: Expanding the Field

Baylor's biology department has made providing research opportunities at all levels a priority. In this Q&A, Randy Fiedler, director of marketing and communications for A&S, talked with Dr. Dwayne Simmons, biology chair and The Cornelia Marschall Smith Endowed Professor in Biology, Dr. Thad Scott, associate professor of biology, and Dr. Jacquelyn Duke, senior lecturer in biology, about an innovative new course designed to give undergraduates a deep dive into research.

Q&A: Expanding the Field

Dr. Simmons
Dr. Simmons

Dr. Simmons, has Illuminate, Baylor’s strategic plan that supports the goal of the University achieving R1/T1 classification as a top research university, changed the way the biology department thinks about its overall goals?

Simmons: Well, we have always wanted to increase the amount of research we’re doing in the department. I feel we can have increased research productivity, provide our undergraduate students with opportunities to work with world class scientists, and ideally have all of our faculty engaged in some kind of research activity, whether it’s with graduate students and/or undergraduate students. This way, I think everybody wins.

It seems as though there’s been a shift over the years toward getting more undergraduates involved in research. Is that correct?

Simmons: Without question I would say that’s been a global trend. In the last 20 years, R1 institutions have realized that you can actually have undergraduates do some high-quality research. It’s not going to be at the same level as that done by a graduate student, but they can produce a product that is extremely good. Undergraduates can make contributions to research, but the question is, do you have the resources, facilities and wherewithal to facilitate that? In our department, we have extremely motivated and talented instructional faculty who want to be engaged with students. That produces a great combination.

Dr. Scott and Dr. Duke
Dr. Scott and Dr. Duke

Dr. Scott and Dr. Duke, do you agree that there’s value in getting undergraduates involved in research?

Scott: Yes. The traditional way of teaching through lectures or even active learning techniques in the classroom tends to train students in memorization, but it isn’t actually transformative in a student’s experience. Research enables learning through action and typically results in greater investment by the students in their own learning.

Duke: My philosophy is that as educators we’re facilitators of learning. I don’t like to see us as teachers who are simply transmitting knowledge, but as guides who are putting students in the driver’s seat. Having students contribute to the intellectual task of asking questions, designing experimental protocols, analyzing and discussing their outcomes, and ultimately placing their work into the larger body of scientific knowledge is the quickest way to facilitate student-driven learning in science.

Simmons: I’d like to add that you learn science by doing science. I didn’t really start to understand what science was all about until I started doing research — going into a relatively narrow topic and taking what I call a “deep dive” approach. You realize that a lot of things you read in a textbook are either oversimplifications or things the authors got wrong. You come to understand that science is all about discovery, and that’s why we have paired our graduate faculty, who concentrate on research, with our instructional faculty, who concentrate on teaching, to work with students and help them learn truly how to do what science is all about.

You all agree that students can benefit from working with faculty members to do research. But do the faculty members benefit from this arrangement as well?

Duke: Absolutely. Working together, it’s very invigorating the way we play off of each other’s talents, passions and interests. We are both scientists, but with contrasting specialties within the discipline. Whereas I am a teaching-focused faculty member, Dr. Scott’s major focus at Baylor is as a researching scientist. This was the impetus for us designing a team-taught research endeavor, because we felt that together we could create a unique opportunity for our students. Teaching-focused faculty members have limited resources for research at Baylor, so having this collaboration where I bring my teaching expertise to the project, while Dr. Scott provides an innovative research expertise, is a win for the students and a rewarding endeavor for the two of us.

Scott: Pairing with Dr. Duke has been immeasurably valuable to me. As a research-focused faculty member, I find it challenging to invest significant time in teaching innovation. Dr. Duke and these undergraduate students have transformed my approach to teaching and exposed me to more effective ways for students to learn science. I’m now trying to implement these more creative approaches to teaching in my other classes.

Dr. Scott and Dr. Duke with Students
Dr. Scott and Dr. Duke with Students

As you well know, in the fall of 2018 the biology department here took a chance on an out-of-the-box idea and recruited undergraduates for a two-semester-long class, “Aquatic Systems Research,” that promised to give them a “deep dive” into doing original science research. Let’s start at the beginning. How did the idea come up for you, Dr. Scott — a research faculty member –– and you, Dr. Duke — an instructional faculty member –– to team up and create this new kind of course?

Scott: The idea came from Dr. Simmons. He and I arrived at Baylor in the same semester, and one of the items in his long-term vision for the department was possibly developing teams of research graduate faculty and instructional faculty to do something like this. Dr. Duke and I started talking about it one evening. It planted a seed in my mind, and then about a year and a half ago Dr. Duke and I got to talking more seriously about it.

Duke: We knew each other from our graduate school days. So, having a history made us comfortable with one another and the whole thing developed rather naturally. Because of our shared interest in aquatic ecology and our complementary ways of engaging with students — research versus teaching — I was really drawn to the idea of this dual approach to learning science.

Scott: At my previous institution, I helped run a National Science Foundation-funded “Research Experience for Undergraduates” program. It was a summer program where students would be in our laboratories for about six weeks. Although I enjoyed that work, I was unfulfilled after each year because that wasn’t enough time for students to really learn anything. Dr. Duke and I agreed that we’ve got to do a very involved process, which led to plans for a two-semester research course. Over a full academic year, we would have the students not only do research — learning how to generate hypotheses and collect data — but also we’d teach them how to communicate their findings in the various forms that scientists use to communicate research. That is really what separates our approach from most other undergraduate research experiences.

Simmons: Individually, neither faculty member could have taught this course on their own at the level they achieved together, given the two-pronged faculty line we have at Baylor— research-focused versus teaching-focused. I don’t know if this pairing is unique in the country, but there are not very many institutions that are doing this kind of thing.

Dr. Simmons with Students
Dr. Simmons with Students

I’m interested in just what the eight students in this inaugural research class did over two semesters. Can you give me a better idea of what they studied, and what steps were involved?

Scott: I’m an aquatic microbiologist, so we were studying the bacteria that live in lakes. We were interested in how microorganisms interact with their chemical environment, and specifically how they were influencing the nitrogen cycling between the atmosphere, lake water and lake sediments. We did some simple experiments to understand how the growth of certain microorganisms can be flexible. When you and I take a breath, our bodies absorb oxygen into our bloodstream so that it can be utilized by our organs, tissues and cells. That’s what keeps us alive. But, there are microorganisms that can breathe other ways. We studied microorganisms in lakes that can breathe nitrates instead of oxygen, and how the growth of those microorganisms affects the nitrogen cycle in lakes.

Duke: We took the students out the very first day to Waco Creek to collect data with the intent to immerse them immediately in the process of science. In addition to intensive field work, spanning two additional lakes, the students also read a lot of scientific journals — we gave them more than 16 primary journal articles — and eventually they started finding their own sources and leading the dialogues. By the end of the first semester the students had completed data processing and statistical analyses. Over the break we added another reading list and in the spring semester we began with how to communicate their outcomes. There were three science communication components — the oral communication they were going to have with their peers (fellow scientists in the field), the written communication through a manuscript submission and a non-scientifically focused communication with the public. In addition to presenting at Baylor’s Scholars Week, the students in the class traveled to and presented their findings at an international water conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico, giving both talks and posters. For the public engagement component, they developed and implemented teaching modules for non-biology majors, and together with that cohort of students they developed and led a community outreach project in collaboration with the Mayborn Museum.

Scott: Many undergraduate research experiences have students generate some data, analyze it and then do a poster or oral presentation — maybe even write a little paper about what they’ve done. Because we had more time, our students had the full experience of writing a peer-reviewed manuscript for publication, which is really difficult to do. Everything that built to that point was the scientific method in action. They were learning by doing. I think it gave them a really full and realistic experience of what scientists do every day. Plus, a publication will look great on their résumés.

Now that it’s behind them, what feedback did you get with your students about the course?

Duke: They said they learned that it’s one thing to just hear about science and how it is done, but it’s a whole different experience to actually get to be a participant in science, to be a contributor. What they love, too, is the feeling that they’re not just doing this to learn a skill set, but they’re doing it to contribute to the body of knowledge. Our students are now very well aware of the research gaps in the field they spent two semesters working in, and the fact that questions still remain. They feel proud to be filling one of those gaps and contributing to the construction of scientific knowledge.

Is this course being offered again during the 2019-2020 academic year?

Scott: Yes. This year we’ve moved to a different topic — harmful algal blooms, which are a problem for water quality in a lot of places in the world, including right here in the United States. The city of Toledo, Ohio, lost their water supply a couple of years ago for about 10 days over a harmful algal bloom. My graduate students, postdocs, collaborators and I have a grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the environmental conditions that cause these blooms to occur, and what makes them toxic. So, Dr. Duke and I carved out a piece of that research for our undergraduate class. This year’s group is studying how climate change may be increasing the frequency and magnitude of harmful algal blooms so that we can recommend management strategies that will minimize the impact on human health.

Will the biology department be able to build on this success and offer this course to more students in the future?

Simmons: I think we will be able to cycle this continuously. I’m hoping that we’re going to get additional pairings where our faculty will think, yeah, I want to do this too. But it’s always going to be a resource-intensive and people-intensive course, and it’s never going to be scalable to a mass level. But it’s exciting, and the benefits go way beyond the actual faculty and students that are participating.

Scott: If we could have three or four or more of these pairings, with 10 or 12 students in each class, we’d be reaching as many as 50 students in a year. That means maybe at least 20 percent of our biology majors would have the potential to have this learning experience.

Will student research remain a priority in the department in the future?

Simmons: Definitely. Our long-range goal is that by the time our biology students graduate, we want at least 75 percent of those students to have had at least one significant deep dive research experience, so that they come out of Baylor knowing what discovery is — whether that’s done in a classroom setting or through an apprenticeship experience where it’s more individual. These students will come out being great advocates of science and science literacy.

Duke: I’m very interested in addressing scientific illiteracy in the public arena, so one of the things I would love for our students to graduate from Baylor with is the ability to be better advocates for science by learning how to communicate science, not only with their peers, but also with the public. Endeavors like this facilitate proficient, confident communicators of science through the shared journey of discovery.