From the Classroom to the Lab and Beyond: Baylor Biology Chair Seeks to Drive Research Among Students and Faculty

June 13, 2019
News - Dwayne Simmons
Dr. Dwayne Simmons

Contact: Whitney Richter, Director of Marketing and Communications, Office of the Vice Provost for Research, 254-710-7539
Written by: Blake Thomas, Office of the Vice Provost for Research

WACO, Texas (May 9, 2019) – Dr. Dwayne Simmons, chair of Baylor’s Department of Biology and the Cornelia Marschall Smith Endowed Professor, loves to study the way organisms react to changes in their environment. One of his earliest research experiences was studying plants’ response to different levels of light for his high school science fair. He went on to build a career studying the human brain and the molecular basis of age-related hearing loss. Along the way, he has profoundly impacted the lives of his students through mentorship in the lab and his leadership of programs devoted to increasing research opportunities for students at R1 institutions such as Washington University in St. Louis and UCLA.

Simmons has seen first-hand the benefits of participating in research as an undergraduate. During his first year as a student at Pepperdine University, he had the opportunity to perform research on sand dollars at Point Mugu, a California state park and nature preserve. His first project was focused on ecology, but with the support of his faculty mentors, he transitioned his research into a lab bench project using microscopy to learn how different types of sediment affected the sand dollars’ ability to undergo morphological transitions.

“I just loved doing research,” Simmons recalls. “[My mentors] allowed me to take projects in the direction that I wanted to take them, so I was fully functioning as a scientist, not just a lab helper.”

After earning his Ph.D. at Harvard, Simmons had the opportunity to return to Pepperdine as a faculty member. At Pepperdine he helped to formalize an undergraduate research program for students interested in pursuing careers in biological research. Simmons was the principal investigator on the first proposal to the National Science Foundation requesting funding for the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, which is currently in its 28th consecutive year of operation.

As chair of Baylor’s biology department, Simmons considers his most important priorities to be increasing faculty research output and providing high-quality educational experiences to students—two aims that some academics believe operate at cross purposes. If faculty spend too much time with students, the thinking goes, they won’t be able to fully devote themselves to research, while research-active faculty won’t be able to devote the necessary attention to undergraduate teaching.

Simmons

But Simmons does not see research and teaching as contradictory. Indeed, he believes strongly that with the right planning, the two can not only coexist, but in fact can enhance one another. He says that the best way to teach undergraduates about any scientific discipline is to engage them in hands-on research.

“For me, if you’re going to understand your discipline, you have to have hands-on experience with that discipline,” he explains. “In biology and in the sciences in general, the most fundamental activity is exploring and creating knowledge. So if you’re going to teach undergraduates well, they have to have that experience. They’ll understand the complexity of biology as well as the underpinnings of that complexity—the chemistry, the physics, the mathematics that are involved.”

One part of Simmons’ plan involves revising the undergraduate biology curriculum to involve students in independent research starting in their very first semester on campus. The goal, Simmons says, is for all Baylor biology majors to experience research in course-based lab settings where they are asked to tackle open-ended research questions and come up with new answers. By designing the undergraduate curriculum around research questions that are related to ongoing faculty projects, students not only have valuable learning experiences themselves but also contribute to advancing faculty research agendas.

Eric Nealy, one of Simmons’ former students at UCLA, is a great example of the potential of laboratory research experiences to help shape a student’s career choices. Nealy took an undergraduate life science class under Simmons and then asked about the possibility of working in Simmons’ lab. Nealy says his grades up to that point had been lower than many of his peers and he had already been turned down for opportunities in other labs, but Simmons saw his potential and invited him to join his team.

“It taught me to feel comfortable in a lab setting and to not get discouraged if the data doesn’t necessarily show what I thought it would,” Nealy says. “[Simmons] was the first person to give me a shot to be an undergraduate in their lab and that was really important for me.”

Before joining Simmons’ lab, Nealy says he was questioning his own ability to succeed in graduate school, but the experience of working with Simmons reawakened his passion for science. By graduation, he was on the dean’s list and now, four years later, he is in a Ph.D. program at the University of Washington studying pediatric brain cancer and recently received the prestigious HHMI Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Studies.

Nealy credits Simmons’ mentorship for showing him what it means to be a real-world scientist and for laying the foundation for his career in research. “Just having someone give me that shot when I was feeling quite possibly at my worst—that was a trajectory-changer.”

At Baylor, Simmons’ passion for undergraduate research is already bearing fruit. He has teamed with the chairs of other science departments to create the Baylor Transdisciplinary Research Undergraduate Experience (B-TRUE), a ten-week summer program that brings together Baylor students from a variety of different scientific disciplines to perform independent, faculty-mentored research focused on a central theme. In addition to conducting research in their own disciplines, the students meet regularly as a group to discuss their projects and to hear how the various disciplines bring different perspectives to the research questions stimulated by the summer program’s central theme.

This interdisciplinary approach to undergraduate research mirrors the way Simmons approaches his goal of increasing research at the faculty level. While he concedes that a university of Baylor’s size can’t excel in all research areas, he believes that by bringing together faculty from across different disciplines into interdisciplinary research centers, the science departments can develop critical competencies in key research areas.

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ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 17,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.

ABOUT BAYLOR COLLEGE OF ARTS & SCIENCES

The College of Arts & Sciences is Baylor University's oldest and largest academic division, consisting of 25 academic departments and seven academic centers and institutes. The more than 5,000 courses taught in the College span topics from art and theatre to religion, philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. Faculty conduct research around the world, and research on the undergraduate and graduate level is prevalent throughout all disciplines. Visit www.baylor.edu/artsandsciences.

ABOUT THE OFFICE OF THE VICE PROVOST FOR RESEARCH

The Office of the Vice Provost for Research (OVPR) assists faculty members from all academic units in identifying, obtaining and managing the funding needed to support their research and scholarship. Internal 'seed' funding, matching grant proposal funding, searchable online funding databases, grant writing seminars, proposal support and trave awards to national funding agencies are only a portion of what is provided by the various units comprising the OVPR. Additionally, the Vice Provost for Research oversees the ethical conduct of research and assists researchers in maintaining compliance with applicable policies, laws and regulations as well as providing support in establishing interdisciplinary / international collaborations and industry partnerships.

The OVPR acts as Baylor's representative in pursuing partnerships and collaborative agreements with entities outside the university. The office negotiates sponsored research agreements with industry on behalf of faculty and pursues research, technology transfer and the commercialization of technology. The OVPR welcomes the opportunity to discuss collaborative research and scholarship pursuits that can advance the academic mission of Baylor University to achieve R1/T1 status.

The OVPR also manages and operates the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative (BRIC), a three-story, 330,000-square-foot facility focused on interdisciplinary/international research, industry/university collaborations, business incubation/acceleration/commercialization, advanced workforce training and STEM educational research and outreach.

For more information, please visit: www.baylor.edu/research or www.baylor.edu/bric.