Category Archives: science

How Scientists Think?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about, “How Scientists Think?”  I’m excited to be working on an innovative curricula project here at UBC centered around science as a way of knowing.

…more about this later…

To this end, I just read this article, “How Scientists Think in the Real World: Implications for Science Education” by Kevin Dunbar.

According to the article, scientists are particularly stimulated by unexpected results, love making analogies, and work best in groups.  I’d say, “That’s about right!”

In thinking about how my teaching strategies align with these values, I came up with a short list of ideas.  Encourage group work, practice using analogies, explicitly encourage the use of analogy by students, and ready students for the unexpected.

Being a scientist in Nigeria

This summer I traveled to the University of Ibadan in Nigeria to participate in the West African Biotechnology Workshops as an invited instructor. Here is an update that I wrote during my stay.

Being a scientist in Nigeria means being very resourceful in finding solutions to barriers… the power goes out 2-4x per day or some days does not come on at all. Scientists here are very practiced at being practical & creative at the same time, a recipe for good science. Only one day did I start to think that the barriers were too big… but then the attitude of the students brought me back around. They work very very hard and are very excited about what they are learning. There are ~20 graduate students, medical doctors, and technicians taking our course. The people that I have met here in Nigeria is what I have enjoyed most. They are full of hope that their country will become one of the top 20 countries in the world. (The goverment has a plan called the 20:20 vision – that hopes to use education, science and technology to raise the profile of Nigeria by 2020). It has been interesting to talk to these young graduate students, to get their own views on the corrupt government and the political problems in the North, and the wars in the Delta (the oil rich region of the country). It is a country with many problems. For example, Nigeria’s children account for 18% of the global under-5 mortality rate. The UN has identified Nigeria as one African country that, if it were to improve and aim to meet the Millienium Development Goals, could make the most impact.

A Good Idea

Here’s an interesting idea, let’s design what we teach around the question, “What do Scientists Do?

I was originally exposed to this simple, but amazingly “outside-the-box” idea, by Ellen Aho, a professor at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN. I met Ellen at the ASMCUE 2008 conference where she presented, “The student-led conference style symposia as a technique for developing oral presentation skills in a moderately sized Microbiology course.” Ellen posed the question, “What do scientists do?” and then made the point that our teaching activities should be related to these activities. An interesting idea… The program that she teaches in at Concordia College is designed with this paradigm in mind (i.e., this won’t be the first time students have seen it). In addition to the in-class conference idea, other classes in her program have writing assignments, peer review, posters, etc. etc.

In keeping with my last post, of take what works and put it to work, Ellen’s idea had been percolating in the back of my mind for some time as a possibility for new content for MICB405. As part of this course, students carry out a self-directed research project (in groups of 4 students). The MICB405 group research project already contains a proposal submission, a final report, and a presentation of results at an in-class poster session. By treating these groups of students like graduate students embarking on their own research projects, and then preparing to attend their first conference with results, we hope to give students an authentic research experience. Thus far, the research component of MICB405 has worked well, but we thought that we could improve it by expanding on this idea of “what do scientists really do…”

Early in the semester, in collaboration with my co-instructor M. Murphy, we talked about ways into which we could inject new energy into the research project component of MICB405. Our real goal was to raise the overall quality of research projects by increasing student engagement and providing more opportunities for feedback (both peer and instructor).

dsc00022For the 2008 offering of MICB405, we added several new in-class activities to this component of the course. 6 lectures in total were dedicated to the group research project. Students were asked to: 1) submit a proposal, 2) carry out a peer review of submitted proposals**, 3) attend a feedback session on their proposal with the instructor, 4) submit a progress report**, 5) participate in an in-class discussion of critical evaluation of research results from their progress reports**, 6) prepare a poster for two-day in-class conference, 7) peer evaluate posters presented in-class and 8 ) prepare a final report. Peer evaluation and self-evaluation of individuals from student groups was also carried out.

**2,4,5 are new activities for 2008, and the in-class time dedicated to this project was increased from 4hr (in 2007) to 9hrs (in 2008). Highlights of these new lecture time included in-class peer review activities as well as lecture content explaining the peer review process in science. Michael talked about his experiences participating in CIHR review panels, and students responded very well to this new content.

More formally, here are the new learning objectives that Murphy and I introduced alongside these new research project based activities for the 2008 offering of MICB405:

Section 5: Research methods and critical assessment.
38.    You will be able to define a biological hypothesis that can be tested by bioinformatics methods.
39.    You will be able to critically evaluate a bioinformatics tool based on the assessment features available.
40.    You will be able to critically assess the degree to which the bioinformatics method supports a biological hypothesis
41.    You will be able to describe the methods, results and conclusions of a bioinformatics research project in a written report and as a poster presentation.

Anecdotally, these new activities achieved our goal of raising the overall quality of research carried out by students. During the poster session, I noticed that the average depth of research achieved by each group was higher as compared to last year, especially at the bottom end. I think that increased opportunities for feedback and more in-class dedicated time were responsible for this shift. I did carry out an in-class survey with respect to the research project components, so next up is analysis of those evaluations.


The SPIRE postdoctoral fellowship program is “an innovative approach to advance science careers by balancing research, teaching and service.”

SPIRE’s Mission:

To provide multi-dimensional professional development for science researchers and educators to succeed in academic careers, to bring engaging teaching methods into the classroom, and to increase diversity in science professions.

It sounds like a great program. Unfortunately, I was reading the fineprint and you’ve got to be a US citizen to apply. I wonder if there’s a Canadian equivalent?

Science Education: A Personal History

“Jubilation: One of the reasons that we do Science”
– Peter Agre, Nobel Laureate, quoted from his talk at UBC on Nov 2nd, 2006

Each year, the announcements of the Nobel prizes brings us a moment where everybody stops and thinks about Science. It’s an exciting moment – where the wonder of science captures many minds. Every Nobel laureate that I’ve known, from Dr. Michael Smith, Dr. Sulston, Dr. Wieman, to Dr. Agre, have been committed to science education. These and other influential scientists have spent careers engaging bright minds with their science. When I’ve heard these men speak they all understand the value of connecting their science with people and real life in efforts that I’ll call, “Science Education”.

Listening to Dr. Agre speak last November sparked me to think about my own personal history with Science Education.

As a student, I have distinct memories about not being satisified with textbooks. We all wanted to know, “How does it really work?” I can remember having a conversation with a professor about how excited I was about research and science. We talked about how lucky we were to, “know all these things.” He knew exactly what I was talking about. I was a keen undergraduate and he was a great scientist. How thankful I am, to have had Dr. Frank Jirik as one of my early mentors. He was a wonderful PhD supervisor, who taught me about sharing knowledge, the importance of learning, and how to foster good scientists.

As a graduate student at the CMMT, I had many unique chances to share my flare for Science. The CMMT is led by Dr. Michael Hayden, a visionary, who is passionate about connecting his world leading science with real people’s lives. I started by volunteering for tours given to patient groups, donors, and the press. Then, I started getting calls from the flourishing movie industry in Vancouver. One of my favorite experiences was sharing expertise and late night pizza with the talented team from the, “The 6th Day.” Back at the CMMT, Michael connected me (and other scientists) with the Electric Company. These talented artists created, “The Score,” a play (and then film) that fuses science and theatre in an experiment of exploration. The results were outstanding on so many levels.

Science education is a two way street for me. The more I talk with people about Science, the more I learn. I learn about my own creativity. I explore deep aspects of science seen from many different perspectives. I share with people the enthusiasm and hope that my current research projects bring into my daily life. These conversations are wonderful ones that I hope to keep having my whole life through.