No Boundaries

Science Education Expands in New Directions

by Mary Denny

Brodil & Mills in Lab
Professors Mark Brodl, biology, and Nance Mills, chemistry are spearheading the new science initiative.

What distinguishes highly creative people is their ability to think “outside the box.” What distinguishes science professors at Trinity is their ability to think “outside the discipline.”It’s the kind of thinking that has led to fascinating collaborations and placed Trinity at the leading edge of a national movement.

According to chemistry professor Nancy Mills, there had been recognition among Trinity faculty for some time that much of the in-teresting science is now occurring at the interface between disciplines. Although faculty were interested in pursuing interdisciplinary initiatives, such collaboration requires funding, training, and transcending the language specific to a dis-cipline that can impede such efforts. Mills attributes Trinity’s small size with helping overcome the language barriers. “We know the faculty in other departments,” she says, “and feel comfortable talking with each other.” Trinity faculty also tend to be familiar with each other’s research, nearly all of which includes students, and students, notes Mark Brodl, the Brackenridge Distinguished Professor of Biology, “can catalyze a lot of things.”

Indeed, it was students, whose enthusiasm was stoked by a $60,000 Merck grant for summer research obtained by Mills and colleagues in biology and chemistry in 2002, who first voiced a desire for more collaboration. A follow-up grant for $500,000 from the Keck Foundation propelled the initiative forward, establishing the Keck Center for Macromolecular Studies and providing equipment that took the concept to a new level.

But it was an initial $1 million Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) grant in 2004 that provided the curricular piece enabling faculty to integrate introductory science courses, “making the intellectual thread more obvious,” explains Brodl. Additionally, the grant enabled faculty to create a new major in neuroscience and a minor in scientific computing, and add two new faculty positions—a neurobiophysicist (see story on page 4) and a science educator. The latter position, housed in the education department, will support outreach programs as well as help train science educators. The effect was transformative and dovetailed perfectly with a National Academy of Science recommendation—the Bio2010 project—that called for teaching science in an integrated way.

A second HHMI grant in 2008 provided $1.5 million over five years in support of undergraduate research both on campus and internationally. The grant established the Center for Peer Learning, a resource center located in Moody Engineering building and staffed by faculty-recommended students who provide assistance to incoming students. It also provides scholar-ships for students from underrepresented groups, especially those who have an interest in teaching science, and permits the development of interdisciplinary courses for non-majors, such as chemistry professor Michelle Bushey’s Chemistry of Art course.

Engineering Science & Psychology Experiment
Junior Elizabeth Lyon manipulates the test object being tracked, while senior Andrew Vaselaar, seated, records the data as part of the collaborative research project designed by prpfessors Jack Leifer (engineering science), standing, and Luis Schettino (psychology), not pictured.

Deemed essential to providing Trinity students the very best preparation in the sciences, the concepts of collboration and undergraduate research were adopted as one of five Re-envisioning Trinity initiatives and formalized as Interdisciplinary Science Education through Research (ISER), which is also a major component of Dream. Inspire. Achieve. The Campaign for Trinity University.

Student response to ISER has been immediate and enthusiastic. The number of neuroscience majors has grown from six to 33 in the last four years, and one out of every three new students last fall enrolled in a biology course. Because many of the new courses are open to non-majors, increasing numbers of Trinity students are engaged in solving real-world problems with implications for health, the environment, and many other practical areas beyond their academic major.

One such student is Colleen Hughbanks, a senior from College Station, Texas, who is conducting research in associate professor Jonathan King’s biology lab. A Spanish major minoring in religion and international studies, Hughbanks signed on for a summer research project “just to see if I liked it.” She discovered that she loved it and now says, “I wish I had known about this earlier in my career.” At the moment she is helping to grow proteins, which have to be kept alive and require feeding three times a day, “just like a pet” says King.

King is collaborating with chemistry professor Michelle Bushey to understand how a particular protein changes during stress or inflammation and how cells hold together. Along with student researchers, they stretch cells in the lab to mimic a ventilator to study how structure affects the cell junctions. King, who works with the local neonatology community to determine how high oxygen levels affect cell junctions in infants’ lungs, says proper cell junctions are also important in that one of their functions is to stop cells from growing—a process that leads to tumors—so the research has implications in the study of that as well as ECMO, a heart lung device used on neonates with underdeveloped lungs.

King, like most Trinity professors, obviously loves his field. “Hey, it’s the study of life,” he exclaims. “What’s cooler than that?” He is equally enthusiastic about the students who work with him and spend up to eight hours a week in the lab during the semester and as many as 40 or 50 hours a week during the summers.

Their collaboration is intense and mutually beneficial. “We work hand and hand. We study together, we research together, we write papers together, and we attend meetings together,” says King, who has had 22 students present papers at conferences around the country, including one who presented a paper last summer in Italy. Immensely proud of the work his students have produced, he claims he never would have gotten tenure without the help of his student researchers.

Although formal collaborations originated between biology and chemistry, they have gradually widened to include virtually all the sciences at Trinity. While King and his cohort of student researchers are un-locking the secrets of cell biology, Jack Leifer, assistant professor of engineering science, and Luis Schettino, assistant professor of psychology, and a team of students supported by the HHMI grant are studying how people use sensory input in their hands to control or manipulate an object. In a small studio lab deep inside Moody Engineering Building, Schettino relied on Leifer’s engineering expertise to set up the experiment he had envisioned.

Students study evaporation film
Senior Ryan Booth, seated on the left, and junior Alec VanTilburg, standing on the right, are among the students who have worked with engineering science professor Peter Kelly-Zion, standing at left rear, and chemistry professor Chris Pursell, standing at right rear, on their interdisciplinary research studying the evaporation of fuel films.

The experiment uses three video cameras to track movements three-dimensionally, which enables student researchers to calculate acceleration and then apply Newton’s law to calculate force. They then use a commercial software program to analyze the data. Down the line, the research could merge with biomedicine to develop im-proved robotic arms and prostheses. There might even be an opportunity to engage computer science students in designing better software.

Another example of interdisciplinary collaboration is the outgrowth of a friendship forged during “noon ball,” where faculty and staff often join students in the Bell Center for some mid-day basketball. One day after a game, associate professor of engineering science Peter Kelly-Zion described to fellow “noon baller” and professor of chemistry Chris Pursell the research he was initiating to study the evaporation of fuel films and the effects that the process has on internal combustion engine performance. Pursell suggested ways in which his own research expertise could contribute to the evaporation research and the collaboration was begun.

Together, the two landed a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that provided $165,000 to purchase equipment and instrumentation, and a second grant from the Petroleum Research Fund in the amount of $50,000 to support student and faculty research stipends. To date, their research has supported 14 student researchers from both the engineering science and chemistry departments. During this past summer, the collaborative effort was expanded to include Kevin Nickels, associate professor of engineering science, who contributed his expertise in robotic vision to assist with the computer analysis of some evaporation data.

Ryan Booth, a senior chemistry major from New Mexico and a peer tutor funded by the HHMI grant, enjoys the fuel film research, which he feels prepares him well for graduate school and exposes him to hands-on work with very sophisticated equipment like the infrared spectrometer. Booth and fellow students are utilizing specialized cameras that can photograph evaporation invisible to the naked eye but will show up as a “movie” on the computer screen.

Pursell and Kelly-Zion, who presented their work at a conference in Iceland last summer, point with pride to recent alumnus Will French, now in grad school at Vanderbilt, who presented a paper at a conference in Chicago last fall based on his research at Trinity.

Children's Research Lab
Students in the Children's Research Lab study language development in children ages 2-4. Participants are volunteers from the campus and surrounding community. Parents who would like for their children to participate in the study should contact Jane Childers at jane.childers@trinity.edu

Even as collaborations expand across the sciences, it is becoming apparent that individual disciplines increasingly abut and often spill into others. For example, in psychology where associate professor Jane Childers supervises the Children’s Research Lab, in which HHMI-funded student researchers study language development in children ages 2-4, the study of how children think should inform future research in neuroscience, a field that studies the brain. And in Childers’ recent field research in Nigeria, she drew on techniques and methods from biology and anthropology as well as her own field of psychology. Similar intermingling of techniques, methods, and concepts are occurring across virtually all the academic departments at Trinity.

While undergraduate research has long been a value-added benefit of a Trinity education, it is important to note that such research is not just an exercise. All students supported by HHMI grants are expected to present a paper at a conference to report on their progress.

Despite the copious scholarship it produces, the nature of undergraduate research tends to be slow. Students, of necessity come and go, and Trinity professors, who are on nine-month contracts, can only apply for summer stipends from Trinity every other year. Many do, however, receive outside grants that enable them to continue summer research. Still the sciences attract more than 100 students every summer, all of whom enjoy complete access to every piece of equipment and technology and the opportunity to see abstract concepts learned in the classroom put into practice. Part of the funding needed for ISER is to secure continuing research opportunities for Trinity students every summer.  

As one of five initiatives targeted by Trinity’s current capital campaign, ISER receives University support, which is especially im-portant at this juncture, explains Brodl, because funding organizations want to see that. “It costs a lot of money to float this kind of boat,” he says, adding that the need now is for professors with cross training to make the most of the potential. He also hopes alumni who have benefited from the program and their own research opportunities will want to support the initiative as well.

But, University funding can supply only a portion of the funds required for ISER. Acknowledging the importance of outside funding, King notes, “To get grants, you need to formulate good questions. But you also need to get good answers to keep the grants coming.” Indicative of the caliber of undergraduate research taking place, Trinity “answers” have attracted more than $8.5 million in federal and private grants since 2004.

With apologies to professor King, what’s cooler than that?