Davidson’s Innovative Bio Instruction Garners $100,000 Prize

Prof. David Botstein, former director of Princeton's Lewis-Siegler Institute for Integrative Genomics, announced today that he will donate $100,000 each to Davidson College and three other prestigious academic institutions for innovations in teaching biology. Botstein was one of eleven recipients of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, announced earlier this year by Internet titans Yuri Milner, Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki and Mark Zuckerberg. Botstein will share $400,000 of his Breakthrough Award with Davidson's Professor of Biology A. Malcolm Campbell, as well as faculty at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of California-San Francisco.

"With these awards, I recognize the successes of these four institutions in the development and delivery of educational programs that are furthering the field of biological research by training the next generation of breakthrough scientists," said Botstein. "I have had the opportunity to participate in the development of these distinct programs and salute the institutions and the program leaders who have achieved the highest standards in science education."

Give Students Real Life Research

Botstein noted that all the programs emphasize a pedagogy of student involvement with real-life research projects in biology, rather than teaching science through rote exercises. "That's the way to educate undergraduates and get them excited about science," he said.

He praised Professor Campbell, director of Davidson's James G. Martin Genomics Program, as "the leading exponent of this approach in the small college world." Botstein said, "Malcolm did it first, and continues to do it more effectively than anyone. It's expensive and requires a lot of dedication on part of the faculty. It's also counter to the current trend, which is to shove everything onto the Internet and let students sit there and be entertained. Malcolm gets it, which is why I wanted to make an example of him and Davidson."

The other award recipients take similar, case-based approaches to teaching biology. Botstein said he recognized CSHL for its "Phage course" advanced summer technology program, which is designed to teach young biologists from diverse backgrounds the fundamentals of phage biology.

Three Other Innovators Also Cited

MIT is receiving the Botstein award for the Department of Biology's innovative "Project Lab" program, which began in 1970. Dr. Botstein provided crucial leadership in establishing this program and many members of the MIT Department of Biology have taught Project Labs since that time. Project Labs engage undergraduate students in cutting-edge research projects within a highly supportive undergraduate laboratory setting and are constantly redesigned. Students learn the principles of experimental design and scientific interpretation in the context of exciting research projects on the frontiers of modern molecular and cellular biology.

UCSF's award supports The Integrated Program in Complex Biological Systems that was created to address the acute need for interdisciplinary graduate training in the context of quantitative biology and biomedical research. The complexity and magnitude of data now demands an interdisciplinary approach, where tightly knit teams of researchers integrate their respective expertise to synthesize new approaches.

Davidson College is receiving the Botstein award in recognition of educational programs that meld basic research and undergraduate teaching. Professor Campbell directs his undergraduate students in project-based labs that originate in his laboratory. First-year students in the introductory biology course conduct original research by characterizing short genetic sequences for use in synthetic biology. Motivated students may choose to take three advanced core courses in "Genomics," "Laboratory Methods in Genomics" and "Bioinformatics" or conduct research in Campbell's lab.

Campbell said, "These laboratory programs strive to provide students with a more complete discovery experience, while an accelerated pace of experimental analysis requires them to think about more challenging aspects of genetic analysis."

Campbell Founded Undergrad Training Group

Botstein has known of Campbell's work for at least a decade. Botstein was a co-inventory of DNA microarrays that Campbell promoted to help undergraduate students learn genomics. Botstein also supported Campbell in the founding of the Genome Consortium for Active Teaching (GCAT), which has trained more than 360 undergraduate faculty in how to conduct DNA microarray experiments with students. GCAT has trained more than150 faculty, many of whom represented minority-serving institutions, in the interdisciplinary field of synthetic biology.

Botstein and Campbell both currently serve on the governing board of the American Society for Cell Biology. In fact, Botstein told Campbell of his intended award in person when they were seated together at a recent meeting of the ASCB. Campbell remembers that he congratulated Botstein for receiving the Breakthrough Award, and Botstein responded that he intended to give Campbell a share of the monetary award. "I was flabbergasted," Campbell said. "It was one of the few times in life I've been speechless."

In 20 years of teaching at Davidson, Campbell has continually innovated his pedagogy in biology to emphasize hands-on experience over rote learning. He will use the $100,000 gift to support publication of an introductory biology textbook that has not proved attractive to commercial publishers. Campbell co-wrote the book four years ago with faculty colleagues Laurie Heyer and Chris Paradise, and they have been using it on campus for their introductory classes.

Prize Will Fund E-Textbook

The award will allow the authors to purchase copyrights to illustrations in the book and hire design and software expertise so that their new book can be offered universally as an e-textbook.

Titled "Integrating Concepts In Biology," the book leads students to understand biological concepts through case studies. Campbell said, "The book is aimed at putting the science back into introductory biology. Our approach lets students practice being scientists rather than memorizers."

Because modern biologists need to understand the mathematics of the discipline, "Integrating Concepts" includes brief "Bio-Math Explorations" explaining how mathematics illuminates the biology. Co-author Professor Laurie Heyer wrote them for this book, as well as similar content for earlier textbook she co-wrote with Campbell titled Genomics, Proteomics, and Bioinformatics, which was the first-ever genomics textbook.

Co-author Associate Professor Chris Paradise explained that the book includes five chapters on each of "Five Big Ideas"- information, evolution, the cell as the fundamental unit of life, emergent properties, and homeostasis. Each chapter includes Heyer's Math Explorations, three-to-five case studies, and ELSI (ethical, legal and social implications) case studies that make science relevant. For instance, they raise the question of using animals in research, and the wisdom of seeding the ocean with iron to promote algae blooms that might help curb rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

Paradise concluded, "We show students the data as it appeared in professional journals, then ask students to critically think about it. We give them guiding questions, but don't tell them the answers. It's completely different from other bio textbooks."


  • October 29, 2013


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