For years, the BIMS program and Biology Department have featured an emphasis on st udent research. Some of our courses feature open-ended investigations as a regular part of the lab experience. All of our students must either participate in a senior capstone project, do Honors research, or complete an internship. However, we’ve come to believe the lab projects and senior experiences provide too abbreviated an exposure and too little opportunity to participate in long-term involvement in honing research skills (intellectual and experiential). So we are starting a new initiative that should change things up a bit!
This spring, two faculty will begin an experiment called Research Teams. In essence, the approach used in graduate programs to build a team of researchers working together on a common project is going to be instituted at McMurry using undergraduate students. Each research team enroll students into a research program headed by the faculty member to participate in long-term research. Our two pioneers are Dr. T.J. Boyle, whose RT will study invasive crab species in the lakes and rivers of west Texas. The other is Dr. Malaney O’Connell, whose RT will do research on connective tissue and breast cancer using tissue culture of cancer cell lines. Both will select five or so students from those applying to participate, and work will begin in the spring semester. Students will receive academic credit each semester they participate, with the level of their responsibilities and depth of their involvement increasing with each subsequent semester. Students involved will come from all classifications, so it is a way that freshmen can test the waters to see what environmental or medical research is really like. Research experience such as they receive is a great advantage for a student pursuing graduate or professional education following their years at McMurry.
Expectations are that the number and diversity of Research Teams should grow in Biology and beyond to other departments as we demonstrate this as a way to enrich student experiences in the sciences and to increase/expand the involvement of faculty in ongoing research. Everyone wins!
Well, a surprise for this year is the first edition of the McMurry Fantasy Microbiology League competition for high school students. Last spring, I met with two of the specialists at the Region 14 Education Service Center to discuss my lament that there is no regional science fair for the students in the 44 school districts of our area (For those from outside Texas, our state is divided into regions and a service center is provided for each region to facilitate enrichment and support for public education). In our conversation, we came up with the idea of providing an alternate enrichment opportunity based on a software simulation used for teaching microbiology. What if we set up a fantasy league of teams composed of high school students who competed to identify simulated bacteria? What if we came up with some amazing prizes to give to competitors and their teachers/coaches and their schools? We are proud to announce that this is officially a “go” and teams will be able to sign up later this month to represent their schools and win big prizes.
Intuitive Systems Inc. agreed to provide the software for the competition. VirtualUnknown(TM) Microbiology (VUMIE) is used in colleges, nursing schools, and even dental and medical programs around the world to provide students with a reasonable substitute for working with bacteria in a wet lab to allow for practice in developing microbiology skills. Fantasy Microbiology League competitors will get unknown bacteria weekly and will work to submit an ID that is fast, accurate, and efficient. Points are earned for these three premiums and lost when they are not achieved. Each week, a team plays defense by prohibiting the use of a test of their choosing by their opponent. And each week, The Commissioner will announce a “Hail Mary” twist that will earn bonus points if successfully completed. Winners from head-to-head competition will advance to the playoffs along with wildcard teams based on total points earned. The VUMIE Bowl will be held on McMurry’s campus on February 10, 2017. Prizes will include scholarships for winners, GoPro cameras/Fitbits and other prizes for final teams and coaches, scientific equipment and the VUMIE trophy for the winning school, and plenty of Swag for all participants. Thank you sponsors for making this happen!
I tell my students all the time, if your science classes aren’t fun, something’s wrong. The subject matter is fascinating and exciting and awe-inspiring. And if we are clever in how we approach it, we can make it more “game” than “work”. Students in this competition will learn valuable lessons about aseptic technique, critical reasoning in choosing tests and interpreting results, and will see how being careful and thoughtful and precise in their work can lead to big rewards. But I’ll bet the way they describe it all is “fun”.
Students in research… Students Payden Dompe and Ella Mackowiak are spending the summer working in research with Dr. Dana Lee doing molecular biology/genomics on moles from around the nation. Dr. Joel Brant captured some of the pests at Firebase Libby (our department’s field station in Callahan County) which are the westernmost moles in our part of the country. The two students are isolating DNA from museum specimens to compare with DNA from our moles to see if patterns of migration can be determined that could give us an idea of the source for these moles. May not sound like a medically relevant project to our future doctors, but the methods used in the study are the same as those used in medical research.
New Freshman Seminar… Starting this fall, a new Foundations of Excellence (FOE) Freshman Seminar is being added to the requirements for all freshmen. The course incorporates 17 different approaches to the consideration of important questions for incoming freshmen, with one major topic central to each of the 17 sections being offered. During SOAR, it was really interesting to see what our incoming BIMS students chose as their options for this course. Our expectations are that FOE will help improve student success and persistence at McMurry. Both are good things!
Year Two of the New BIMS and other Programs… You may recall that Biology rolled out new and improved programs for Biology, BIMS, and Life Science last year. This year we are also adding Environmental Science. Because these are young programs, we will for the first time teach some of the new courses for these programs during our Fall Semester. For example, BIMS now requires a Cell Biology course (separated from Molecular and Cell Biology). This will be taught this fall by Dr. Malaney Lopez-O’Connell. We also are replacing the Junior Exam with a new Junior Seminar, now taken by all students. Expect this course to give our majors a jump start into their senior years.
Grants, Grants, Grants!… We are in various phases of grantwriting for things as diverse as updating Firebase Libby to obtaining a scanning electron microscope to creating an incredibly modern freshman lab sequence for top students to transforming our approach to engaging freshmen and transfer students and fostering success in the classroom and in researsch. Our goal is to become the best, most forward thinking program in our area, to build knowledge and skills and a sense of wonder and discovery in every graduate. These grants will help move the needle to make that happen.
I’ll be back in touch with more news as the summer rolls along. Stay cool!