Last night I finished a book on the submarine the USS Scorpion and was struck by how busy naval ships are when they return to their home ports. Rather than the boats sitting idle while the crew gets some R&R, it is a time when systems are tested, problems are fixed, and improvements are made. With the close of the spring semester and the onset of summer, we find our BIMS program returning from a year “at sea” where the courses and techniques and facilities have been operating to conduct our “mission” – teaching BIMS majors. Now with the conclusion of the year, we are back in “home port” doing the same program tests, fixes, and upgrades submariners do before we take our program back out to sea next fall. We find ourselves taking stock of what worked, what didn’t, and what comes next…
- We were pleased with the direction taken in BIMS 1300 Introduction to Scientific Research. The focus on learning the basics of how science is conducted, how to critically analyze the world around us, and how to apply the skills of science and analysis to better understand our world was a positive development this year.
- We were pleased with the functionality of the new spaces for teaching and research that came online in November. The micro lab was used by three different lab/lecture classes without any trainwrecks. The student project spaces gave us flexible space to support student work outside of regular hours that functioned flawlessly. Student card access to the labs was appreciated by students and allowed some previously impossible activities (round-the-clock monitoring of growth) to take place. New equipment in the student research labs and teaching labs gave new approaches for studying lab problems.
- We were pleased with the new Genetics course taught by Dr. Brosius. As a more balanced mixture of Mendelian, population, and molecular genetics, it gave an exceptional foundation for students ready to delve deeper in Molecular Cell Biology classes next year.
- We were pleased with the transition to a new schedule for offering BIMS courses in the freshman sequence. Next year, our new sequence will be fully operational.
What didn’t work.
- We found the positioning of some pieces of equipment in our new spaces to be less than ideal. For instance, a large rack for placement of backpacks and student materials went unused and students continued to put those things on the floor of the lab. Incubators were crowded together making access by students from two classes meeting simultaneously very difficult. After “living in the spaces” for a full semester, we will “rearrange some of the furniture” this summer.
- We found less success in Advanced Micro and capstones than was hoped. We realized halfway through the semester that student ownership of the projects was necessary in order to move them toward self-sufficiency and greater investment in getting results, and so we made adjustments to that effect. Still, at the end we realized there were other steps we could have taken to improve the experience and the productivity.
- A hiring freeze undermined our efforts to fill the vacant molecular biologist position that has hamstrung us during the year. We are unable to deliver our complete BIMS program without that person, and so we found ourselves scrambling to substitute courses to allow students to graduate. The result was for those graduates a fine degree but in some ways lacking of all the breadth and depth BIMS should have.
- BIMS faculty are spending May taking stock of what worked and what didn’t with the intention to refine our efforts to improve our program. This annual review and planning insures we don’t continue doing the same things in the same ways out of habit or because it is easy.
- Even in the midst of a hiring freeze, we have secured the services of McM alumna Sheena Banks to teach molecular courses for us as an adjunct. Sheena received her MS in Immunology from UTMB and is working as a Research Associate at the TTUHSC School of Pharmacy. This should help us bring a major portion of the molecular dimension of the BIMS program back online.
- We will continue to experiment with courses and their delivery next year. For instance, the BIOL 1301 Unicellular Organisms course and BIMS 1101 Uni Lab will receive a major overhaul next year to help strengthen areas in student learning that our testing of junior and senior BIMS students has revealed. Also, the BIMS 4491 Advanced Micro course for the fall will focus on spore ecology and physiology, and will meet in two hour blocks three times weekly. Students will see how different compositions of growth media influence the size and resistance of Bacillus thuringiensis endospores. Our expectation is that this work will result in presentation at the spring meeting of the Texas Branch of the American Society for Microbiology and subsequent publication.
All this is to say the BIMS program is not static, is never satisfied. While for many on campus the summer represents a time of rest, for us it is a very busy time. We want our program to be the best it can be – battle-ready and tested, improved – when we set sail again next fall to accomplish our mission to give BIMS majors the very best knowledge and skills and experiences possible.
Sheena Banks, McMurry class of 2006, presented aspects of her graduate research on HIV Mediated CD4+ Cell Depletion. Ms. Banks completed a Master’s degree in Immunology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and currently works as a Research Associate at the Texas Tech School of Pharmacy in Abilene, Texas.
An understanding of the retroviral replication process is very important in the successful treatment of HIV. The HIV virus infects a variety of immune cells expressing a surface protein receptor called CD4. These cells are central to the immune system’s mounting a specific response to a variety of infections, and their destruction effectively renders the patient void of a functioning immune system. Many times, treatment appears to be successful for a time, but later AIDS develops as the body is compromised by secondary infections. HIV infected cells persist in the body through a variety of mechanisms–latent periods with a resurgence and rapid mutation rates that render specific immune responses to foreign agents incapable of reining in and defeating an HIV infection.
Sheena worked on a project using mice to find ways to encourage infected cells to “home”, or seek the lymph nodes where they might undergo apoptosis – the natural cell death process used to remove damaged cells from the body. During the course of an HIV infection, CD4 cells migrate from the blood to lymph nodes, where 90-95% are destroyed by infection. The fate of the remaining 5-10% CD4-bearing cells was not known. Her work determined that these cells are actually T-regulatory cells whose role is to slow down the immune response once an infection is over and to recruit CD4 cells to lymph nodes. She found that the presence of T-regulatory cells promoted an environment within the lymph nodes that favored HIV proliferation, rather than apoptosis – normal programmed cell death processes that remove damaged cells from the body. Such a ”sorting out” of the roles and activities of T-regulatory and CD4 cells
during the course of an HIV infection is an important step in finding new strategies for treatments vs. HIV infections, something Sheena says is the goal of HIV researchers right now.
Sheena graciously fielded a great many diverse questions on HIV infections and research, and offered McMurry students opportunities to work in the labs at TTU School of Pharmacy-Abilene – participating in research on cancer, viral infections, developmental biology, and many other ongoing projects guided by TTUSOP faculty.
In the past few days I’ve experienced what every college professor relishes in – reconnection with former students. In some ways, seeing a student graduate is like letting my dog Chili off her lead – I never know if she’s going to go chase the bunnies or remain close by and be obedient. There’s been more than one occasion when freedom has meant chasing a cat, when it should have been all about sticking by me while we check the mail or get the newspaper.
I have been fortunate through the years to have great students and to enjoy living a portion of McMurry’s core values – that personal relationships are the catalyst for life. Those relationships begin as students come in as freshmen and we begin to learn about each other – about our families, the importance of faith in our lives, how to balance needs and wants, where education has and will lead us. I believe my students know me well, know my wife and sons, know that I really, really care about their success as students today and professionals of the future. Students at small colleges like McMurry probably have no clue that their faculty live vicariously through the lives of their students, and that we feel great pride and a sense of credit and accomplishment when our alums become successful. They take a piece of us with them and leave a piece of themselves behind when they have spent four years in our classes and offices. And when they then graduate and go off, I know I always worry that they will chase cats and rabbits and neglect to stay in touch.
I have seen the beginning and endpoint of that journey in the past week, starting with Student Preview on Saturday. Talking with prospective students and their parents is always enjoyable, as I emphasize the strength of our programs and more importantly the strength of our relationships with students. If those in attendance at Preview could only have a glimpse of the outcome of a McMurry education! I was reminded of that on Sunday, when Dr. Sharla Owens sent a friend request on Facebook from California where she practices and teaches emergency medicine. Our college-age sons were just little guys when our family drove down to Galveston for her graduation from UTMB. Then today, Dr. Chad Johnson, alumnus and physician in El Paso, contacted me to discuss a high schooler he knows who is interested in McMurry. Chad was my barometer on the quality of our science courses during his time at McMurry. Anytime I needed to know how we were doing, he was willing to answer truthfully. And yesterday I was privileged to spend an hour or so with Dr. Gena Jester Nichols, catching up on people and old times, and learning about her research on Adenoviruses and how her Wake Forest PhD has prepared her for her new job as a Research Scientist at Tulane.
Three different students, three different success stories of moving through the years from teacher-student to mentor-apprentice, and finally to friends and colleagues. It has been a very rewarding week for me because these three alums have chosen to reconnect with McMurry’s science faculty. May those who enter as freshmen next fall do likewise over the years to come.