Educating Our Undergraduates for Careers in Science and Veterinary Medicine
by Marcia Hill Gossard '99, '04
Left to right: students Amy Nusbaum and James Bonner with Julie
Stanton, clinical assistant professor in the School of Molecular Biosciences.
James Bonner loves science. As a freshman, James knew he wanted to major in biochemistry, so when he was selected to be part of the new hands-on Science Education Alliance biology lab, or SEA lab, in the WSU School of Molecular Biosciences, he was thrilled.
“The lab brings abstract scientific concepts into everyday learning,” said Bonner, one of 24 randomly selected freshmen admitted to the SEA lab in fall 2011, the program’s pilot year.
Funded through a three-year grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Science Education Alliance gives freshmen the chance to gain first-hand experience in a laboratory. During the first semester, students isolated, purified, and named a virus from a soil sample. Every sample is unique, creating a sense of ownership for the students that might not otherwise be evident in a traditional biology class setting.
“Normally students don’t have the chance to work in a real lab setting until their junior year,” said Dr. Julie Stanton, a clinical assistant professor in the School of Molecular Biosciences, who heads up the lab. “By exposing freshmen to a research lab environment, it can capture their excitement and involve them in the thrill of scientific discovery.”
The SEA lab is just one of several innovative undergraduate programs currently being offered at the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine.
“The long-term goal is to take all labs from the freshman through senior level and make them project-based,” said Dr. Bill Davis, associate dean for undergraduate education. Davis was appointed associate dean in 2012 to coordinate the four undergraduate education programs in the college—neuroscience, biochemistry, microbiology, and genetics and cell biology.
Dr. Jennifer Watts, assistant professor of genetics in the School of Molecular Biosciences, leads a senior project-based genetics lab. Watts brings her own research expertise on lipid (fat) metabolism to the classroom lab so students can get a hands-on research experience.
“Students have the potential to discover something new, instead of simply repeating what others have done,” said Watts.
Using a microscopic worm called C. elegans to discover what genes may affect fatty acid and metabolism, students choose the genes they will screen, formulate a hypothesis, grow the worms, extract the fatty acids, and examine the resulting data. Then students write a scientific paper on the results.
“It is hypothesis driven,” said Watts. “Students may find something we were not expecting. There is a lot of potential to find and try new things.”
These types of classes give undergraduates first-hand research experience, which better trains students for future careers in science.
“We play a foundational role in undergraduate education to meet the mission of educating future scientists and veterinarians,” said Davis.
Undergraduates often work side-by-side with faculty and are encouraged to publish scientific articles with WSU professors. Lindsay Fry came to the college in 2002 to start a combined neuroscience/DVM program. Soon after she arrived she began working with WSU neuroscientist Dr. David Schneider, with whom she conducted research and co-authored a paper.
“There is value in taking young people and getting them excited about research,” said Fry. “To be 19 years old and be encouraged by professors to get into a lab was empowering.”
As a result of her research experience, Fry was selected for a Department of Homeland Security Scholarship to intern the summer of her junior year at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York.
“I was so well prepared for the DVM program, and the research experience opened a lot of doors for me,” said Fry. “None of it would have been possible without the research experience as a neuroscience undergraduate.”
Now in the Ph.D. program in the Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology, Dr. Fry is working with infectious diseases, like East Coast Fever, a tick-borne disease that can economically devastate cattle-dependent families in East Africa.
“The neuroscience program well prepared me for the DVM and the Ph.D.,” said Fry, who is also in the anatomic pathology residency program with the USDA-ARS-ADRU and VMP.
The Students Targeted toward Advanced Research Studies (STARS) program in the School of Molecular Biosciences also prepares students for graduate level work. The program allows exceptional undergraduate students to jump on the fast track to graduate with a doctorate in as few as seven years. Ross Rowsey was selected for the STARS program as a freshman in 2008, the program’s first year.
“The STARS program has been an extremely enjoyable and beneficial experience for me,” said Rowsey, who was admitted to the program right out of high school. “With early integration into the laboratory setting and lab work starting my freshman year, I am truly ahead of the curve compared to my peers.”
Rowsey, who is expected to graduate in 2015 with his doctoral degree, will be one of the first graduates of the STARS program and will have completed his undergraduate and doctoral degrees in seven years. Graduates of STARS will go on to be leaders in the scientific community in such fields as biotechnology, medicine, and the life sciences.
“We have opportunities for growth in our undergraduate educational programs,” said Davis. “How we manage that growth is important for our students. Our undergraduates are future employees, graduate students, and human or animal health professionals.”