an e-newsletter for students and alumni of saint michael's biology department

A new generation of general biology
by Professor Donna Bozzone
Itís not your grandfatherís (or grandmotherís or even your motherís or fatherís) general biology anymore! Several years ago, the biology faculty undertook a rethinking of our majorsí introductory sequence: BI 151-153 General Biology.

Our objectives were straightforward:
1) the pedagogy of the courses needed to match the learning styles and talents of college students in the 21st century, 2) the design needed to enhance student intellectual engagement, and 3) all aspects of the course should emphasize inquiry, analysis, and critical thinking. Here we detail the exciting developments in BI 153.

The topics explored in BI 153 are cell structure and function, inheritance, and molecular genetics. In lecture, we address these fundamental biological concepts in the context of selected case studies that run as themes throughout our discussion of specific topics.

For example, our first case details cholera, an infectious disease responsible for the famous Broad Street epidemic of 1854. Using cholera as our theme, we explore cell structure and function, cell communication, physiology, transport across membranes, the process of science, the historical and societal impact of disease, and public health. The other three cases: sickle cell disease, causes of variability in human height, and eugenics offer fertile territory to learn not only about inheritance, genes, protein structure and function, and the process of science, but also the questions of what is normal, biological determinism, and what happens when biology and politics collide.

In laboratory, students conduct two long-term investigations. In the first, lab teams research the antimicrobial effects of spices. Students design experiments to determine the relative effectiveness of different spices on a variety of bacteria, compared to that of medically prescribed antibiotics. A rich literature in ethnobotany, microbiology, and evolutionary medicine provides the intellectual framework for these projects.

In the second investigation, students study the genetics and biochemistry of alcohol metabolism in fruit flies. Amazingly, fruit flies are a model system for studying the biochemistry and role of genes in alcoholism. Lab teams have two populations of fruit flies for their investigations. The wild type population is able to break down alcohol. The other population is a mutant unable to metabolize alcohol. Students design experiments to determine how the mutant gene is inherited; to connect the genetics and biochemistry of this mutation; and to observe the behaviors associated with the mutation.

One of the hallmarks of the liberal arts is the deliberate way in which we recognize the interconnections among various arenas of knowledge: biology, history, sociology, psychology, fine arts, literature, religion, and philosophy. The design of BI 153 invites students and instructors to make these connections explicit. Also, at Saint Michaelís, we celebrate how teaching and scholarship enrich each other.

The happy unforeseen result of the BI 153 redesign is that it launched two new scholarly endeavors. The first is the creation of a new biology textbook that emphasizes case studies as a means to organize the explanations of biological concepts. The book also explicitly connects biology to the other liberal arts and embraces the idea that a fundamental knowledge of biology is necessary for informed citizenship. This book is under contract with Oxford University Press and is being written by Donna Bozzone and Doug Green. The expected date of publication is August 2011.

The second is a new research project that will be extending our studies of the antimicrobial capacities of spices and other natural products. We will be testing several hypotheses that derive from the theory that spice use is an evolutionary adaptation that reduces food-borne illness. In addition, we plan to study the relationship between foods, spices, teas, and other natural products, and the growth and survival of bacteria that cause tooth decay. Finally, we intend to investigate the factors that influence the relative virulence of infectious agents.

Several people are involved in these research efforts including Donna Bozzone, Doug Green, Denise Martin, and Declan McCabe. One student, Jason Berglund, intends to undertake a senior research project studying bacteria associated with tooth decay. And we look forward to having other interested students join the group!

All in all, this experience shows that terrific things can happen when people work together on a common goal with student success as the ultimate prize.



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