The Molecular Genetics and Protein Structure and Function workshop is one of a series of workshops offered by the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Workshops in the Chemical Sciences. The workshop provides a hands-on introduction to current topics and techniques in molecular genetics and protein structure/function as applied to undergraduate education. This article describes a unique method for planning such a workshop, namely a participant-oriented approach including research-based lectures and experiments. This approach gives faculty from undergraduate institutions a rich perspective and practical experience in this interdisciplinary field of science, integrating aspects of both molecular biology and biochemistry. An outlook on current cutting edge techniques and the direction of future research in this field may enable the faculty participants to better prepare undergraduate students for careers in the workforce or graduate or professional programs.
The current state-of-the-art in the field of biochemistry is rapidly changing with the development of new techniques and technologies and integration of the various biochemical disciplines. For example, the genomic revolution has lead to a vast array of new information, the expansion of bioinformatics techniques to analyze and organize this information, and the introduction of other “-omics” fields (e.g. proteomics) to explore new scientific questions. The undergraduate college curriculum must reflect these developments to prepare students for future success in graduate/professional school or industry. The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) has updated the recommended curriculum for undergraduate biochemistry and molecular biology courses to take these changes into consideration . The National Research Council also undertook a study of undergraduate biology education and recommended an interdisciplinary approach that includes math and the physical sciences [2, 3]. However, an updated curriculum is of little use without properly trained faculty who are familiar with and capable of communicating to their students recent progress in the biochemistry field. College faculty members need access to information about and hands-on experience with the latest techniques to provide effective training to their undergraduate students. Unfortunately, this access is not always readily available to faculty whose primary interaction is with undergraduate students, particularly faculty at institutions without graduate programs in the sciences.
The Center for Workshops in the Chemical Sciences (CWCS)1 is a National Science Foundation Division of Undergraduate Education Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (NSF-DUE-CCLI)-sponsored initiative. The CWCS provides workshops for faculty at eligible U.S. institutions including two and four year colleges and universities. Individuals, including post-docs and graduate students who plan to embark on a college teaching career, and conservators, forensic, biomedical, and public health scientists with significant educational responsibilities, are also eligible. Participation, including registration and housing, is free. The workshops are designed to provide a background and modern perspective on key areas of the chemical sciences, along with methods to introduce these topics into the undergraduate curriculum. More information can be found on the CWCS website (chemistry.gsu.edu/CWCS).
The CWCS Molecular Genetics and Protein Structure and Function Workshop (previously Molecular Genetics and Protein Engineering) integrates current topics in molecular biology and biochemistry in an interdisciplinary program following an approach advocated by the NSF strategic plan, to “encourage cooperative research and education efforts, among disciplines and organizations, where partners work at different locations, in different sectors, or across international boundaries” . The Molecular Genetics and Protein Structure and Function Workshop has been offered through the CWCS program three times (in 2001, 2002, and 2004), serving a total of 44 faculty participants. A fourth offering is planned for summer 2006. This workshop is unique among the CWCS workshops in that it aims for a participant-oriented approach, meaning that the specific topics covered will vary from year to year, depending on the background and interests of the participants.
This workshop along with several other workshops in the CWCS program also aims to help faculty attendees integrate research and teaching per the NSF's Strategic Plan . NSF counts as a Core Strategy the integration of research and education: “NSF invests in activities that integrate research and education, and that develop reward systems that support teaching, mentoring and outreach. Effective integration of research and education at all levels infuses learning with the excitement of discovery. Joining together research and education also assures that the findings and methods of research are quickly and effectively communicated in a broader context and to a larger audience” . One of NSF's long term goals is the development of research and education processes that are synergistic. The ASBMB also considers research an essential part of the undergraduate curriculum in biochemistry and molecular biology. This experience may come from work in a research laboratory, from a well designed laboratory course , or from classroom discussion of research topics. Hands-on, research-based laboratory activities presented at the workshop are appropriate for use in undergraduate laboratory courses, and the techniques are also applicable to faculty research projects. Instructors additionally provide examples of ways research-based topics can be incorporated into classroom lectures, and cutting edge research in the areas of molecular genetics and protein biochemistry is introduced. Another important feature of the workshop is that it is not necessary for faculty to develop a new course in order to integrate the information from the workshop into their teaching; the material lends itself to being incorporated into existing classes and laboratories, from freshman level general chemistry courses through upper level analytical and biochemistry courses and undergraduate research projects.
For the most recent (2004) workshop, emphasis was placed on serving faculty from colleges and universities in Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) regions, those that have historically received less federal funding for research in the sciences. The format of the workshop encourages discussion and collaboration between participants. This is beneficial to all participants because they can share experiences and exchange ideas, and in 2004 it was of particular value to the EPSCoR faculty, who gained access to resources not available at their home institutions through partnerships with other workshop attendees and with the host institution, University of Hawaii-Hilo. The workshop also served to increase awareness of the EPSCoR program (www.nsf.gov/div/index.jsp?div=EPSCOR).
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Each potential 2004 workshop participant was requested to complete a preworkshop survey describing his/her background, goals in attending the workshop, plans for utilizing workshop materials, etc. One purpose of this survey is to allow the workshop organizers to select a diverse group of participants with varied backgrounds, including both biologists and chemists, to foster the interdisciplinary nature of the workshop and allow participants to learn from each other as well as from the workshop instructors. Table I shows examples of the varied backgrounds of past workshop participants. This survey also aids organizers in focusing on topics that will be most beneficial to the selected participants and allows creation of a customized program for the workshop. Rather than have a set schedule of lectures and experiments that is largely unvarying from year to year, the organizers of this workshop change and/or update the curriculum each time it is held. This also ensures that the most recent and relevant topics in the fields of molecular genetics and protein chemistry can be included on the workshop schedule.
The workshop is held during the summer over the course of 5 days, Sunday evening through Friday afternoon. The participants are all housed together (in a dorm on campus or at a nearby hotel) to facilitate interaction and discussion outside of scheduled workshop sessions. The workshop is held on the campus of the host institution (Georgia State University in 2001 and 2002 and University of Hawaii-Hilo in 2004) using lecture halls, computer laboratories, and wet lab space. On Sunday evening, participants gather to meet each other and the workshop instructors. The participant-oriented approach of the workshop is again emphasized through a group discussion of participant backgrounds and expectations. Sessions start Monday morning and generally alternate between lectures and reinforcement with hands-on laboratory experiences.
For organizational purposes, the workshop is divided into two modules: 1) molecular genetics and 2) protein structure and function. Examples of topics and laboratory activities that have been covered in the three workshops are given in Fig. 1. While space limitations prevent a detailed discussion of workshop lectures and laboratories in this article, more information can be obtained by contacting the corresponding author. The approach is interdisciplinary, and the emphasis is on how these topics are interrelated, how they are relevant to biochemical education, and how they may be useful in a biochemical research project that could encompass anything from genetic mutation to protein expression and structure/function studies. For example, microarray analysis has become an important experimental tool in recent years, so much so that the Genome Consortium for Active Teaching (GCAT) was founded to promote including functional genomics methods in undergraduate courses . This also includes computer literacy and the ability to search data bases for relevant information and use online bioinformatics tools such as BLAST searches . The importance of understanding three-dimensional structure/function relationships in biochemistry and the effectiveness of computer-based visualization programs for deepening this understanding has also recently been emphasized .
At least one well known keynote speaker is invited to give an evening lecture on a topic that integrates ideas from molecular genetics and protein biochemistry. These keynote lectures often illustrate clinical applications of ideas or laboratory techniques covered in the workshop and are a rich source of examples and anecdotes that the faculty participants can use in their courses. Keynote speakers have included Ira Lubin, Centers for Disease Control (“Genetic Testing for Heritable Diseases: A Changing Paradigm for Research and Health Care”); Rebecca Cann, University of Hawaii-Manoa (“A Major Increase in Avian Malaria and Climate Change in Hawaii”); Larry Silverman, University of North Carolina Hospitals (“Population-based Cystic Fibrosis Carrier Screening: Be Careful What You Test For”); Douglas Wallace, University of California-Irvine, and Dan Mishmar, Emory University (“Migrating Genes–The Genetic View of Human Evolution”); and Eric Kmiec, University of Delaware (“Engineering Evolution and Natural Selection with Manipulation and Gene Therapy”).
All participants are given a notebook containing copies of the lecture notes and laboratory experiments as well as other supplemental and reference materials. At the end of the 5-day workshop, participants also receive this information in electronic format on a CD.
At the end of the 5 day workshop, participants are asked to evaluate their satisfaction with the program. Participants are also asked to offer tentative ideas on where and how they will use materials from the workshop. Formal follow-up evaluations organized by the CWCS program will be held yearly, as part of an extensive short and long term evaluation program that has recently been developed. The long term evaluation will include a student survey to collect additional data on the impact of faculty workshop attendance on student learning. Informal contact with workshop organizers and other participants is also encouraged through distribution of contact lists.
Each potential workshop participant was asked to complete a survey describing his/her background, goals in attending the workshop, plans for utilizing workshop materials, etc. A majority of the participants (73%) indicated that they wanted to broaden their abilities by learning new areas, suggesting that most participants were unfamiliar with at least some aspect of the topics covered by the workshop. An effort was made to select some participants with strong molecular genetics backgrounds and others with strong protein biochemistry backgrounds so that the participants could learn from each other as well as from the workshop instructors. Almost 50% of the participants also said that staying current with an area of expertise was a top priority, indicating that many of them were already teaching or doing research in some area covered by the workshop, making it possible to potentially incorporate the workshop materials into existing classes. Participants were also asked to describe courses and research, so that topics of particular interest could be included on the workshop schedule.
On the final day of the workshop, participants were asked to rank, on a scale ranging from excellent (5) to poor (1), their satisfaction with different aspects of the workshop and with the overall experience. Of the 37 participants who completed a survey, 33 (89%) rated their experience either excellent (5) or very good (4). This high degree of satisfaction may be due to the participant-oriented nature of the workshop, where workshop topics are tailored to match the expectations of the participants.
A formal follow-up survey was conducted by the CWCS program in 2003, and 5 of the 15 participants from the 2002 workshop were contacted. Modification of existing courses was the most common way these participants reported incorporating workshop materials into the curriculum. Of the five people contacted, three had modified at least one course (this includes undergraduate research) after attending the workshop, and a total of five courses had been modified. The participants estimated that a total of 82 students had been exposed to the new course materials during the 2002–2003 academic year. A short term survey of the 2004 attendees conducted six months after the workshop revealed that a majority of those participants also modified or planned to modify existing undergraduate courses. While 4 of 10 people reported that they would develop a new science course and 6 of 10 reported that they would develop a new undergraduate research project based on materials from the workshop, 8 of 10 also incorporated or planned to incorporate materials into a range of existing courses (Fig. 2). Fig. 3 shows current and planned use of individual laboratory and lecture topics from the 2004 workshop. Long term evaluation of the impact on students is still under way, but the short term evaluation results show that the faculty attendees are satisfied with the workshop experience and are including the lecture topics and laboratory experiments from the workshop in their courses, laboratories, and research.
Aside from the formal evaluation process, informal contact between participants and workshop leaders also reveals how participants have been affected by the workshop experience. One 2001 workshop participant presented an undergraduate laboratory exercise, developed in part from workshop materials, at a regional conference . Another 2001 participant reported incorporating workshop topics and techniques such as PCR, computational tools in biotechnology, site-directed mutagenesis, enzyme kinetics, and fluorescence spectroscopy into his existing courses and research projects after attending the workshop. The 2004 workshop has produced a potential research collaboration between a participant from the University of Guam and the workshop instructors from the University of Hawaii-Hilo involving sharing of EPSCoR resources. One 2004 workshop participant stated, “One of the most useful aspects of this workshop for me was the computer-based molecular visualization section. I learned a new tool that has helped me in my research.” Another said, “It was quite enriching to work on new laboratory skills cooperatively with other faculty members…. This experience has changed my perspective on how to approach laboratory teaching.”
Incorporating workshop materials directly into new or existing courses or research is not the only way to judge the success of the workshop. After attending a workshop such as this, with the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in a new field and also interact with colleagues and experts, a faculty member may bring a revitalized enthusiasm for teaching and research back to the classroom. That positive attitude can have an impact on students. Many 2001–2004 workshop participants cited interaction with colleagues as one of the most enjoyable/useful aspects of the workshop. The ultimate goal of the CWCS program is to encourage student interest in the sciences, and a professor who is excited about science and aware of the latest developments in the field may have a dramatic impact on student perception of the subject.
The workshop organizers thank Dr. Jerry Smith (CWCS director) and Dr. David Collard and Dr. Larry Kaplan (CWCS co-directors) for their continuing support of this workshop. We also thank Sherry Hemmingsen and Russ Pong of Varian, Inc.; Chris Lull of InforMax, Inc.; Ella Martin of VWR; Frank Oakley of Fisher Scientific; Mark Norman of MJ Research; and Julie Mathern and Simon Lee of Bio-Rad Laboratories for the donation of supplies and expertise that helped make the workshops possible; and all of the great faculty participants who have attended the workshops.