“Recombinant protein of the day”: Using daily student presentations to add real-world aspects to a biotechnology course

Authors

  • Justin F. Shaffer

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Biology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
    • Department of Biology, North Carolina A&T State University, Greensboro, North Carolina
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To whom correspondence should be addressed. Tel.: +9195251488. E-mail: shafferj@unc.edu

“What is the point of learning this?” You may have heard this question from students before and tried to answer it by providing some real-world applications of the concept at hand. Providing relevance to students' current academic lives and interests, their future professional lives, and real-world situations can help establish the value of course content and improve student learning [1]. Infusing courses with social and even historical context can also improve student learning and retention [2]. Activities designed to provide real-world case studies and to showcase the importance of science in students' lives have been developed for physiology courses (“physiological curiosity of the week” [3]) and introductory biology (“disease of the week” [4]), among many others, and have been shown to improve student engagement and interest in the subject matter. These activities were designed to improve students' perceptions of medical case studies, enhance their self-directed learning [3], and develop their writing abilities [4].

To provide a realistic view of the biotechnology industry for students, a novel course focusing on recombinant proteins and their importance in medicine, pharmaceuticals, industry, scientific research, and agriculture was developed. “Designer Proteins and Society,” an upper-division elective, was taught in the Fall 2012 semester to 16 junior, senior, and first-year master's students in the Department of Biology at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, NC. The major goal of the course was to challenge students to develop proposals that contained the steps required to design and produce recombinant proteins starting from RNA and included the methods of molecular cloning, recombinant protein expression and purification, and experiments to assess the function of the recombinant protein. Students also completed a five-week laboratory project based on the Bio-Rad Biotechnology Explorer Protein Expression and Purification Series (Bio-Rad, Hercules, CA) [5] that provided them hands-on experience with recombinant protein techniques through the expression, purification, and functional assessment of a recombinant form of human dihydrofolate reductase, an enzyme involved in the synthesis of nucleic acid precursors. The course ended with a field trip to a local biomanufacturing company, where students observed the production of therapeutic recombinant proteins at industrial scale.

A key learning objective of the course was for students to explain how recombinant proteins are used in medical, pharmaceutical, industrial, and scientific research applications and why they are so important to society. To expose students to the myriad of commercially available recombinant proteins that are used as therapeutic drugs (e.g. insulin for diabetes treatment), food processing enzymes (e.g. chymosin used in cheese production), and molecular biology workhorses (e.g. Taq polymerase for PCR) and how essential they are to our daily lives, the “Recombinant Protein of the Day” assignment was developed and implemented. This assignment provided students with opportunities to research the scientific and commercial literature and practice their oral presentation skills, all while taking ownership of a particular recombinant protein that they found specific interest in.

In the “Recombinant Protein of the Day” assignment, students were instructed to search the web to find any commercially available recombinant protein and were given a worksheet that included a list of required information they were to research about their protein. If they had trouble finding recombinant proteins for the assignment, they were instructed to ask for help. The required information included the name and species isoform of the protein, a brief description of the biological function of the protein, number of amino acids, molecular weight, isoelectric point, a picture of the crystal structure (if available), how society uses this protein (e.g. as a therapeutic drug), the name of the manufacturer, when the protein was first produced, and any information about the production process (especially that concerning the expression system and purification methods). Once students acquired this information about their recombinant protein, they developed a single PowerPoint slide to use for a short (2–4 min) presentation. The assignment worksheet that was handed out to students is included in Supporting Information. Students were also given a grading rubric (also in Supporting Information) that outlined the point distribution for this assignment. Each student was required to research and present on one recombinant protein during the semester. This assignment was worth 5% of their total course grade.

At the beginning of each day of class for the first two-and-a-half months of the semester, the first 5–10 min were devoted to the “Recombinant Protein of the Day” presentations. The instructor gave the first three presentations in order to model examples of appropriate content. Students then gave their presentations daily, with no more than two students presenting per day. The nonpresenting students in the class were encouraged to ask questions of their classmates after their presentations were over. Students chose a wide variety of recombinant proteins to investigate, but mostly focused on recombinant proteins used as pharmaceutical drugs (Table 1). Several students had personal connections to their choice of protein, including having a relative or friend diagnosed with a disease relating to the protein, or being interested in studying the protein or disease during graduate or professional school. The “Recombinant Protein of the Day” presentations yielded a unique (and often unpredictable) beginning to each day of class, which also opened up discussions of aspects of recombinant proteins that were not covered in detail elsewhere in the course (such as fusion proteins, the difference between biological and pharmaceutical drugs, and specific therapeutic applications of recombinant proteins).

Table 1. Selected list of student and instructor “Recombinant Protein of the Day” topics
Name of recombinant proteinManufacturerUse
  1. Asterisks denote presentations given by the instructor.
β-GlucocerebrosidaseShirePharmaceutical
Coagulation factor VIIIBDI PharmaPharmaceutical
δ-endotoxins (cry proteins)*Multiple (e.g. Monsanto)Insecticide
Erythropoietin*AmgenPharmaceutical
Interferon betaBiogen IdecPharmaceutical
Parathyroid hormoneEli Lilly and CompanyPharmaceutical
Protein CEli Lilly and CompanyPharmaceutical
RNase IMultiple (e.g. Invitrogen)Research
SomatotropinGenentechPharmaceutical
Taq DNA polymerase I*Multiple (e.g. Invitrogen)Research
ThrombopoietinPharmaciaPharmaceutical
Tissue plasminogen activatorGenentechPharmaceutical

Students performed well on the “Recombinant Protein of the Day” activity, with scores ranging from 80 to 100%. Students commonly missed points for failing to include all the required components or for lacking details about specific aspects of the activity (e.g. missing details about the biological function of the protein and how the recombinant protein is expressed or purified). Students were not held accountable (through summative assessments) for the content material in these presentations, as the goal of this activity was to expose students to the multitude of ways that recombinant proteins positively impact our society and not to assess student learning of the details of each recombinant protein that was presented.

To measure the impact of the “Recombinant Protein of the Day” activity on student outcomes, students completed a pretest on the first day of class and a posttest on the last day of class. The pretest and posttest assessed students' content knowledge as well as their self-perceived abilities to perform specific tasks related to the course. This test was modeled on the instrument described by Bellin et al. [6] and was reviewed and found to be exempt by the North Carolina A&T State University Institutional Review Board. One question asked students to self-assess their confidence in their abilities to “explain how recombinant proteins are used by society” using a Likert-type scale of 0–5, with a value of zero being “not confident at all” and a value of five being “extremely confident.” As shown in Fig. 1, on the pretest students responded with low-confidence (scores of 0, 1, 2, or 3) in their abilities to explain how recombinant proteins are used by society. However, on the posttest, students responded with high-confidence (scores of 3, 4, or 5) in their ability to perform this task. While it is not possible to attribute this shift to higher student confidence to explain how recombinant proteins are used by society solely to the “Recombinant Protein of the Day” activity, it is likely that this activity played a significant role in this shift. Other components of the course addressed how recombinant proteins are used by society, but none were as explicit or student-centered as the “Recombinant Protein of the Day” activity.

Figure 1.

Student self-assessment of their abilities to “explain how recombinant proteins are used by society” compared from a pretest to a posttest. A value of zero indicates “not confident at all” and a value of five indicates “extremely confident.” n = 10 (pretest), n = 13 (posttest).

At the end of the semester, students completed a course evaluation that asked them to rate different components of the course in terms of how much each component contributed to learning the course material. Students responded on a Likert-type scale of 1–5, with a value of one being “I learned very little or nothing at all” and a value of five being “I learned a lot.” Ten of the 13 students that completed the evaluation assigned the “Recombinant Protein of the Day” assignment a score of four or five (Fig. 2), indicating that students thought that the assignment greatly contributed to their learning during the course. In additional, several written student comments indicated that they appreciated and enjoyed the real-world aspects of the course. For example, when asked about what aspects of the course were most valuable, one student remarked “learning how the lessons we were taught are being used in everyday life.”

Figure 2.

Student ratings of the “Recombinant Protein of the Day” assignment in terms of how much this assignment contributed to their learning the course material. A value of one indicates “I learned very little or nothing at all” and a value of five indicates “I learned a lot.” n = 13.

In summary, daily presentation assignments such as “Recombinant Protein of the Day” may be useful in stimulating student interest, providing opportunities for students to develop oral presentation skills and in bringing real-world connections to classrooms in a student-centered manner. Assignments such as this could be easily modified to suit any course content (chemical reaction of the day, gene of the week, etc.) to motivate students to pursue personally relevant topics that may pique their interest and engage them in the learning process.

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Brian Rybarczyk and Jennifer Tenlen for critical reading of this manuscript. This work was supported by the Seeding Postdoctoral Innovators in Research and Education (SPIRE) program funded by the National Institutes of Health Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity division of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (K12GM000678).

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