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Discovering Your Inner Superhero

Dr. William Mattox, Department of Genetics
G&D 2012 Newsletter

Comic books are full of superheroes who discover they have special powers – the ability to fly, X-ray vision or rapid regeneration, to name just a few. Like a superhero, grad students have inherent skills that can be developed into a set of special powers to thrive in science. These include the power to design reviewer-proof experiments, to critically evaluate papers, to extract meaning from large datasets, and to identify an important unanswered question to investigate in their dissertation. Unlike superheroes, scientists don’t develop these powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. Instead we must work to enhance them. To help out, the G&D Program has recently developed new classes, and reorganized some existing ones, to sharpen the skills that students will use throughout their careers.

Critical Thinking in Science, a discussion-based course, is aimed at developing the power to see through complicated experiments and to recognize assumptions and biases that are built into them. At the same time, students develop powers needed to identify important unanswered questions raised by new data, how to better design their own experiments and how to avoid pitfalls in peer review. As Jason Ford, a former G&D student says, “Understanding the thought process of editors gave me important insights for my own publications.”

The power of critical thinking is also emphasized in the exciting new class Fundamental Mechanisms of Cancer Development coordinated by Drs. Mike Galko and Elsa Flores. Although many graduate courses jump from one topic to another each week, this course opts instead for an in-depth examination of a carefully selected set of mechanisms that drive disease. Each mechanism (for example, regulation of cell death) is taught in three consecutive class sessions that are led by two faculty experts on the subject. The first two sessions focus on how the mechanism contributes to the growth of normal tissue and on how it is subverted in disease. These sessions prepare students for the third session which is devoted to a critical in-class discussion of an important paper on the same topic. According to Dr. Galko, “The third sessions allow students to hone their own ability to find the strengths and flaws in recent cutting edge papers. That’s an essential skill for all students, regardless of their chosen research topic.”

Similarly, student-driven discussion sessions on recent papers are also integrated into two recently reorganized G&D courses: Developmental Biology, a class now coordinated by Dr. Richard Behringer and Molecular Biology of Eucaryotic Cells, coordinated by Jessica Tyler.

Another important power for scientists is the ability to access and exploit the large-scale online data sets now available on everything from DNA sequence to protein structure. This requires students to gain an understanding of these resources and basic approaches used in computational biology. Recognizing this need, Dr. Nick Navin has worked together with faculty in the Department of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology to develop Introduction to Bioinformatics, a new course that will be offered for the first time this fall. This entry-level class is aimed at biologists and no prior programming experience is required.

With these new skills, we hope our students gain another important power – the power to succeed.

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