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Pillars of Biology

"Pillars of Biology" Course Offers Research Perspective

Student participation has long been an integral element of the biomedical graduate program coursework at Einstein. In recent years, a group of determined young scholars have taken that concept one step further:  quite literally, the students have become the teachers. The interactive, student-run "Pillars of Biology" course is currently approaching its third year as an officially approved elective for intermediate and advanced graduate students and, if the increasing enrollments each fall are any indication, it has been a tremendous success.

The course focuses on the original classic journal articles that have made seminal contributions in their respective fields. These studies are then used as springboards for free-form, student-initiated discussion.

The idea for the course arose when Sabrina Volpi (now pursuing postdoctoral training) and Sandeep Wontakal (an M.D.-Ph.D. candidate who has earned his Ph.D. and is now completing his clinical training) were students together in the cell biology department. "We realized we had a great interest in reading some of the classic, historical papers," recalled Dr. Volpi. So, along with fellow student Michelle Maxson, they solicited the participation of the graduate student body and established what was then called "Bio 101," Einstein's first student-run journal club.

Course founders Michelle Maxson and Sandeep Wontakal (not pictured – Sabrina Volpi)
Course founders Michelle Maxson and Sandeep Wontakal (not pictured – Sabrina Volpi)
At each session, the students would invite an Einstein faculty member who is an expert on the topic of the paper or who is personally acquainted with the scientists involved in the discoveries. Among the initial invitees was Dr. Scott Emmons, professor of genetics and of neuroscience, who suggested that the journal club be converted into a formal course.

"Dr. Emmons offered his class in molecular genetics as a starting point to do a pilot run of our course," explained Ms. Maxson. "Then, because our course evaluations were good…‘Pillars' was officially incorporated into the curriculum as an elective."

"We have always had some kind of journal club, reading-style courses in the graduate program," said Dr. Moshe Sadofsky, associate clinical professor of pathology, who has been the "Pillars" faculty course advisor for the past two years.  "The key differences with ‘Pillars' are that the papers covered are generally of historic importance rather than being recently published, and some students return in subsequent years to serve as course facilitators, teaching the new group of students. It's really a novel combination that leads to interesting discussion."

He continued, "The first year, for example, we had a very successful session on immunoglobulin diversification [the process that enables immune cells to recognize and fight an array of pathogens], of which Einstein faculty member Matty Scharff is one of the founders. Einstein continues to have a core of faculty, myself included, who are active in this area."

Having faculty invitees present is particularly helpful when student facilitators don't know the answer to a question. There is an expert who also can add some historic perspective, noted Mr. Wontakal, who also was one of the original student course leaders.

He recalled, "One of our first sessions was about knockout mouse technology, which we held after the Nobel Prize was awarded. We invited our mentors, Dr. Art Skoultchi and Dr. Winfried Edelman, who were intimately involved with the scientists who developed these techniques that led to their Nobel Prize. For instance, the laureates obtained cells from Art's lab, so, Art shared the back story with the class — something we wouldn't be able to hear anywhere else."

While the course is essentially student-run, the faculty course advisor makes an important contribution. "Dr. Sadofsky attends each class and, in a sense, is really the glue," explained Mr. Wontakal. "He's been an enthusiastic supporter of the class from the beginning, and is a valuable source of advice and suggestions for each group of new student facilitators."

Course leaders, facilitators and advisors for the Pillars of Biology course include (from left) Michelle Maxson, Arthur Ruiz, Jean Masterson, Wendy McKimpson, Michael Goldberg, Dr. Moshe Sadofsky, Jason McCarthy, Dr. Scott Emmons
Course leaders, facilitators and advisors for the Pillars of Biology course include (from left) Michelle Maxson, Arthur Ruiz, Jean Masterson, Wendy McKimpson, Michael Goldberg, Dr. Moshe Sadofsky, Jason McCarthy, Dr. Scott Emmons
"The course really requires volunteerism on the part of the students, so I see my role as whipping up the conversation," noted Dr. Sadofsky. "One of the main objectives is to explore ideas they're not familiar with and to realize that these new discoveries are something to be celebrated."

This fall, the student course leaders plan to build on past successes while continuing to devise ways to elicit more student discussion. "We're still seeking ways for students to feel more comfortable while discussing these papers," said Wendy McKimpson, one of the recent student course leaders. "Rather than having one or two students  present the week's paper, as was previously done,  this past year we held a session where every student talked about a technique that interested them. This allowed more students to take part in the discussion of the selected paper in a less intimidating way."

She continued, "Pillars' is a course that can go beyond the experience as a student. You can continue your involvement as a course leader. It's also given me an idea of what's involved administratively in putting a course together, which is something students aren't typically educated about."

Dr. Sadofsky agreed. "So much of what a faculty member actually does is never taught in graduate school. Gaining some teaching experience, and being able to show that you helped organize a graduate-level course, opens doors in many directions for our students. In today's job market, teaching is probably as valuable a skill as research for a Ph.D. grad."

Posted on: Monday, April 30, 2012