Reflections on Summer 2014 Courses

Group Photo from the 2014 Core Techniques in Protein and Genetic Engineering Course Held at the BTC Institute July 14-18. Photo credit: BTCI
Group Photo from the 2014 Core Techniques in Protein and Genetic Engineering Course Held at the BTC Institute July 14-18. Photo credit: BTCI
One of the things that I encourage all of the students I interact with in BTC Institute courses to do in order to boost retention and make meaning out of the activities that we do in class is to reflect on their experiences. Reflection is one way to connect new knowledge to past experience and get it to really stick in the brain, among other things.

Taking my own advice to heart, I use this space to ponder some interesting aspects of these experiences from my own perspective. This summer, I worked with 65 students and over 25 instructors to deliver four weeks of intensive instruction in molecular biology applied to a wide range of research areas.

Students came from diverse research and educational backgrounds; from clinical laboratory sciences and cytotechnology to dairy science, botany, bacteriology, biomedical engineering, horticulture, cellular and molecular biology, physiology, environmental toxicology, translational medicine and more. Others were working professionals, with careers in the continually growing and diversifying biotechnology industry.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of coordinating and instructing these courses is the opportunity to meet so many students who are doing diverse and meaningful research and work in rapidly evolving areas of science. I speak for myself, but also for the other instructors when I say that working with these students is the best part of what we do.

Another great thing about putting together these courses is surveying the awesome technologies that we use to conduct research in the area of molecular biology. I spend a lot of time reading research articles, attending meetings, and surveying products and technologies to try to integrate the best of what’s out there into these courses when and where appropriate. The best fit for “new” technologies is in an awesome course we offer at the BTC Institute called “Emerging Techniques in Protein and Genetic Engineering.” This course is offered at the end of July – in addition to the great instructors and guest speakers we have who work with us (I can’t say enough good things about these folks), we have been able to explore some really interesting technologies. Over the years we’ve focused on RNAi, studying protein-protein interactions with pull-downs and qPCR; we’ve used various forms of cloning to express proteins of interest; and most recently we engaged with techniques for drug discovery and epigenetics – various HDAC assays, cell monitoring systems and toxicity assays. Next year, we hope to have the opportunity to add some lab work related to mass spectrometry for discovery among other things . I love to see how the techniques central to molecular biology, which I’ve done over and over and over again, can be used in developing areas of research.

What would I like to improve on and do more of? One thing I always come back to is creating something like a play time in the lab for folks interested in exploring various topics in molecular biology. I envision setting up a lab with equipment and supplies as well as some basic protocols and letting folks do some experimenting. Even if the “play” was structured, some shorter courses might appeal to professionals and students who can’t commit to the week-long format of our advanced course offerings. I will continue to explore how to make some of these types of offerings work. I think it’s immensely important to take time to do some low-stakes experimentation and ask the question, “what if?” We do offer some opportunities to do this with our series of one-day workshops for non-scientists (see Molecular Technology Basics for the Nonscientist) – these are really great and very low on the commitment scale…
In fact, as we start the 2014-2015 academic year with a full head of steam, I challenge myself as well as you to keep that question “what if?” in mind, to allow yourself to play a bit more and finally, to continue to reflect.

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Amy Prevost

Director, Scientific Courses at BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute
Amy Prevost received her doctorate from UW-Madison in 2012 in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. Amy is a program director at the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute (BTC Institute), a non-profit located on the Promega campus in Fitchburg, Wis., where she coordinates scientific programs for adult learners. She is also a project manager on a grant aimed at understanding student success in advanced manufacturing programs at two-year colleges with the Center on Education Research at UW Madison. Amy’s primary areas of interest in educational research include understanding educational pathways in STEM programs, improving student outcomes at the post-secondary and graduate levels – including access to careers, and trying to map elements of doctoral programs that contribute to students’ abilities to transfer knowledge.

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