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Fresh off the Bench

Eager instructors, ‘cool courses’ and the very latest from the lab are the benefits of the  Biotechnology Program’s unique teaching postdoctoral fellowship.

When Dr. Heather Miller was a Duke graduate student pursuing her Ph.D. in molecular genetics and microbiology, she discovered that while she enjoyed research, the teaching of science also was extremely rewarding. That joy in teaching is what led her to a unique postdoctoral program at N.C. State University, where Miller now is a teaching postdoctoral associate in the Biotechnology Program. Dr. Sue Carson, professor of plant biology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and academic coordinator of the Biotechnology Program, together with Biotechnology Program director Dr. Bob Kelly, developed the teaching postdoc program.

Carson leads the program and mentors postdoctoral fellows.

It’s a relatively new concept, Carson said, and one that “has been hugely successful for us in terms of great teaching, publications and postdocs being placed in faculty positions at other institutions” – along with being a kind of incubator for the development of new courses.

The teaching postdocs program is geared toward individuals who may have done a research postdoc already or may be straight out of graduate school, and who are interested in mainly a college-level teaching career, focused on undergraduate education, Carson said.

And there was an advantage in bringing in teachers straight out of the research lab, “because the biotech program is always trying to have new innovative classes with cutting-edge techniques,” she said.

“It’s a win-win situation because these are people who are exceptional researchers who can bring in the latest technology and develop new upper-level lab courses for us. But at the same time they’re winning because they’re gaining the teaching experience and mentorship in teaching.”

Miller concurs with that assessment. “Students in the courses benefit from having an instructor with knowledge of cutting-edge techniques and recent bench experience,” she said. “Additionally, the postdoc benefits from having completely hands-on pedagogical experiences — and freedom to design a new course at an early point in his or her career.”

The program began with one postdoc and then expanded to two, Carson said, “and we recently got permission to begin to have three, so we’re actually right now doing a nationwide search for the third postdoc.” In addition to current teaching postdoc Miller and the newest fellow, Dr. Melissa Srougi, the program has included Dr. Lisa Lyford, Dr. Joanna Miller and Dr. Scott Witherow.

And while taking part in the program, these enthusiastic and highly motivated teaching postdocs have developed some “cool new courses,” Carson said.

Among those are the BIT 100 course, “Current Topics in Biotechnology,” that Heather Miller developed and piloted last summer. “BIT 100 is the Biotechnology Program’s first course geared toward non-science majors,” Miller said. “Our other courses are taken by students in many areas of science and engineering, whereas this course will be open to students in any major. It is also a First Year Inquiry (FYI) class, so it is limited to freshmen.”

Said Carson, “It is a rare opportunity for a non-science major to get hands-on biotech lab experience.”

Dr. Chris Ashwell, CALS associate professor of animal genomics in poultry science, taught the course during the Fall 2011 semester, and then Miller and Srougi are teaching it in Spring 2012.

Miller’s goals for the course include the students gaining “a better understanding of the roles biotechnology plays in everyday life,” she said. “We’ll discuss current issues in class; however, we will also apply molecular biotechnology techniques in the laboratory. This is a great opportunity for students who don’t want a ‘dry’ science class and want to get experience designing, conducting and interpreting real experiments.”

Heather Miller, along with Scott Witherow, served as co-author with Carson on Molecular Biology Techniques: A Classroom Laboratory Manual, Third Edition (Academic Press). And Miller also has developed a new upper-level lab course on mRNA transcription and processing, Carson noted. “She recently submitted a manuscript of that course to a science education journal.”

Lyford, who was the program’s first teaching postdoc, developed a course on site-directed mutagenesis that she taught while she was here, Carson said. “It was a successful upper-level course that had great reviews and that she presented at an American Society for Microbiology conference on undergraduate education.”

Meanwhile, Witherow, the second teaching postdoc, developed a course on experimental analysis of protein-protein interactions, and he was able to publish that course in a journal called BAMBED (Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education).

During her teaching postdoctoral fellowship, Joanna Miller developed a course on RNA interference (RNAi) for upper level undergraduates and graduate students. An assessment of that course was published in the journal CBE-LSE (Cell Biology-Life Sciences Education). She also published a lab manual/textbook on the course with the publisher Jones and Bartlett.

Biotechnology Program teaching postdoctoral associates
Dr. Sue Carson (center) confers with postdoctoral fellows Heather Miller (left) and Dr. Melissa Srougi.

And the newest postdoc, Melissa Srougi, is developing a new upper level lab course that will be offered in spring 2012 called “Cell-Signaling Techniques.”

“All of the postdocs also teach BIT 410 and 510, which is our core course in manipulation and expression of recombinant DNA,” Carson said. “That’s where they get their mentored teaching, because I work closely with them on that. After they have a semester of that under their belt, then they develop their own new course. They’re still mentored but not as closely, because they’re pretty independent.”

Additionally, every summer the teaching postdocs mentor undergraduate research projects.

They take their jobs very seriously, Carson said: “The postdocs evaluate their learning outcomes to make sure their students meet them.”

And how have the postdoc teachers been received? “Student evaluations of postdoc teaching have been across-the-board fantastic,” she said.

The teaching postdoc program is really one-of-a kind, Carson said. “There are not many teaching postdoc opportunities. UNC has one that’s a little bit different that I was involved in as a postdoc, but it wasn’t 100 percent teaching. I don’t know of any other programs that have teaching postdocs who are teaching fulltime and writing publications on their teaching.

“It is a unique program that was developed by the biotech program at N.C. State, and there aren’t many opportunities out there for people to have mentored teaching experience.”

But there is a lot of interest. “I do get a lot of inquiries,” Carson said. “We don’t have a program where people can apply every year; we have a certain number of slots. So when a person leaves, we advertise the position. And we get a lot of applicants, a lot of really good applicants. When we make our selection of our teaching postdocs, we get without exception really topnotch individuals.”

And so far, “all of our teaching postdocs have gotten faculty positions that are primarily teaching,” Carson said.

Heather Miller, who is currently applying for faculty positions, appreciates the advantages her fellowship has provided.

“Having this position has allowed me many unique opportunities on top of teaching: designing my own course, mentoring undergraduate researchers and performing research in the scholarship of teaching and learning,” Miller said. “It essentially gives Ph.D.s a taste of what a faculty career is like and prepares them for that transition. At the same time, this program maximizes their talents and energy which translate into very innovative, useful courses for students at N.C. State.”

Added Carson, “The value of having teaching postdocs is they’re there for three years, they can really accomplish something and then they move on to their more permanent careers. And you bring in someone new who brings the latest and greatest to the biotech program.

“Because biotechnology is constantly evolving, it has been so great to be able to bring in fresh people, straight off the bench, straight out of research to develop new cutting-edge courses. It’s worked really well.”

Terri Leith


More news from Biotechnology Program:
Phage Hunters Excel

The Biotechnology Program has offered several new classes in recent years, including a biotechnology overview course for non-majors and "Phage Hunters" for first-year undergraduate students who are life sciences majors or are in related majors.

Just as this past summer teaching postdoc Dr. Heather Miller piloted BIT 100, a biotechnology overview course for non-majors, two years ago, Dr. Sue Carson and Dr. Eric Miller introduced BIT (MB) 210, or “Phage Hunters.” Phage Hunters is a phage biology research experience for first-year undergraduate students who are life sciences majors or in a related major. Essentially the students spend the semester isolating new bacteriophages (phages), the viruses that infect bacteria, from collected soil samples, and then analyzing the phages by electron microscopy and extracting DNA. At the end of the semester, the students vote on their “favorite” phage, and the genomic DNA is sent to a sequencing facility to be sequenced. In the second semester — the course continues into BIT (MB) 211, “Phage Genomics” — they annotate the virus’ genome, extracting information from its genetic codes.

“They’re finding new genes and finding new organization of genes,” said Carson. “When we started the phage hunters, we thought it could be for majors and non majors, but it’s a full-year project. We want the students to continue into the phage genomics course in the second semester. So we realized it is too big a commitment for many non-science majors. But it is an exceptional course for students interested in scientific research.”

And in just the second year of the course, there is significant news to report: “Students in both years already have their novel bacteriophage genome sequences published and listed in GenBank, the national database of all known DNA sequences,” Carson said. “One student each year has gone to a national meeting at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to present the work.”

The students have all presented at the N.C. State research symposium, she said, with one of the teams winning this past April. Microbiology major Joshua Russell Chappell, genetics major Lara Calil, biological sciences major Anna Knight and biochemistry major Hannah Berry won for their description of a beta-lactamase gene identified in the novel bacteriophage Mutaform13, a discovery that may yield new insights for antibiotic resistance research.

“In addition, student Allie Amick gave a talk on her research on homing endonuclease genes as agents of lateral gene transfer in Mycobacteriophage Mutaforma13 at the 2011 American Society for Microbiology N.C. branch meeting and won the Paul Phibbs Award for best undergraduate presentation. So as well as presenting at N.C. State, the students are going out to other venues to talk about their research,” Carson said. “I’m so proud of these students. The vast majority of previous students from the class went straight into undergraduate research after completing the course.”

And while the teaching postdocs have not yet been involved in the phage hunters class, that may be changing soon, she said. “Right now we’re writing a large consortium grant with several other schools for more funding for the phage hunters course, and one of the things that we’re going to ask for is funding for a teaching postdoc to help with that class.”

– Terri Leith

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