Dawn Franks, PhD
Program Director & Biology Instructor
BIOL 410: Advanced Cell Biology
MAMS Teaching Philosophy
The MAMS program is not a research program nor does it require students to write a thesis. However, I believe graduate students should develop a skill that is typically not developed during the undergraduate years. During my years teaching M1 students at a local medical school, I also came to learn that medical students exhibited significant misunderstandings of scientific literature. This is no one’s fault – they had not been taught how to understand scientific publications. I have designed my course therefore to provide as much scientific literature analysis and scientific presentation as is possible without the student actually performing cell biological research. My end goals are to have students understand how biomedical researchers use language within the field; expose students to research at the cutting edge of cell biology (the research that is so current it is years from being included in a textbook); and to develop in the student the skill of professional level scientific presentation. I believe that the skill of finding and analyzing biomedical literature serves a physician well and any physician that cannot do that is at a disadvantage in a field that advances rapidly.
Reading the primary scientific literature is unlike reading any other material. Language and vocabulary take on their own particular meanings within a field. Likewise, technical writing requires the student to essentially unlearn everything that was taught about writing in a non-science setting. Therefore, I have students spend their 18 weeks with me performing line-by-line analyses of the scientific literature, summarizing the support for each claim made, and evaluating the language used by the researcher. The goal is to understand the significance of terms such as “X treatment results in Y outcome” verses “X treatment may result in Y outcome.” The first statement is supported by substantial data, whereas the second is not.
In order to achieve these goals, I divide my teaching effort into brief classroom lectures and substantial individual coaching of the student during office hours. My lecture time is intended to orient the class to overall cellular processes and from there the student analyses of the literature develop the topics in depth and detail. Student analyses of the literature are critiqued during office hours prior to their presentation during class. Immediately after the student presents the data to the class, the other students provide confidential written feedback to the presenter on his or her performance. It is hoped that both my feedback and the feedback of peers can help the student develop their scientific presentation skills.
In addition to analysis of the primary literature, students also read and study scientific reviews. A review is another type of literature publication which summaries “the state” of a particular focus of investigation. Usually a review focuses on developments within the last 3-5 years and addresses both substantially supported claims and lines of inquiry that look promising. Early in the course, I teach students how to read a review and then students study the reviews by making outlines of each claim and the data that supports it.
Evaluations of my students are made via traditional exams based on my lecture material and the literature reviews. About 20% of each exam also addresses the primary research literature that students present. Questions similar to brief MCAT reading passages are created and students answer multiple choice questions on the passage. The two presentations that students perform also account for approximately 20% of the course grade.