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Seventeen Minutes of Science: Lowering Institutional Barriers to Create a More Equitable Science Community

Tune in weekly to our virtual series “Seventeen Minutes of Science” every Tuesday at 11am PST / 2pm ET where we go live on Facebook with a new guest each week to talk about how science and biotechnology is woven into their lives for (you guessed it) 17 minutes!

For episode 54 of 17 Minutes of Science we are joined by Dr. David Katz (Associate Professor of Biology at Emory University) and Dr. Karen Schmeichel (Professor of Biology at Oglethorpe University) to talk about the program they have created – The C. elegans Pipeline CURE – to lower institutional barriers and promote underserved and underrepresented students to pursue STEM.

Participation in research provides personal and professional benefits for undergraduates. However, some students face institutional barriers that prevent their entry into research, particularly those from underrepresented groups who may stand to gain the most from research experiences. Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs) effectively scale research availability, but many only last for a single semester, which is rarely enough time for a novice to develop proficiency. To address these challenges, Dr. Karen Schmeichel and Dr. David Katz co-founded a nationally recognized 4-year CURE at Oglethorpe University. This unique curriculum is referred to as the C. elegans Pipeline CURE, described for the broader education community in a manuscript in the journal CourseSource (Lee et al. CourseSource 2019). The Pipeline CURE integrates C. elegans epigenetics research being conducted by the Katz lab at the R1 research institution Emory University throughout the biology curriculum at Oglethorpe University, a nearby liberal arts college.

Tune in to learn more from Dr. Katz and Dr. Schmeichel.


Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:00:10] Welcome, everyone, you are joining us live for 17 Minutes of Science. My name is Sarah Cheesman. I’m a technical solution scientist at InVivo Biosystems. It’s good to be back, especially when we’re talking about topics of undergraduates accessing research experiences, which is what we’re going to be talking about today, a personal favorite of mine. So I’m delighted to welcome my guests David Katz and Karen Schmeichel, who are joining us from the Atlanta region today. So they are across the country from us, although I think we are all in a heat wave. So we have something in common there. And today we’re going to be talking about lowering institutional barriers to create a more equitable science community. So these two wonderful people have launched a very cool program that partners their two institutions. And they’re going to tell us more about that called the C. elegans Pipeline CURE. CURE being an acronym for Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences. So we all know that participating in research can provide personal, can provide professional benefits. When you’re an undergraduate student, it can be a life changing experience. It certainly was for me. And yet many kids face institutional barriers, and that prevents their entry into the research field, particularly those from underrepresented groups who may stand to gain the most from having access to that experience. So Karen and David have created a really novel Cure that is based at Oglethorpe University where Karen is located, and she partners with David at Emory. So they’re going to tell us about how they use C. elegans, which is a model organism we both love, to drive this curriculum. So I would love to invite Karen to say hello and then David to say hello, and then we’ll go from there.


Dr. Karen Schmeichel (Guest): [00:01:53] Hi, Sarah, thank you so much for inviting us. Looking forward to sharing a little bit about this crazy journey that has arisen and has actually given us something to go with here in terms of addressing inclusivity in STEM.


Dr. David Katz (Guest): [00:02:11] And I’m David Katz at Emory University, which is just a few miles up the road from Oglethorpe, and we’re a major research R-1 institution and we’ve partnered with Karen at a small liberal arts college, Oglethorpe, in order to to have this pipeline CURE.


Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:02:31] Well, thank you both again for being here, and we have to start at the beginning, which is how the two of you began to work together. So perhaps, David, you can kick it off and then Karen can chime in.


Dr. David Katz (Guest): [00:02:44] Sure. We actually started working together when I was a postdoc working on C. elegans. And it all started with Karen actually just trying to address this basic issue of students at a small liberal arts college, really having no research experience, no access to research. And she had this idea basically to send students over to Emory to shadow and to learn about what it’s all about. She had some contacts at Emory. And through those contacts, I was one of the people who volunteered to have students come over and do a very short C. elegans research project to see what it’s all about. From there, it is obviously, as hopefully we’ll talk about a little bit, has blossomed into a major program involving the entire curriculum. But that’s how it got started.


Dr. Karen Schmeichel (Guest): [00:03:35] ?Yeah, no, and that’s exactly right. David has always been very education minded, he goes to elementary schools, high schools, and so it’s just a real natural thing for him to say, sure, I’ll take some of these kids not knowing anything about us or what what we were. And he was just whole heartedly excited to get kids doing science. And it wasn’t just watching. He was never happy with anyone just watching over his shoulder. I sent these kids over and he put them to work like immediately. And they were like, “what is this?”


Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:04:09] A mind-opening experience. Karen, so when did you first have this idea – how long ago?


Dr. Karen Schmeichel (Guest): [00:04:14] Oh, so again, I think this story is really about, you know, a developing idea that’s shared between both me and David. I, uh, the school that I work at, Oglethorpe, is very small. It’s a liberal arts college, but it serves kind of the metro area and the South-East demographic. So we are over 50 percent of our students identify as students of color. We have –


Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:04:46] oh, there goes Karen. She was worried she might have a little trouble with her video today.


Dr. David Katz (Guest): [00:04:50] Yeah, so just filling in – at Oglethorpe University there is a large minority population, which is maybe a little bit surprising for a small liberal arts college. But these students typically don’t have any research background coming into college and also, um, Oglethorpe didn’t have any research experience. And so, you know, this whole program in many ways evolved as sort of a series of tweaks in response to things that that weren’t great. So, you know, Karen saw that they didn’t have any research experience. So she sent students over. And then when she sent students over, there was a brief experience. And we both decided that, well, it’s only, you know, involving one or two students. And so we said instead of doing it at Emory, with one or two students, can we do it at Oglethorpe and have a whole class be involved? And then we we instituted it. We tried it in a whole class. And by the time a semester was done, they had basically learned how to move worms and didn’t really have a real strong research experience. So we said, how do we solve that? And our solution ultimately is a entire curriculum where the students reiteravely starting in their first year, do small research experiences on C. elegans, where they learn the system starting in standard labs and then ultimately branching into major research questions that the students are doing entirely in the classroom. And this is the whole, you know, a major part of the program that students don’t have to go seek out in a typical apprentice style research like they might in my lab, they literally just sign up for the biology major and it happens.


Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:06:41] I see. That’s innovative. Karen, can you tell us how many students did you start with and where are you today?


Dr. Karen Schmeichel (Guest): [00:06:47] Oh, we started out of a developmental biology class that was maybe 16 students. But now that this program has developed and it is throughout the curriculum, every entering biology major at our campus starts it and has the option to go through the whole thing. So we’re talking about hundreds. We’re small, but about one hundred students every year starts on this trajectory. And, you know, in terms of coming out the other side, it’s still kind of – it’s an ambitious trajectory over four years. And so, you know, we’re seeing, I don’t know, maybe. A couple of hundred kind of come out the other side as well by virtue of being in the various classes.


Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:07:34] That’s a lot of kids. And tell us, Karen, how have your students reacted to the program and their experience in it and what are they taking away from it, if you’ve gotten that far to have graduates come out the other side, what are they doing now?


Dr. Karen Schmeichel (Guest): [00:07:46] One of the interesting things – we’re trying to collect data to get those attitudinal, that attitudinal feedback, if you ask them when they are just starting, they’re not so happy about it. I knew, I trained in C. elegans when I met David. Seemed like a natural fit for our project. And I understand the frustrations of getting used to the model organism. You’re a slave to the organism. You have to be there. It’s hard. It’s micro manipulation. So there’s a lot of early frustration. But what we see a little later on in the program is the students enter their third and fourth classes associated with it. They they they start to have pride that they’re doing this and they’ve gotten through the early frustrations and they’re starting to see the benefits of this on the other on the other side.


Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:08:39] That’s satisfying, right, when you’ve done something with your own hands and you’ve persevered, that feeling coming out the other end of actually having accomplished something, that’s something no one can take away from you, too – as for your student experience.


Dr. David Katz (Guest): [00:08:52] I’m sure your audience will understand this. When everybody gets into research and you start out with this high and then you realize how frustrating and difficult it is. And eventually, if you get good at something, you can really start to achieve. The really magical thing is that our preliminary data suggests that we’re achieving all of those stages entirely in the classroom. So these are not students in an individual lab setting like it would be typical.


Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:09:21] That’s interesting. Well, look, we’ll look forward to hearing more about your data as you continue to capture it. Did I read that you foresee federal funding for your program now?


Dr. David Katz (Guest): [00:09:30] Yeah. So as part of this – so it started when I was a postdoc, but then I have my own lab at Emory in the School of Medicine. And so – one of the grants that I wrote early on was the National Science Foundation grant, and as part of all National Science Foundation grants, they have what’s called the broader impacts, which is sort of something that contributes to society. And so Karen and I naturally thought, OK, this is the thing that we really want to focus on for our broader impacts. So it started out as a little bit of a side part of that grant, in the most recent renewal it’s a significant amount of money in the budget which really helps at Oglethorpe. They have money to buy equipment and to fund students staying for the summer. One of the other things that we talk about a lot with these students is that we not only have to make it just a natural part of what they do, that they don’t have to opt in. But we also need to make it so that when they want to work on nights and weekends or if they want to work through a summer, you know, they’re giving up the opportunity to have a job. Right. And this for many of those students is their sole – is everything for the money for them, money for their their family, money to afford tuition. So we really felt strongly that we needed to actually have it be funded so that students would actually be paid to do some of this and simply so that they could afford to not, you know, to have their whatever other job that they would normally be doing.


Dr. Karen Schmeichel (Guest): [00:11:06] This is a huge barrier at a school like mine, there’s this tension between getting a real job and kind of doing science, especially among students who aren’t mentored very strongly with respect to how this plays out.


Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:11:24] That makes sense. Yes, well, hats off for getting that funding secured, because that just frees up students to participate fully and have that be their job, as you say. I’d like –


Dr. David Katz (Guest): [00:11:33] I mean, sadly, so many so many of the research experiences that normal students have started out on a volunteer basis. I’m sure your listeners will know that. And that’s just not possible for a lot of students.


Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:11:46] You’re reminding me that mine did too. Yes, you’re right. There’s there’s a lot of things to consider. And times have changed. Students tuition is so much more challenging that supporting themselves is important.


Dr. Karen Schmeichel (Guest): [00:11:58] Yeah. And I just want to add one more thing. There are quite a few opportunities out there for interested students to get that research experience in the summer. But these are some of the programs that are existing and funded by NSF. They’re very competitive. So if you have a student who had a rough start, right. Whose GPA isn’t exactly where they wanted to be, then they’re going to be excluded from those programs as well. So by having this embedded within a curriculum, it’s it’s easier. No one has to apply for it. You know, you can try it out.


Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:12:33] That’s really excellent. Good point. I want to go back to the beginning of where we started because I was just revisiting the title of our discussion today, which is about creating a more equitable science community. And I’d love to hear from both of you. Karen, you could start. About what does that mean and tell us the kinds of thoughts you’ve had as you’ve gone along this journey together in addressing equity.


Dr. Karen Schmeichel (Guest): [00:12:55] I think a lot of it’s access. It’s it’s making sure that we are addressing student needs in a way that that gets them kind of up to the up to the playing field. Right. I mean, a lot of our students don’t know the questions to ask. And this this increased access is a really important piece of equity. Just kind of again, not necessarily playing any game to to kind of get into the research labs, but certainly to – for it to be there and for you to be able to find out about it pretty quickly and for you to plug in regardless of where you started.


Dr. David Katz (Guest): [00:13:43] Do you want to tell them about the cartoon that you sent me about about this? Or I can do it –


Dr. Karen Schmeichel (Guest): [00:13:50] Why don’t you go ahead and do that?


Dr. David Katz (Guest): [00:13:51] Yeah, I mean, basically, Karen sent me this this cartoon about, you know, people trying to watch, I think it’s a baseball game or a sporting event, you know, and there’s a tiny little kid who can’t see over the fence. And so they think, you know, making it equitable is stacking up boxes. So the kids so that kid can see over the fence like the taller person who’s standing next to him. Where is the real equitable thing to do is eliminate the fence so that the kid can just walk up and see it. He doesn’t need all those boxes stacked up in order to see over the fence. And this is what we’re trying to do. Research has so many benefits and we want to make it just a natural part of what you would what you experience and give everybody the opportunity without – so many programs are designed to boost up the students. We just want to lower the whole barrier completely so that they don’t have to to do that.


Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:14:45] I can I’ve actually seen that graphic you’re describing so I can picture in my mind. It’s a good analogy, removing the fence. Right. I thought you were also going to add to that and say that if you haven’t had exposure to research, you also need that person next to you to to guide you with. Yeah, right. So you know how to engage. It’s so unknown to you.


Dr. Karen Schmeichel (Guest): [00:15:09] And our goal here is not to turn every student who transitions through this curriculum into a scientist. It is, it, that’s definitely an option. But there are so many other things, this mentoring, this constant, you know, seeing yourself in science. And this is another part of equity as well. Not only do students need to identify themselves as scientists, but they they need to you know, they need voices and people showing them this is you know, this is how it happens and this is how you can be a part of it. And here’s someone potentially who looks like you doing this and you know, that you might identify with and we can help you explore that in whatever role you might be interested in. So certainly maybe we’re kind of launching the next great researchers, but it’s also just an important experience to say, well, gee, I don’t like this very much. I’m going to respect it more, but I’m going to choose another path. And I think we both agree that that’s a really important part of this as well.


Dr. David Katz (Guest): [00:16:11] Yeah, that’s a success. If we create an informed student who turns out not to love science, but really gets it and understands the process.


Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:16:21] Agree to all of that. We just need a more scientifically literate population. And I’ve said this so many times on this show because, I know this is sort of our community preaching to the choir, but we’re just seeing seeing that experience right now with COVID when there is not enough basis of understanding to evaluate all that information that’s coming at us, scientific information. And if you start speaking to people, a language they don’t understand is we just shut our brains off. We’re not going to listen. So.


Dr. David Katz (Guest): [00:16:51] There is definitely a transition for students when you tell them about science, even if you tell them about experiments, it’s not the same as having designed an experiment. When they finally do that, they realize how those COVID trials were designed and they have an appreciation for it and they believe it more because they understand the process.


Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:17:15] It’s a great example, so we’re coming on our last minute, I’m wondering if – kind of going to put you both on the spot, but can you think of a student story that you’d like to share? Somebody that just pops into your mind as a notable?


Dr. David Katz (Guest): [00:17:28] Well, we had we were -so the program in the last class is run by a post doc in my lab. So that’s another benefit that we didn’t get a chance to talk about. But one of my post docs was talking about their own research and we had been talking about it for a long time. And a student just comes up and says, Dr. Carpenter, if that’s right, shouldn’t dimethyl transferrin also have the same effect? And we had never thought of it. And we said, you know what, you should do it. And so he was the first one to do that experiment. That experiment eventually got included in our paper. And he is an author on the paper for doing and coming up with that experiment entirely within the classroom.


Dr. Karen Schmeichel (Guest): [00:18:11] I read a lot of letters of recommendation for the students in the biology program, and I continue to get, you know, missives from those students, you know, maybe some of the ones who are a little bit more resistant to the whole thing, but saying, can you write me a letter? And what I really want to talk about is what I learned from going through all of the C. elegans training. And, you know, it’s it makes me smile. And, you know, I kind of feel like I told you so, but it creeps up on them. And it’s almost sometimes only afterwards that they start to realize that the value that that they got. And so I think that, that makes me smile, as well as the fact that all over the building, there are little cartoons that kids draw all over whiteboards and the and just their version of some cartoon version of the C. Elegans. And it starts really a part of the culture at the small school.


Dr. David Katz (Guest): [00:19:05] And Karen pointed out that the president of the university mentioned C. Elegans in his commencement speech. So you make it there, then, you know, the program has really been a success.


Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:19:17] You have arrived when they know how to say it right.


Dr. David Katz (Guest): [00:19:21] Exactly. Could you imagine the president of the university being able to pronounce Caenorhabditis elegans?


Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:19:27] That’s a win. Oh, that’s a good story. Well, thank you both for for sharing all about it. The anecdotes, the journey. Very inspiring to hear you tell us what you have created and and hats off to you both for the work that you’re doing and most especially to your students for their perseverance and energy to embrace the worm as a model.


Dr. David Katz (Guest): [00:19:52] Thank you for having us.


Dr. Karen Schmeichel (Guest): [00:19:55] Yes, thank you.


Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:19:56] And I thank everyone for for following us today. And we will look forward to seeing you next time. Until then, stay cool. Take care.

About The Author

InVivo Biosystems

InVivo Biosystems provides essential services to help pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, biotechnology companies and academic research institutions around the globe accelerate their research and drug development efforts. An expert in CRISPR genome editing, InVivo Biosystems creates custom genome edited C. elegans and zebrafish models to enable aging and other disease studies. In addition, InVivo Biosystems provides in-vivo analytical services to produce data and insights for companies that need to make go/no-go decisions quickly in early-stage development of new compounds.

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