Published on Sept. 27, 2022
Dr. Pamela Brown has been appointed as the first STEM Faculty Fellow in the Honors College.
As part of the appointment, Dr. Brown is teaching a 2-credit hour Honors course, titled Antibiotic Discovery (GN_HON 2452H), this fall. The course is an adaptation of the inquiry-based upper-level microbiology lecture-lab course she has been teaching for the Division for the past few years. She has refocused it as a course-based undergraduate research experience (CURE) for first-semester freshman in or considering STEM majors.
“The goal of the course is for students to isolate bacteria that are producing antibiotics,” Dr. Brown explains. “They start with soil samples, isolate a large collection of bacteria from those soils, and then screen them for antibiotic activity against safe relatives of multi-drug resistant pathogens that pose a current global health concern.”
While discovering a microbe with a unique antimicrobial compound would be great, Dr. Brown says the journey of discovery is the real goal of the class. Through the project, students experience first-hand the excitement as well as the inevitable challenges of research.
“My hope is that by going through this journey, where there are going to be bumps in the road, inconclusive results, and problems to solve that the students will learn to think like a scientist,” she says. The course learning objectives are focused on development of lab skills and scientific thinking skills rather than discipline-specific content. The skills students learn span from basic wet bench skills, molecular biology, microscopy, and even bioinformatics.
Science communication is another key skill. Throughout the semester, students maintain an electronic lab notebook where they record all their protocols, hypothesis, data and data analysis each week. They are also tasked with using their data to create a figure each week.
“I really want them to learn how you take complex tables of data or many images and turn that into a single figure that communicates the most important findings you have made,” Dr. Brown says. “That’s a really good skill that I think will carry forward for them, no matter their discipline or future career plans.”
Beyond these skills, Dr. Brown also hopes students leave wanting to continue with research while they have enough time to continue training as researchers, she says.
Dr. Brown says she has enjoyed taking the microbiology class she been teaching for juniors and seniors and scaling it appropriately for incoming freshmen with diverse interests. The theme of antibiotic discovery, she says, is conducive to the broad range majors. It also has a societal significance emblematic of a CURE.
“What sets CUREs apart is that they focus on a big societal problem beyond the classroom. One of the goals of the CUREs is that you’re joining a team of scientists working toward a solution to real world problems. You’re not just a student in a class,” she explains.
The inquiry-based nature of the CURE suits Dr. Brown’s teaching style and philosophy. As a teacher, she enjoys exploring topics through engaged learning activities rather than by lecturing.
“For me, there’s just something special about being in the teaching lab and watching the light bulbs go off as they understand the significance of an observation. Seeing in those moments when they know something that no one else in the world knows is a remarkable experience,” she says.
In addition to the course, Dr. Brown will provide a STEM perspective in thinking about Honors programming for students in STEM, assist with faculty recruitment, and work with the advising team in the Honors College and in STEM departments to think creatively about paths for students to complete their honors requirements and departmental requirements in tandem.
She is continuing in her role as Director of Undergraduate Research and Honors Biology for the Division. She hopes to someday offer the CURE experience for more freshman with interests in the life sciences.