Take Home Lessons from Microbiology
by Mark Martin
I just attended the American Society for Microbiology Conference for Undergraduate Educators in San Diego, along with many other enthusiastic teachers of matters microbiological. At the end of that conference, we heard Amy Cheng Vollmer, 2006 Carski Foundation Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award Winner, challenge instructors to finish the statement "It's not what we say..." Personally, I answer "...it's what the students take away from the course."
What kinds of things stand out to a student about a given class? At my university, I teach the only microbiology course available, a course generally taken by seniors. I asked the following question of my Spring 2010 class: What ONE concept or idea (that you did NOT know coming into this course) do you feel has been most important to this class? Here are some representative responses:
- The terrible things that would happen if all prokaryotes vanished.
- The role of microbes and phages in marine food webs.
- That the impact of microbes on the biosphere is HUGE.
- Microbes influence ecology from global scale to dental plaque—plus they are freaking sweet.
- Lab conditions are very different from natural conditions.
- Most microbes are unculturable in the lab.
- How important microbes are to element cycling (nitrogen, carbon).
- That microbes can be found anywhere there is liquid water.
- Biofilms—I had never really heard of them before!
- How important and widespread quorum sensing is. Also, I am now terrified of my shower curtain.
- That E. coli is a lame bacterium.
- The three domains of life.
- I had never heard of archaea before coming to this class.
- The many positive microbe-microbe interactions.
- Antibiotic resistance mechanisms: efflux pumps are sweet.
- That the innate immune system is ‘preset’ to respond to MAMPs (plus the word ‘MAMP’).
- Learning about how antibiotics work specifically, and how microbes avoid the immune system.
Mark is associate professor in the Department of Biology, University of Puget Sound, an Associate Blogger for STC, and a passionate advocate for the Small Things.