Moselio Schaechter

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June 17, 2010

Taking Risks: ASMCUE Musings

by Amy Cheng Vollmer



After missing it for several years due to other ASM responsibilities, I had the delightful opportunity to attend this year’s ASMCUE, the ‘appetizer’ course that preceded the ASM’s General Meeting in San Diego. The sessions at the ASMCUE included Microbrew ideas, Try Something New activities, Learn Something New presentations, and a fantastic poster session, as well as several plenary talks. It was stimulating to be part of the audience for so many interactive presentations!

In thinking about the ‘take home’ lessons from the conference, I was struck by the intellectual risk taking by the conference participants—a mixed group including young faculty, experienced teachers, along with veterans like myself. Interestingly, those wearing ‘first timer’ nametags were not necessarily new to their faculty positions. Several were seasoned research faculty members who were, for some reason, motivated to come this year.

I attended many sessions, but one, in particular, forced me to fire up some old neural networks: A Biomath postdoctoral fellow from the University of Arizona, Chris Bergevin, made a presentation dealing with bringing more mathematics into biology. I followed about 90% of his talk, but got a bit lost, due to my less than stellar mastery of mathematics, in some of the equations. Yet, I stuck with it—through my discomfort—and came out of the presentation invigorated and stimulated. I heard from Chris after the conference. He told me that an attendee had followed up with him saying: …when I get back to my campus, I am going to contact my colleague in math…” to start a conversation about bringing more math into biology courses.

We faculty are often the source of some discomfort for our students when we touch on topics for which they have scant or wobbly foundations. Being in such a position myself recently prompted me to think about how I guide my students through this. I often remind them that, in biology, growth is often preceded or accompanied by discomfort (or stress), and suggest that they be mindful of when they are uncomfortable and to then mindfully work through the difficulties, focusing first on the general principles, then filling in the details.

In fact, intellectual risk taking is what we, as teachers, should be encouraging in our students. What better way to do this than to model it ourselves? By sharing our thought processes with our students, the way the ASMCUE presenters did, is key to keeping them on their path.

As I have noted previously, the assignments we create are the vehicles that students use for their own journeys of discovery. The students are in the driver’s seat, we faculty serve as their navigators. Happy travels!

Vollmer Amy Cheng

Amy is Professor of Biology, Swarthmore College, and President of the Waksman Foundation for Microbiology. Being the only department member who studies and teaches about prokaryotes, she notes: I take every opportunity to increase awareness about the contributions of bacteria and archaea to the history of the earth and their impact on humans. A perfect match for this blog!


"I often remind them that, in biology, growth is often preceded or accompanied by discomfort (or stress), and suggest that they be mindful of when they are uncomfortable and to then mindfully work through the difficulties........ What better way to do this than to model it ourselves?"
Wise, wise words. And yet they sound revolutionary to current Western thinking. Thanks for this greatly encouraging blog post - may your students have wonderful travels in learning, and in the expansion of integrated scientific understanding, with your assistance on the way. I'm sure they have a bright future!

Just a comment from someone who also attended ASMCUE, watched Dr. Vollmer's presentation, and has known this dynamic teacher/mentor/researcher for years....

During her talk, it was fun to watch the audience as Dr. Vollmer laid out the various things she does to keep herself busy. You could see it on everyone's face (and had I been looking in a mirror, I would have seen it on my own): "How does she do it all?"

Mentor and role model and all around great person. I tip my hat to the inimitable Dr. Amy Cheng Vollmer! I owe her a great deal; I can only imagine how lucky her students are!

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