Moselio Schaechter

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January 20, 2011

We’ve Figured It Out!

by Elio



It’s been over 50 years since I began teaching graduate students, but only in the last few  do I think that we have it figured out. Here in San Diego, a consortium of research institutions has gotten together to provide a somewhat novel microbiology course for beginning graduate students. Here is what we do. For each of our biweekly 1.5 hour lectures we bring in a guest lecturer whose job it is to explain, in 40 minutes or less, why his or her field is the finest in all of biology This is followed by a discussion of a paper that has been read by the whole class. Now, I don’t pretend that this is totally original, but it is at variance with my previous experience of having one or two professors teach such a course by themselves.

We call our course Integrative Microbiology because it serves to demonstrate that all aspects of microbiology have a great deal in common. In other words, to be exposed to one topic is, to an extent, to be exposed to all. Of course, another benefit is that the students come in close contact with local luminaries, all of whom are eager to show off their wares. Again, this is a splendid offering. How else would students be exposed to so many hot shots? It would seem that the same thing could be done at any research university, even those not in a large city.

We care little about the breadth of coverage provided by the course; since you cannot teach it all, you might as well emphasize what is exciting and interesting. We do, however, group the lectures by topic, starting with structure and function, followed by ecology and evolution, and then finishing up with the interactions between microbes and their hosts. And we do have a couple of exams. The questions are typically “write a short  grant application to study…” or “prepare the outline of a lecture to undergraduate students on…” In other words, these are questions whose answers cannot be Googled. And students also have the option to write an article for this blog, for which they would get credit on the exam. Older aficionados of this blog may well recall such handiwork. (See the list of posts below.)

We have been doing this for seven years now. In the beginning, it was Doug Bartlett of the Scripps Institution for Oceanography and I who were in charge. Later Joe Pogliano from the University of California at San Diego joined us. The students come from both UCSD and San Diego State. Many of the guest lecturers come from these same universities, a few from the Salk or the Venter Institutes.

I cannot fully express in writing the joy that we as teachers derive from this experience. The amount of learning we do is thrilling, almost equal to the pleasure that comes from noting the progress of eager and intelligent students. And, judging from their responses, the students love it. At least they don't have to endure a “sage on stage” who’s delivering tedium from the podium.

Elio is an Adjunct Professor at both San Diego State University and the University of California at San Diego.

Posts written by IM students in prior years:

1. Electrifying Bacteria
2. What You Didn’t Know About Janthinobacterium
3. All Is Fair in Love and Warfarin
4. When Crenarchaeota Divide, They Multiply
5. Planctomycetes: The Far Out Bugs
6. You Are What You Eat
7. Our Counterintelligence Staph


This was indeed a brilliant strategy for teaching graduate students. Although every speaker was great, my favorite lecture by far was the one in which Farooq opened his 74-slide PowerPoint presentation and preceded to talk about slide 1--the Microbial Loop--for the entire 45 minutes. No student's view of the world would ever be the same!

Cheers to Elio from the IM class of 2005!

After working in Sweden for seven months, where the approach to teaching is a lot more cooperative and less based on lectures by a single person, I can say that I wish there were more of the same system in North America.

Dear Elio, I got excited when I started reading this post. I don't know if I ever told you this but the Integrative Microbiology class is my all-time-super-favorite class, ever.
When I took it we had a nice mix of students working in totally different areas of microbiology, which contributed to making the class even more interesting.
The model is great and it deserved to be replicated.

It does sound like a good idea - but, really - you and the rest of the faculty at Tufts- did quite well the old fashioned way (thank you for that!). Presumably, the San Diego experience is directed toward a much larger group of students.

[aside: In my experience, sleeping during class is not a measure of the excitement generated by the speaker but lack of a good night's sleep on the part of the student (as I was often guilty of that embarrassing peccadillo even though the subject matter was fascinating).]

Sounds like a great idea! Consider it carefully filed away for future use...

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  • We welcome readers to answer queries and comment on our musings. To leave a comment or view others, remarks, click the "Comments" link in red following each blog post. We also occasionally publish guest blog posts from microbiologists, students, and others with a relevant story to share. If you are interested in authoring an article, please email us at elios179 at gmail dot com.

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