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