August 22, 2008

Students survive first developmental biology ‘boot camp’

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David Bader, Ph.D., watches as Abby Olena, a graduate student working in the lab of Jim Patton, Ph.D., dissects a chick embryo in the Intro to Developmental Biology class. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Students survive first developmental biology ‘boot camp’

The defense called a 'mouse;' the prosecution called a 'worm.' This was obviously not your typical trial.

The recent event in an MRBIII “courtroom” was the culmination of a summer course launched this year for graduate students entering the Program in Developmental Biology. Dubbed “PDB Boot Camp,” the course aimed to “go back to the basics of developmental biology,” said David Bader, Ph.D., one of the course's organizers.

The program realized several years ago that it lacked a course to introduce new students to the fundamentals of developmental biology and to the model organisms studied, Bader said.

Together, the program's faculty members decided what those fundamental concepts were and opted to teach them through a combination of lectures and hands-on laboratory work with embryos.

Vanderbilt's developmental biologists study a wide array of model organisms, and the course acquainted the students with them all — frog, fish, chicken, mouse, fly, worm and mosquito.

Faculty members emphasized how the organisms are similar, how they vary, and which ones are best for studying certain aspects of developmental biology.

“Actually working with the embryos in a laboratory setting really helped augment the classroom learning,” said Eric Armour, a student in the Medical Scientist Training Program who will complete his Ph.D. research in developmental biology.

The course also introduced the students to each other.

“This is our incoming class; these students will see each other in seminars, classes, research clubs and journal clubs,” Bader said. “We wanted them to have an opportunity to team-build and have fun.”

They did, Armour said. He most enjoyed the game show-inspired rounds of “Password” they played in class, with developmental biology terms and names of program faculty members as the passwords, and prizes for the winning team.

The final trial — of a technique used to study cell lineage — was also a hit, Armour said. The prosecution's job was to attack the technique as not valid for studying the developmental “ancestry” of a cell. The jury ruled in favor of the defense.

“We had a signed pardon from Chancellor Nick Zeppos just in case it didn't go our way,” said Armour, a member of the defense team.

Bader said the course could be a good model for other graduate programs.

“It helps a program to think about its core concepts,” he said. “What are the essential concepts that any student in the discipline needs to know?

“For us that's easy: it's the embryo — it all comes back to that critter.”

It worked especially well to offer the course in the summer after the first year of graduate school, when students have selected a lab and are just beginning a particular program of study, Bader added.

“The students had more flexibility in the summer to have fun and get this jolt of basic information.”