BMS Professor Champions Science Communication Initiatives at CSU
It started as many of the best ideas do… a group of friends sitting at a bar, trading words and ideas over pints of fermented yeast and aromatic hops. The perfect environment for that ‘hey, what if…’ idea that sparks the hurried jotting down of notes on the back of a beer-stained cardboard coaster. For Dr. Stu Tobet, professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, the conversation that day would turn into a five-year journey that has impacted close to 1,000 students at Colorado State University.
The topic of discussion: hey, what if we trained every graduate student at CSU in communication and built the foundation for a new generation of scientists skilled in telling the story of how their science is making an impact in the world?
On this day, Dr. Tobet and his colleagues had brought attention to the serious gap in how our current education model trains scientists.
“The current graduate school model is to put an emphasis on having advanced technical ability, but if students aren’t prepared to step out of the lab and serve as advocates for their field – or even write cohesive narratives about their research – it diminishes the impact of their work,” said Dr. Tobet.
To get the program off the ground, Tobet and a group of interdisciplinary CSU faculty, including John Calderazzo (English), Don Zimmerman (Journalism), Kathy Partin (Biomedical Sciences), and Peter Dourhout (former Vice Provost for Graduate Studies)*, first led the development of a series of workshops that would give students a platform for understanding how to communicate their science and a venue for practice and feedback.
The workshops hosted activities and small group sessions that emphasized skills ranging from honing that perfect 60-second elevator pitch to effective abstract writing and other public speaking opportunities. In each case, groups of students were paired with both a communications expert and a content expert (faculty scientist) and given direct feedback on how to improve and start communicating more effectively.
“When we set out, our goal wasn’t to just teach a skillset, but to show them the skills they would need to develop over time,” said Dr. Tobet. “You never stop learning to be a good writer or an effective communicator, but to achieve any true level of success in your field, you need to start somewhere – and you need to practice.”
After hosting four workshops that brought in esteemed keynote speakers such as Rebecca Skloot and Mark Ringel, the program evolved into a graduate-level course, GRAD 580A, first offered in Fall 2012. Dr. Shana Gillette, a professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences and Kate Kiefer, a professor in the English Department were instrumental in developing the course curriculum with the encouragement of Michael Palmquist and the Institute for Learning and Teaching (TILT).
“Graduate students not only need an introductory course in communication, but also structured support throughout their graduate career that will help them develop an advanced understanding of science communication and its importance in the scientific process,” said Dr. Gillette. “As a faculty member in the College who specializes in risk and science communication, I have an interest in building a supportive, educational framework for science communication in the College.”
Now in its second year, two sections of STEM Communication are offered with 22 students enrolled so far. Building from the successful format of the workshops and the Fall 2012 class experience, the classes provide many opportunities for students to practice their communication skills and receive direct feedback from communications professionals and content experts.
Looking to the future, Tobet’s dream is to have the program expanded with graduate students strongly encouraged (or required to enroll) and expanded offerings with specialty workshops on communication focused topics such as grant and thesis writing.
“If we are going to create a scientific environment where people can talk to each other as well as the outside world, they need communications skills that are technically accurate and accessible to an even wider audience – it’s a science world out there,” said Tobet. “If the tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it matter? If you do the most elegant experiment in the world and no one knows about it, what’s the point?”
If you are a faculty member who would like to get involved, or a graduate student looking to enroll, please contact Stu Tobet with questions.
* Full group of original faculty supporting the launch of this program include: Brett Beal, John Calderazzo, Peter Dourhout, Mark Frasier, Shana Gillette, Chuck Henry, Jenny Nyborg, Kathy Partin, Stuart Tobet, John Volkens, Marty Welsh, Emily Wilmsen, and Don Zimmerman.
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Pets Forever Project Adds New Course for BMS Graduate Students
For students, the choice to enter into a biomedical field is often because of their desire to connect with people – to make a difference in the lives of patients. For students in the Masters of Biomedical Sciences program, the opportunity to directly impact the lives of people in the community is now a reality – even before they become licensed practitioners. The Colorado State University sponsored non-profit program, Pets Forever, is adding a new graduate level course specifically designed for students in the Department of Biomedical Sciences’ professional masters program.
Pets Forever pairs CSU students with low-income elderly and disabled Larimer County residents to support their ownership of their pets for as long as possible. Students commit to spending four hours per week outside of the classroom to improve the health and well-being of these pets and owners by providing needed help and resources.
The new graduate course, VS795T, gives MS-B students the opportunity for problem-based learning in real life. The course format will replicate rounds discussions they might experience later on in professional school and beyond.
Drs. Lori Kogan (Clinical Sciences), Christianne Magee (Biomedical Sciences), and Melinda Frye (Biomedical Sciences) will team teach the class, each bringing their unique strengths to the weekly discussions.
“Our focus will be breaking it down to the fundamentals so the students’ other curriculum is being adapted into the class discussions,” said Dr. Magee. “The experience really touches on skills students need to be a successful vet or medical school applicant – service, communication, community giving.”
A service course centered around a program like Pets Forever is unique to CSU. When students are put in real-world situations with real people, benefits extend beyond the knowledge and experience gained through the curriculum.
“Students love the overall class experience, but report that the biggest rewards are the relationships they build with the clients,” said Dr. Kogan. “Clients often become surrogate grandparents for the students, and the students realize that something as small as walking someone’s dog makes a tremendous difference in people’s lives.”
Enrollment for VS795T is still open for fall. Contact Dr. Lori Kogan with questions or if you are interested in the undergraduate version of the Pets Forever program.
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Pain, Prescriptions, and Addiction – One CSU Professor's Quest to Find a Solution
Pain… prescription… pain… prescription… pain… it is a cycle that plagues those unfortunate enough to understand the vicious reality of chronic pain and the road that often leads to addiction. For Department of Biomedical Sciences Associate Professor, Dr. Shane Hentges, understanding the neural processes that lead to the diminished effectiveness of drug therapies is a critical first step to finding a solution.
Hentges’ research focuses specifically on the receptors that beta-endorphins act on to encode pain relief. Over time, these receptors become desensitized to the effects of opioid drugs in the system, causing the user to require higher dosages to find relief.
“In the end we’ve never found anything better than opioids for managing pain, but there are downfalls,” said Dr. Hentges. “To better treat chronic pain and prevent opioid abuse, it is essential to understand how opioids affect the brain's reward pathways and to determine why opioids become less effective with repeated use.”
Through her research, Dr. Hentges and her colleagues have discovered that in a specific neuron pathway, involving the endorphin-releasing proopiomelanocortin neurons (POMC), it is the location of the opioid receptors within the neurons that determines whether desensitization occurs. The goal is to uncover what underlies the ability of some opioid receptors to resist desensitization. It then may be possible to design drugs that produce less tolerance or have lower potential for abuse.
For the 100 million U.S. adults affected by chronic pain (to the tune of up to $635 billion each year), Hentges’ research is part of a larger effort to understand chronic pain and therapies for people who often feel like their options for a normal life are slim. The National Institutes of Health – who funds Dr. Hentges’ work – has 189 active studies, and 871 open clinical trials related to chronic pain and addiction.
“At the basic level, we need to understand opioid systems in the body – understand the body’s natural pain management tactics versus drug therapies to hopefully find a better way to manage chronic pain,” said Hentges. “I’m not curing pain or addiction, but the way we begin to have options is to really understand how these systems work.”
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Searching for Diagnostic Biomarkers for Ovarian Cancer and Placental Abnormalities
In women’s health, some of the greatest dangers lie in our inability to recognize and diagnose issues before they escalate into a life threatening condition.
Drs. Jerry Bouma and Quinton Winger, faculty in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, are working towards a solution that could give doctors and patients a leg-up in diagnosing some serious problems in women’s reproductive health.
Bouma and Winger’s research focuses on LIN28, a protein that regulates the self-renewal of stem cells. They have joined forces to better understand how this protein could hold the key for early detection of ovarian cancer and placental abnormalities in pregnancy.
The work originated when Dr. Winger was researching trophoblasts – cells formed during the early stages of pregnancy that develop into the placenta. Disrupted trophoblast cell growth and invasion is a major factor contributing to placental pathologies including preeclampsia, a condition that affects between 4-8% of all pregnancies and contributes to 20% of maternal deaths in the United States each year.
“What is important to note about these trophoblast cells is that they are invasive and migratory,” said Winger. “They invade the uterus in order to establish a placenta that grows to the right size. You have this invasion – which is a good thing – but it has to have a brake on it so that the growth doesn’t get out of hand. The placenta knows how to do that unless there is a disruption to the system.”
Migration and invasion can be used to describe another type of cell growth – ovarian cancer.
“Cancer cells behave very similarly to the trophoblast cells Dr. Winger is looking at,” said Bouma. “The difference is that if cancer cells decide to migrate, it is a bad thing. They don’t have that normal brake that tells them when to stop.”
As the two researchers began comparing notes, they found that these two cell types have something else in common: LIN28.
When LIN28 is present in cancer cells, it’s a bad thing because usually this is associated with “poorly differentiated” tumors and a poor outcome. Another thing that both cancer cells and trophoblast cells have in common is that these cells secrete small vesicles called exosomes, and Winger and Bouma postulate that there may be a connection between LIN28 and exosomes secreted by these cells. Importantly Winger and Bouma believe these exosomes have the potential to be used as diagnostic markers. If their theory is correct, we are one step closer to detecting ovarian cancers through a routine urine test – well before symptoms appear – or diagnosing risk of placental abnormalities in the first trimester, instead of the third.
“To date there is no treatment or method of prevention for placenta insufficiency or preeclampsia except for premature delivery of the fetus,” said Winger. “Having these markers would result in better prenatal care of patients, and would ultimately lead to detection and possible treatments before clinical symptoms.”
“In late diagnosis of ovarian cancer, usually 75-80% of patients see the cancer return after five years, and at that point it is a death sentence,” said Bouma. “If you diagnose ovarian cancer very early, you can dramatically increase positive outcomes - success rates could be as high as 90%.”
Bouma and Winger have been collaborating on reproductive science research since 2008, co-mentoring students, and sharing lab space and other resources at the Animal Reproduction and Biotechnology Laboratory. They focus their research on topics that impact both human and animal systems.
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