Linking Research and Teaching in Microbiology
Microbiology research is vibrant in the School of Biology, Chemistry and Health Science, with activities being submitted within two Units of Assessment in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). My research, associated with Materials, is used to inform several aspects of the undergraduate curriculum, thus illustrates ‘research-led teaching’ as defined by Healey (2005), and satisfies ‘the expectation that teaching is informed by research activity’ (HEFCE, 2009).
My research focuses on the interactions occurring between microorganisms and inert surfaces (more details can be found on our In the Loop website, developed with support from an Enterprise Fellowship). Three areas are particularly active:
The topics translate well into activities for undergraduate teaching, being current, applied, and interdisciplinary. In fact, since the majority of the planet’s microorganisms exist attached on surfaces (Donlan, 2002) often forming community structures called ‘biofilms’, the research provides illustrations for the fundamental mode of existence of microorganisms. This article provides some examples of research –led teaching. I will also attempt to outline the benefits (as I see them!) to the students and staff involved.
My formal contact with undergraduate students is, of course, lectures, tutorials, laboratory classes, and final year project/dissertation. In each case, I have been able to incorporate some research-informed content.
Course and module curricula outline learning outcomes, but there is ample opportunity within the lecture format to utilise home-grown findings that have contributed to the body of knowledge. Lectures on oral microbiology given to 60-200 second year undergraduates as part of the microbiology module provide a useful illustration of the normal microbial flora of humans, and allow plenty of images and data from our research, as well as confidence in the currency of the supporting literature. In addition, since microbiology is such a topical subject, it is easily possible to devote attention to different pathogens or diseases each year. This is particularly valuable for final year students, who then have the opportunity to use current literature and epidemiology websites to monitor incidence and prevalence (swine flu next year perhaps?). Assessments tend to be traditional multiple choice papers, or examination questions.
For first year students (over 200 in each cohort), I feel that it is important to capture the excitement and diversity of microbiology, so have developed a lecture that links microbiology with art (as described in a previous LTiA, see Verran, 2008)). Delivered as part of the microbiology module, we explore an unusual example of applied microbiology – the deterioration of cultural heritage, and touch on the beauty of microorganisms, the representation of microorganisms in art, and sci-art collaborations. The use of art to attract the public and enhance science understanding is also addressed. The associated assignment provides a real active learning opportunity (read the case study ) : students are asked to work on a ‘product’ linking microbiology and art. They come up with an idea, consider what form their product should take, and then negotiate assessment criteria with me. They can work alone or in groups. These loose requirements allow freedom of imagination, and the opportunity to utilise other expertise and interests. In effect, many skills associated with ‘research’ are employed. The products range from Powerpoint presentations through collage, posters, models, music (search ‘Hostbusters’ on YouTube), jewellery and so on. Year on year (this is now the sixth iteration of the project), the creativity of the students continues to impress. An exhibition has been mounted for the past three years, and prizes awarded from Leica, and Yakult. Other benefits have included permanent displays of selected work in the Faculty, use of learning materials in schools and undergraduate classes, thus evidence of skills and achievements for students, and for me, a sense of wonder at their talents, and some new research collaborations and ideas. Now, students in their final year sometimes ask to continue with related activities for their final year project work.
First year students Mobeen Ali, Tona Aderibigbem Sharon Choudhary and Ali Hayat produced a variety of artworks associated with malaria. These will be part of a larger event on malaria being planned for late 2009
As has already been mentioned, the biofilm mode of growth is fundamental to microbial existence. However, in textbooks, biofilms tend to receive scant attention, with the odd paragraph at the end of various sections. It has actually been suggested that biofilms should form the basis of all microbiology teaching, rather than being perceived as a novelty, but for the moment text books and microbiology curricula are resisting the idea! So, for students to find out information about biofilms, they need to use the scientific literature (fairly selectively due to the considerable amount of information available), and the internet.
The tutorial is given to final year medical microbiology students (up to 80 in each cohort; up to 16 in each tutorial). They are provided with three questions: what is a biofilm? What particular features make biofilms important in medicine? What is the range of biofilm-associated infections? They bring their findings to the tutorial, and each question is addressed in turn, with students being invited to add their findings, and the source of information. In this way, key words and over-arching concepts can be identified, all students contribute to class findings (a composite document is provided to all attendees at the end of the tutorial circuit), and the importance of the scientific literature in research on recent topics is emphasised. Useful, and less useful websites can also be identified. In addition, the students are referred to a new hypertextbook on biofilms, and are invited to contribute to the evaluation of this evolving document. Their evaluation forms contribute to assessment, but also to the development of the learning resource. Tutorial assessment contributes a small percentage to the module overall: marks are awarded for attendance and contribution to the tutorial, valid attention to the questions in the work produced, and the hypertextbook evaluation.
It is easy to develop open-ended, exploratory lab classes based on research, but there are always time and cost constraints (how many weeks/sessions are available?; how many students?), timetabling issues (modular curriculum), and the inconvenient need to inoculate and incubate cultures of microorganisms before results can be recorded. A challenging mini-project for around 20 students on a three hour lab class over six weeks comprised the isolation of microorganisms from the oral cavity, the identification of a species of Streptococcus, and the design of an experiment using their Streptococcus isolate to investigate some cariogenic property (associated with tooth decay). These included monitoring the effects of essential oils, toothpastes, herbs and spices on growth; changes in pH associated with incubation in different sugars, investigation into the attachment of isolates to surfaces etc – plus a comprehensive report. Nowadays, the classes tend to be more restricted in length, thus activities have been modified.
The development of a novel laboratory activity is itself time consuming for the staff concerned, and a successful activity is always worthy of dissemination to peers. The American Society for Microbiology publishes curriculum resources that include laboratory classes, with all resources being peer reviewed (very vigorously). As a result, the information provided is full, detailed and useful (and almost a publication). ‘Exploring oral biofilms and the contamination of toothbrushes’, and ‘Chairside diagnosis for plaque-associated oral infections’ are two of my classes that are available from this website.
A different lab class that evolved indirectly from my research interests is a study on the contamination of mobile phones. Some information I provided to a company concerning the possibility of pathogenic bacteria contaminating mobile phones made its way to page three of the Daily Mail (easily found on Google). The resulting media interest was significant, but a bonus was some external experimental work on the contamination of everyday objects such as phones, handbags and cosmetics. I subsequently developed a laboratory class for final year medical microbiology students (up to 80 students), where they monitor the contamination of their phones, compare the bacteria isolated with those on their skin, and consider the potential impact of such cross-contamination in the hospital setting. The activity demands a critical evaluation of the limitations of the laboratory class, perusal of the (thin) literature, and suggestions for future work that would extend and explore observations in more detail. Subsequently, Masters projects, some work comparing different decontamination methods, and new collaborations and publications (Brady et al., 2009) developed from this chance occurrence.
Student projects are the most obvious example of the research-teaching link. These provide the opportunity to develop, continue, extend, and repeat experiments whose findings can supplement or support new or existing research activities. For example, in collaboration with the Centre for Dental Technology, we have, primarily through student projects, developed a niche of expertise exploring the potential for cross-contamination in dental technology laboratories, where dentures and other prostheses are fabricated and repaired. Since materials travel from the patient in the dentist’s clinic to the laboratory and back, there is potential for the transfer of microorganisms from one site to another. We have published several papers on the topic (Verran et al., 2), and have been able to make recommendations for best practices in the dental laboratory.
Through the first year art lecture, via deterioration of cultural heritage, contact was made between myself and the North West Film Archive. A project student investigated the potential risk of inspection of donated film that was visibly ‘mouldy’. We identified the contaminants, quantified the numbers of spores released, and assessed the risk. This collaboration is continuing, and a joint presentation was given at the 2009 meeting of the International Biodeterioration and Biodegradation Society. Another student who had photographed ‘Biofilms around Manchester’ as her first year art assignment continued her exploration of algal biofilm (the green slime!) on a historically important building in the city centre, in collaboration with Tim Edensor . The different microscopic visualisation techniques that she used have been valuable to Tim’s research, and we are hoping to produce a joint publication on the project.
James Barnes, Harry Hardy, Amy O'Toole and Tom Walker, presenting their final year project work. James worked on characterisation of novel surfaces kindly provided by a small UK company; Harry investigated the potential for phage therapy, Amy exlored some of the biofims on important buildings in Manchester city centre; Tom quantified and identified fungal contamination of film donated to the North West Film Archive.
Some students ask if they can get lab research experience during their summer vacations. In some cases, we are able to get financial support, from professional microbiology societies, the DTI, or the Bioscience Learning and Teaching Support Network (now the HEA subject centre for Bioscience). In others, the students have worked unpaid. There are many opportunities for third stream activity here, essentially as an introduction to a new collaboration. One cannot guarantee the success of a student project, but the external partner can get to know the laboratory and the staff, and opportunities then arise for subsequent links. The students also gain useful employability skills.
It is clearly our job to ‘teach’. Not all of us have the opportunity to be both research-active and teaching-active, but it is a most enjoyable and energising combination, which generates new ideas, research areas and collaborations. The students get an idea of the research that is going on around them, and how it impacts more generally on the study of microbiology. (Hopefully, it also encourages interest in microbiology!) The more open-ended laboratory classes illustrate many aspects of research, particularly critical evaluation of results. For the smaller number of students who are involved in laboratory based research projects, the one-to-one interaction with their supervisor is a new and valuable experience, as is working with others in a research laboratory. Some flavour of research culture is imbibed. During a brief collaboration with colleagues at the Institute of Education (Mark Rowlands), I was interviewed about ‘being a researcher’, with questions having been posed by B.Ed students. The aspect that they found most fascinating was that I actually had friends and colleagues whom I met at conferences, corresponded and collaborated with, and had kept contact with over many years. Their idea of the researcher, not an uncommon perception, was of the lone individual in the laboratory. Clearly this is not the case: teaching enables us to nurture research (and other) skills, show how research informs discipline knowledge, transmit the enthusiasm that makes us researchers in the first place – and demonstrate that we are quite human after all!
Angelique Laurent did a second year summer vacation placement working within an EU project (Pathgen Combat). She presented some of the research findings at a dissemination event in Paris
Lisa Coulthwaite and Kathryn Whitehead (Microbiology Research), Mark Bodner (NWFA), Tim Edensor (EGS), Rebecca Taylor (Centre for Dental Technology), Mark Rowlands ( Institute of Education)
Brady, R.R.W., Verran, J., Damani, N.N., Gibb, A.P. (2009). Review of mobile communication devices as potential reservoirs of nosocomial pathogens. J Hosp Infect. 71:295-300
Donlan, R.M.(2002). Biofilms: microbial life on surfaces. Emerg Infect Dis [serial online]; 8. (Online)
Coulthwaite, L. and Verran, J. (2007) Review: Potential Pathogenic Aspects of Denture Plaque. Brit J Biomed Sci. 64: 180-189.
Healey, M. (2005). Linking research and teaching: exploring disciplinary spaces and the role of inquiry-based learning. In Barnett, R (Ed) Reshaping the university: new relationships between research, scholarship and teaching, pp 30-42. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill/Open University Press.
HEFCE. (2009). Higher Education in England : achievements, challenges and prospects.2009/06.
Verran, J., McCord, J.F., Maryan, C., Taylor , R.L. (2004). Microbiological Hazards in dental technology labs. Eur J Prosth dent.12: 115 – 120.
Verran, J., Airey, P., Packer, A., Whitehead, K.A. (2008). Microbial retention on open food contact surfaces and implications for food contamination. Adv Appl Microbiol. 64: Chapter 8, 223-246.
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