Mary Lee Ledbetter

College of the Holy Cross
2003 DTS Award

Dr. Mary Lee Ledbetter
Professor and College Graduate Studies Advisor
Department of Biology
College of the Holy Cross

Dr. Ledbetter's Homepage

NSF Award Recognition


Jeanne L. Narum, Director, Project Kaleidoscope, interviewing Dr. Mary Lee Ledbetter.

If a visitor were to come into your classroom/lab - the environment in which you work with students - what impression would s/he leave with?

Different impressions would be gained from classes with different groups of students. If they were interdisciplinary College Honors students in our team-taught Human Nature course, they would see a lively discussion among opinionated, thoughtful students of various majors on a topic drawn from the week’s reading, which might be Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Karp’s Speaking of Sadness, or Darwin’s Origin of Species. If they were students of Cell Biology in lecture, they would be closely attending to my presentation on the topic of the day, illustrated with microscopic images, video clips, and data of other sorts, linked closely to the exercises they themselves would carry out in laboratory. From time to time they would raise questions of clarification or of curiosity, linking the ideas to other areas of their learning. Cell Biology lab itself is much less formal, with students working in groups at their own pace, visiting, joking, and engaging me in conversation. In the research lab a visitor would likely be impressed by the seriousness and enthusiasm of the students as they learn to discover new knowledge for themselves. If the day were one where the experiments were not behaving, they would sense frustration and dogged determination; if it were a day of success, the excitement would be palpable.

What brought you to an interest in "advancing the frontiers of education" and to connecting your research to that work?

I never thought about it as advancing the frontiers of education, but rather as passing on to my students the heritage of excellent teaching and research that was the gift of my own undergraduate experience at Pomona College. I became aware later that liberal arts colleges in general have a unique way of preparing students, through my interactions with many groups, including the Council on Undergraduate Research, the American Society for Cell Biology, and Project Kaleidoscope itself. Recognition of the value of our approach by agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute served both to recognize our natural tendencies as valuable and to provide the resources to reinforce them.

Were there risks in doing this? What were they? What made you persevere? How have you documented the successes of your educational efforts?

It depends on what you mean by risks. I tend to see the biggest risk as being trapped by other people’s expectations into doing things that I would not choose to do otherwise. In that sense having chosen to work at a liberal arts college risked my viability as a continuing contributor to the research community. Fortunately, my colleagues from graduate school supported my choice, my colleagues from the research community continued to welcome me to their midst, and funding agencies made it possible for me to remain productive in research while training undergraduates through the process.

Interestingly, here at Holy Cross some see the research itself as a risk to the teaching enterprise. Participation in and loyalty to the institution is a strongly held value, and commitment to a research community based in a discipline rather than solely to the College could divide that loyalty or distract from the primary responsibility to our students. Fortunately, examples abound among my colleagues both in the sciences and humanities that give the lie to that notion. Seldom have I encountered a more talented faculty who universally place students at the center of their concern.

As to documenting the success of my educational efforts, I need turn only to the more than 60 students who spent between 5 and 18 months working with me on various research projects and who now are themselves contributing to society, most as scientists or physicians. Of course that would probably have been their life path even without my efforts, but at least I didn’t discourage them! As part of my NSF award, I budgeted funds to work with Dr. Mark Salata, a specialist in assessment of science education. He has made me aware of ways to document the impact of various aspects of the project in a more systematic way, and we hope to develop and test new tools for that goal.

What connections have been of most value in pursuing these efforts, within your campus community as well as in the broader professional communities to which you belong?

On campus the administration has been immensely supportive of faculty research, even the expensive research of the scientists. Our facilities are first-rate and well maintained. Modest resources for equipment and supplies are readily available, and grant-writing is encouraged for larger resource needs. The campus is also very collegial, and conversations both within and outside the Biology Department spark ideas and initiatives that enhance my own efforts.

Beyond Holy Cross I have derived amazing support from groups of colleagues sharing different key interests around the country and overseas. Particularly noteworthy are two groups. The community of gap junction researchers meets every two years to review progress in the field. Effort is made to include junior researchers and students in these meetings, and I am always welcome, though my scientific contributions tend to be at the fringes. They have also hosted me on sabbatical leaves and welcomed me for lab visits. The other group is the Genome Consortium for Active Teaching (GCAT), a group that is devoted to introducing the emerging field of genomics into the undergraduate curriculum through the use of microarray technology. This powerful approach allows assessment of expression of all the genes in an organism simultaneously, made possible by the availability of complete genome sequences of numerous organisms. It is technically sophisticated and uses costly instruments. What GCAT has provided is a community of undergraduate faculty who want to use the technology with our students. Through shared instrumentation, generous colleagues to use it on our samples, and low-cost or donated materials, we have substantially solved the cost issue. Through communication on a list serve, a web site, and hands-on workshops, we are reaching consensus on best practices for this technology in the undergraduate setting. Not only will Biology students benefit from seeing in action the consequences of the explosion in genomics research, students (and faculty) of Computer Science have opportunities to participate in the analysis of the massive data sets that result.

For faculty at an early career stage, it is difficult to figure out how to balance responsibilities for research and teaching while having a personal life; any advice - for them and for faculty at any stage?

Ah, yes, the age-old question. I was fortunate in retrospect, in that my children were born (quite unexpectedly) while I was in graduate school. Thus I was forced from the outset to plan my time to allow for family. I became accustomed to reserving that time, even when family demands became less pressing, and it has been an important source of continuing sanity. Of course, anything you care about can fill all the available time. The key is twofold, in my opinion: set priorities and work efficiently. There will be times when you will have to say “no” even to attractive opportunities because they conflict with other commitments. There will be times when you discover yourself to be overcommitted. Then you have to reconcile yourself either to doing a job that is not what you had hoped it would be or to negotiate your way out of one of the commitments. Those are both important strategies and far superior to beating yourself up or getting anxious and frazzled. One last trick I learned, perhaps specific to the sciences, is that by using the research in the teaching and vice versa, you gain time. Give the students in a course a project assignment in which they work in small groups and write a group report. This gives them practice in group activities, develops their ability to critique written work, and results in fewer papers that need to be graded! And if the projects are related to literature that you want to learn about for the research effort, so much the better.

What kind of institutional culture needs to be in place to nurture careers of faculty actively seeking to integrate their research and education?

Various specific institutional cultures can do the job, I think, but they will have in common an explicit appreciation of the faculty members’ efforts, even if there are not sufficient resources for optimum support. Small things can make a difference: acknowledgement of grant-writing activities even when unsuccessful; celebration of successes; flexibility in scheduling that makes it possible for faculty to undertake occasional activities that place unusual demands on their time; generosity of colleagues in covering for each other or consulting with each other’s students. Even when times were lean at Holy Cross, we were always encouraged to attend at least one scientific meeting a year, and we had no limitation to our telephone privileges (as sometimes occurs at teaching institutions). This sent the message that we were not to remain isolated from our scientific colleagues. More recently we (like most institutions) have been tremendously supported in electronic communication. In addition we are given regular sabbatical leaves, junior faculty receive an automatic research leave in their third year, and additional leaves and summer support are available through an internal competitive process. More even than the financial encouragement, all these mechanisms send the message that research activity is valued.

Teaching innovations should also be supported, though at most institutions they rarely are. Periodic faculty development workshops are one strategy. Other ideas include assembling a cohort of experienced faculty to serve as mentors to newcomers; encouraging application for funds to support teaching innovations; and even establishing formal centers on campus for pilot-testing new ideas in teaching.

What can be done at the national level to encourage and support efforts like yours and those of many other leading agents of change on campuses across the country?

Resources targeted at dissemination of best-practices through publications, conferences and workshops publicize effective models. For many, it may be hard to envision how to implement change incrementally. For others there may be resistance to the implicit criticism that the old ways were not good enough. Both groups would be encouraged by targeted funding opportunities. A particularly useful model might be grants to purchase release time from active teaching for purposes of planning. Otherwise it is difficult to make fundamental changes to ingrained habits that seem to work adequately.

Please tell us about the project that you will be undertaking as part of the DTS award. How can others be involved with and/or continue to be informed about your work?

My project for the four years funded by the award consists of three unequal parts, aimed at introducing genomics into the undergraduate curriculum in biology. The first part is support for my research laboratory. It has allowed me to purchase several key items of equipment (upgrading or replacing older items), to provide expensive supplies and reagents to do our work, and to provide stipends for students to work in the summer. Our project uses cultured animal cells to explore the regulation of cell-to-cell communication through gap junctions. We have found that this communication depends critically on maintenance of normal levels of sodium and potassium ion. If we perturb this ion homeostasis, the communication disappears reversibly, probably due to changes in the expression of genes such as those encoding the protein connexin, one of the structural components of gap junctions. There is undoubtedly a long pathway between the stimulus and the response. To try to dissect that pathway, we are using microarray strategies. We have convinced ourselves that we can do the experiments by using yeast in a pilot study. Now we are turning to human cells. This summer we confirmed that these cells behave as we have come to expect for other cells. We extracted RNA (representing the products of all the genes being expressed at the time) from cells at various times during perturbation and recovery of the ion homeostasis. In the fall we will begin to work with human microarrays to analyze the genes represented.

The second part of the project intersects with the first. I have hired a postdoctoral fellow to help us with the data analysis on the microarrays. The size of the award was insufficient to support his entire salary, so necessity became the mother of invention: I persuaded the College to provide half his salary in exchange for a half-time teaching appointment, and his position is classified as a Teaching Postdoctoral Fellow. My new colleague brings expertise in Bioinformatics to the College, and I was assisted in selecting him by our department of Mathematics and Computer Science. Among the three courses he will teach each year is a course in Bioinformatics, the first time such a course has been offered here. He will also develop a course for non-majors (a part of our curriculum for the Common Area general education requirements) and another contribution to the offerings for majors. These courses will enrich our curriculum and fill gaps opened by faculty leaves for which temporary faculty would have had to be hired. In addition the Fellow will have the opportunity to develop his skill as a teacher while contributing to research working with undergraduates. I will serve as his mentor (I want to learn Bioinformatics myself!), and will work with him as he seeks a regular faculty position at the end of his two-year appointment. At that point we should have robust procedures in place for microarray analysis, will have tested whether bioinformatics is an area to continue to emphasize in our curriculum (possibly with the cooperation of the Computer Science faculty), and will have tested the effectiveness of the strategy of the Teaching Postdoctoral Fellow as a way to enculturate young faculty into the practice of integrating research and education.

The third aspect of the project is loosely related to the other two. Students in all my courses do an independent project at the end of the semester, either individually or in groups. As part of my interest in developing their communication skills, they present the projects to the rest of the class as well as in written form. The presentations are often both entertaining and informative. Several times the students bemoaned the limited chance they had to show their work. They got the idea that it would be fun to take the presentations to the high schools. Their attempts to manage the logistics were only of limited success however, due in large part to their unfamiliarity with the governing policies of the local public schools. I have undertaken to serve as liaison in this effort. I have met with biology teachers at one of our partner high schools and explained the idea, which they were enthusiastic about. The trick is to match the level of student presentation with the degree of sophistication of the high school students. In this regard I intend to instruct my students to include explicitly in their presentation a piece that is targeted to a less scientifically sophisticated audience. I anticipate that this will serve my educational goal of developing their awareness of “audience” in any form of communication.

I am pleased to discuss this project further with anyone who is interested, either face to face or through the ether. I have already spoken at the Gordon Research Conference on Chemistry Education: Research and Practice about my plans. As the project reaches fruition, we will disseminate the outcome through normal publication as well as other venues as they present themselves. We expect to have contributions focused on research results, science education, and methods for assessment of all the project’s dimensions.