PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Paul J. Overvoorde

F21 Class of 2004 Statement

Paul Overvoorde is Assistant Professor of Biology at Macalester College.

Technological advances lead to the formation of new research areas across the scientific disciplines. For example, in fields of biology and chemistry technological advances have led to a new era of high-throughput approaches to a variety of questions within these fields. An additional ramification of these advances has been the erosion of traditionally established disciplinary boundaries and the concomitant emergence of new sub-disciplines such as bioinformatics and chemical-genetics. In order to build the capacity of our current undergraduate students to thrive in the future, we must find novel ways to create learning environments that model the changes that are occurring at the forefront of scientific discovery.

In my experience, four characteristics exemplify environments that engage students to take advantage of the interdisciplinary opportunities created by recent technological advances. First, the faculty members are broadly trained and find ways to use expertise to address scientific questions that require interdisciplinary approaches. for. At the institutional level, through allocations mechanisms, interest in team teaching or the time to incorporate cross-disciplinary examples into existing courses is supported and clearly demonstrates that efforts towards interdisciplinarity must occur and are of great value to students. One indirect outcome, then, are research active faculty members who are well poised to compete for external funding that supports the pursuit of questions that span multiple levels of organization.

The second hallmark of an engaging environment is the availability of instrumentation and computing resources that will allow projects to be pursued. When students use state-of-the-art instruments, they gain a more accurate view of modern scientific inquiry and can make more informed decisions about career paths. In addition, exposure to this type of instrumentation allows students to hone the types of critical thinking skills that are required for designing and interpreting experiments that do not fit neatly into traditional disciplinary categories. Thirdly, the incorporation of interdisciplinary projects into inquiry-based research curricula fosters the breakdown of perceived disciplinary boundaries. For instance, classroom examples, laboratory exercises, and computer-based assignments that are based on significant and unanswered research questions engage students and provide insight into the process of science. The preponderance of data provided by genome-sequencing projects, microarray experiments, and other means of high-throughput screening provide invaluable resources for unveiling the process of science.

Finally, this environment will be framed by an infrastructure that promotes the interest and desire of students to put on interdisciplinary lenses as they learn to think critically about science. Such institutional infrastructure might be include yearly poster session that allow students who did research, either on campus or elsewhere during a summer, to share their experiences, funding mechanisms that allow students to be engaged in interdisciplinary research or course development during breaks in the academic calendar, or joint science division seminar series that bring in speakers whose research area would appeal to students with a variety of disciplinary backgrounds.