For anyone who has hesitated to teach evolution, closes down at the idea of drift, or uses the term "% homology," Jim Smith and I wrote this review to help clear up common confusions and make evo life a bit easier.
The Perspective, published this month in ASM's education journal, discusses why evolution is so critical -- but still underused and misunderstood -- in the biomolecular sciences. We share our vision for how to teach and think evolutionarily, and we review a slew of published studies and resources for doing so.
I'm pretty excited about this "Side Project" especially Table 1, which I see as a handy guide to speaking the Language of Evolution, equally useful for research as for teaching.
We hear more about antimicrobial resistant infections every year. Where are these pathogens coming from? In a new article published in Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health, I explain the role of horizontal gene transfer in the evolution of antibiotic resistance. Check it out it at: Burmeister, A. 2015 Horizontal Gene Transfer. EMPH doi: 10.1093/emph/eov018.
While preparing for my department's Hsiung-Kimball award seminar, I learned a lot about the award’s two namesake scientists. Inspired by their stories, I share them here.
Dr. Gueh-Djen (Edith) Hsiung (1918-2006) and Dr. Margaret Everett Kimball (1924-2011) attended Michigan State University together in the late 1940s. The Hsiung-Kimball award was endowed by Hsiung, who named the it for Kimball and her family. The two women were friends and roommates during their time at State, ~1947-1951, and their careers highlight biology’s 20th century triumph over infectious disease.
I found Dr. Hsiung's obituary from Yale, where she spent most of her career on the faculty as a virologist and professor of laboratory medicine. As far as obituaries go, it’s the most lively and inspiring one I’ve read. Here's an excerpt with one of my favorite stories about Dr. Hsiung, a vaccine, and a goat:
“Gueh-Djen (Edith) Hsiung, an internationally recognized virologist and professor emeritus of laboratory medicine, died of cancer on Aug. 20 at Connecticut Hospice in Branford. She was 87.
I had only 10 minutes for my awards seminar, but I took a minute to share the great goat story and highlight Dr. Hsiung's career. After all, she graduated with Ph.D. in microbiology, from MSU (the degree I'm seeking) in 1951, which was the year Ester Lederberg discovered virus phage Lambda (my Ph.D. study organism) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (where I earned my undergrad degree), making the award especially meaningful to me. And, the audience loved the goat.
The other half of the award’s namesake is Dr. Kimball, who graduated from MSU in 1949 with a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine. She went on to test cattle for tuberculosis across the state of Michigan, practice veterinary medicine, and work as a meat processing plant inspector. She also made it to all 50 states! The MMG website says that “Dr. Kimball's family hosted Dr. Hsiung during her graduate career, and the two became close friends,” and Dr. Kimball’s obituary specifically mentions a trip to China with Dr. Hsiung, so it seems the friendship was a long and meaningful one.
I’d love more details about Hsiung and Kimball’s friendship, perhaps because as I’m mid-grad school myself and have a hunch that grad school friendships are much the same now as they were 70 years ago. I would guess that then, as now, the academic environment forges lifelong friendships. Did these women talk about their research and emerging diseases over drinks? Did they review one another’s manuscripts? Did they go on autumn walks through the Baker woodlot? Did they celebrate with dinners out when they had a success?
Maybe friends or family of Dr. Hsiung and Dr. Kimball will have stories or pictures to share. As I write my thank-you letter simply to “whom it may concern,” I would guess that some of those people include Dr. Hsiung’s nieces and nephews and their children, as well as Dr. Kimball’s children and their children. To all of you: your aunt and mother were two cool women I look up to and gain inspiration of as I walk across Michigan State’s campus today. Thank you for the award named in their honor!
Arrowsmith: The Classic Microbiologist Hero
Arrowsmith (Sinclair Lewis, 1925) tells the story of an academic microbiologist and his research in early 20th-century middle America. The tale contains one of my favorite passages of academic fiction, encompassing math, imposter syndrome, late nights, and friendship all against a backdrop of phage research. I thought of this passage often as I relearned calculus in graduate school, coded differential equations into Mathematica, and read phage modeling papers. In the story (excerpt abridged below), Max Gottlieb is the senior scientist (think PI), Martin Arrowsmith is the new scientist (think grad student/postdoc/associate professor), and Terry Wickett is the guy working down the hall.
I share these quotes here for educational use, mostly to encourage those of us going through similar challenges. Behold the new scientist grappling with math and imposter syndrome while trying to invent phage therapy and making a friend along the way...
Gottlieb observed, “Martin, I haf taken the privilege of talking you over with Terry, and we concluded that you haf done well enough now so it is time you stop puttering and go to work.”
It doesn’t. It’s E. coli.
Today we began Day 1 of the Microbial Genetics Lab for Undergrads here at Michigan State – we’re lucky this year with small class sizes of 32 and 28 students, with three instructors per section! Students arrive, usually without the pre-lab completed, hear a short technical lecture on the day’s tasks, and then set out to do the tasks. I find the entire thing to be a crazy fun bustle of confusion as we teachers tumble about the room correcting flaws in sterile technique, quizzing students about their conceptual understanding of the experiments, encouraging the especially curious. (Will there be any Martin Arrowsmiths this semester?) This is my second semester of teaching, so I'm still learning how to organize a classroom.
Today we spent an hour covering all the things micro students “should” know already: how to flame sterilize an inoculating loop until red hot, how to ethanol and flame a`hockey stick, how to put out an ethanol fire… (On this last point, we demonstrated and then had each student repeat this process: 1. Purposely lighting our ethanol containers on fire, and then 2. Calmly placing the container lid over the blaze, which extinguishes the fire.) The students seemed to get a kick out of this. No, lab safety doesn’t have to be boring. <<That said, you should read safety instructions like this and have someone experienced demo the technique before you before trying it out yourself.>>
Next I asked the students what they would be observing in the next lab period. Most said, “Whether or not the strains grow.” This answer, I think, is a residual response from the intro micro lab, where the students spend the semester streaking unknown isolates on various media, using growth to help identify species and strains – it’s typical flowchart work that doesn’t require much thinking. So, I next got to explain that we’ll be observing gene expression using color indicators and that we’ll be thinking a lot about genes and operons this semester, and welcome to microbial genetics. Today we used x-gal to indicate expression of the gene coding for B-galactosidase, which results in blue colonies.
Sometimes I ask my students questions like, “Why does E. coli want to produce blue pigments?” That gets them to think and provides a teaching moment that a) E. coli doesn’t really want or not want to do anything; it's E. coli, and b) In the natural environment B-galactosidase metabolizes the sugar lactose, not x-gal, which is a convenient substrate we use in the lab to produce blue colonies.
If everything makes more sense from an evolutionary perspective, we might ask, “Why did E. coli evolve to produce blue pigments?” It didn’t. The E. coli lac operon evolved as an efficient way to regulate expression of lactose metabolism. (Not everything is an adaptation, after all.)
Side Projects, The Blog!
A blog for all things non-dissertation.