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Teaching Microbiology in the Age of Bacteria

Teaching Microbiology in the Age of Bacteria by Amy Cheng Vollmer, professor of biology

"It's not what we say..." How would you complete this statement? I can think of three ways:
Professor of Biology Amy Cheng Vollmer delivered this address, adapted for the web, upon receiving the 2006 Carksi Distinguished Undergraduate Educator Award on Tues., May 23, 2006, at the General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) held in Orlando, Fla.Write to her at's what we do.'s what we don't say.'s how we say it.

Can you think of another way to complete the statement? This illustrates one important point in our profession - there is often more than one 'right answer,' because students (and teachers) approach topics from varied perspectives, informed by their own experiences and their own ways of learning. People can take away very different messages from the same presentation. I often find myself asking students, "Can you see it or explain it in a different way?" Relating an abstract topic to an aspect of their own lives creates a learning atmosphere by which students become "owners" rather than "renters" of knowledge.

Here we are at a time when our textbooks and other resources are growing in volume, but the time that we have in the academic term is still limited to 10-14 weeks. How, then, are we to give an historical perspective, bring our lectures up to date, and cover so much material? It is a daunting task, and can certainly seem overwhelming. What if the topics I choose to omit are part of the MCAT or some of the general assessment? How can I prepare students for a future that we cannot predict?


It's not what we say, it's what we do

Students, like our children, are watching us: at the bench (designing, executing and analyzing experiments, following and cleaning up), as scholars (writing, proofreading, citing sources, presenting, discussing, not procrastinating, honoring deadlines), as colleagues (in service to our professional communities), and as humans (being dependable, not over-committed, adapting to change, setting, and adhering to priorities). We are role models - inside and outside of the classroom!

It's not what we say, it's what we don't say

When I began my career as an assistant professor of biology at Mills College, a wonderful senior colleague, Darl Bowers, shared a bit of wisdom with me. He said simply: " The most important decision we make as teacher is what to leave out!" Little did I know what he really meant by that statement. We face a challenge and a privilege:
  • preparing our students for a future that we cannot predict
  • deciding what tools they will need in their toolboxes
  • showing them how to be resourceful by coping with the unexpected, making novel connections, establishing networks, and scrambling
One of my former students told me the difference between Swarthmore and the real world is that: (1) in the real world there is no syllabus and (2) the exams are every day!

It is liberating to accept that we can't "cover" it all! By acknowledging our limitations, we relinquish control of exactly where the course is headed. Rather, we concentrate on establishing a foundation for our students, giving them a sense of the landscape and encouraging them to learn and think for themselves by supporting intellectual risk-taking and helping them overcome their fear of failure.


It's not what we say, it's how we say it

We need to continue to keep our knowledge current, hone our own techniques both in the laboratory and classroom, and apply the same strategies to teaching that we do in research - get advice when things aren't working well, try new techniques, adapt methods that others have developed for our own applications, and communicate our findings with others.

In my teaching, I am working on two new projects.


Amy has taught biology at Swarthmore since 1989.
First, promoting adult scientific literacy. Toward this end, I give talks about microbiology to gatherings of Swarthmore alumni, to parents of Swarthmore students, and to prospective and visiting high school students and their teachers. I have just completed teaching a Life Long Learning course based on Why We Get Sick by Nesse and Williams, and am contemplating teaching it again next spring in New York City.

I have invited non-science Swarthmore faculty members to spend a month in my laboratory. Last summer, Philip Jefferson from economics and Cheryl Grood from mathematics and statistics joined me to work on constructing a couple of new strains and enumerating antibiotic resistant bacteria from various campus locales. We learned a great deal from each other about communication and critique of the process by which scientific work is done. We read magazine articles and discussed many topics about how microbiology impacts society. Philip wrote an article about his experience that was published last October in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Next summer, two more colleagues, one from engineering and one from music, will be joining me.

Professor of Economics Philip Jefferson credits working in Amy's lab last summer with giving him a refreshed perspective on applied science and new tools for teaching his course in econometrics.
The second project involves a book that I hope to edit, entitled Tour Guide to Metabolism. Metabolic pathways, which were mainstays in biochemistry and microbiology curricula thirty years ago, have been neglected in favor of more trendy topics. Textbooks still have chapters devoted to pathways, but few of those chapters make it on to course syllabi. In fact, many younger faculty members have admitted to me that they don't really know their metabolic pathways very well and therefore don't feel confident teaching them. Now that we are in the post-genomic era, knowledge of metabolic pathways is, once again, highly coveted commodity.

How then, do we resurrect this area of the curriculum? Most people find the subject dry and boring, like reading maps. So why does one study a map? To get to an interesting destination. Hence the Tour Guide will contain a compilation of interesting metabolic destinations - molecules and enzymes that have intriguing properties. I have asked colleagues to send me their favorite destinations so that I can work them into pedagogically useful stories or case studies. By suggesting these destinations, I hope that we can encourage students and their teachers to explore the pathways that lead in those directions. I invite anyone in the audience to send me their favorite destination. I will be sure to properly attribute all contributions!


"Amy taught me so much," says Associate Professor of Mathematics Cheryl Grood of her time in Amy's lab, "not just about microbiology, but, through her example, about mentoring undergraduates and about pedagogy."
I have heard two former American Society for Microbiology (ASM) presidents, Moselio Schaechter and Abigail Salyers, as well as our current president, Stanley Maloy, say that this is a new golden age for microbiology. Stephen Jay Gould stated that we live in the "Age of Bacteria". I couldn't agree more! It is an exciting time to be a microbiologist and to be teaching and conducting research in microbiology with undergraduate students. Together we have contributions to make in the areas of medicine, ecology, evolution, cell-cell communication, and public policy. I hope that some of the students I train will go into diverse career trajectories that include business, law, publishing, communications, teaching, as well as research and medicine. With the support of the ASM - a premier professional organization - we need to continue to promote microbiology education at every level. I urge you to think about what YOU will be saying to your students! What is it that they will remember?