Orange Alert

The Science of Teaching, the Teaching of Science

Former A&S Dean George M. Langford opens up about his ongoing work at the Marine Biological Laboratory and Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Dec. 10, 2015, by Robert M Enslin

George M. Langford
George M. Langford

When we last heard from George M. Langford, the eminent cell biologist and neuroscientist, it was in the predawn hours of Chancellor Kent Syverud’s tenure at Syracuse University. The calendar was about to flip to July 2014, and change was in the air.

The College of Arts and Sciences, the oldest and largest academic unit on campus, aligned with this moment. Dean of A&S since 2008, Langford had just handed over the reins to Karin Ruhlandt, a revered inorganic chemist. “I’m extremely proud of what has been accomplished during my tenure, in this challenging period of adjustment to new technologies, new teaching paradigms, and new financial realities,” Langford told reporters. “While there is never a perfect time to end one’s term as dean, this is a logical time, as the University transitions to a new chancellor.”

Despite a reputation for being shy (almost to a fault), the well-mannered, impeccably dressed Langford is no wallflower. During his decanal tenure, he increased the size of A&S’ faculty, expanded its research grant support, developed and implemented various academic programs, and fostered key relationships on campus and around the country—all this, while teaching, overseeing a research lab, and serving on multiple national boards.

After serving as dean, Langford rewarded himself with a one-year sabbatical, splitting time between the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Mass., and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Chevy Chase, Md. “I needed a change,” he says, during a recent meeting in his spacious, glass-lined office in the Life Sciences Complex. “I needed to recharge and refocus, so that when I returned to the faculty, I would be firing on all cylinders.”

We recently caught up with Langford, who is beginning the Third Act of his career as the University’s new Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience.

Eric Betzig
Eric Betzig

You’ve had a busy past 12 months—studying, traveling, and meeting interesting people. One of them was Eric Betzig, a neuroscientist at Hughes who won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
I was able to visit with him and see his incredible Advanced Imaging Center at the Janelia Research Campus at HHMI. The good news is that this facility is available to scientists from around the globe. And there’s funding [from HHMI and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation] for scientists to spend a couple weeks at Janelia, using their cutting-edge microscopes study behavioral and systems neuroscience. 

You mainly worked on science education, while you were there, right? 
Most of my time at HHMI was spent in the Science Education and Research Training Program, working with research educators on new approaches to teaching introductory science at the college level. One of the most exciting ideas in science education, today, is the introduction of Course-Based Research Experiences, or CREs, which are transforming how we teach introductory laboratory courses.

HHMI has funded several institutions to develop CREs, where first-year students work on authentic research projects—you know, collecting original data and doing work that gets published. It requires faculty members who are willing to bring projects from their research laboratories to teaching labs and engage students in the research process.

Where are CREs being done?
The biggest one is run out of the University of Pittsburgh, and is called SEA-PHAGES [Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science]. It’s a two-semester discovery-based course involving mycobacteriophages, which are viruses that affect mycobacteria and cause diseases such as tuberculosis. Students go out and collect soil samples, in hopes of identifying new phages that affect different kinds of bacteria.

There are large numbers of new organisms out there that have never been sequenced. That’s what students are working on. And they’ll get a byline when their work is published.

Could CREs work at Syracuse?
Quite possibly. SEA-PHAGES involves about 25-30 other institutions, in addition to Pitt, so Syracuse could have a seat at the table. The idea is to make this kind of work available to all students, regardless of major, with an interest in science.

Also, it’s important to remember that CREs are good for retention. Data shows that a higher percentage of students who participate in hands-on research usually end up majoring in science.

Pedagogically, how is this different from what we already do at Syracuse?
Most research projects [available to students] involve a faculty member who works with a student, who, in turn, functions like an intern. With CREs, we could have an entire class of students engaged in a research project at once. The possibilities are exciting, if you think about an introductory biology course or a molecular biology course, which enrolls hundreds of students, all engaged in authentic research projects. Pharmaceutical and biotech companies might be persuaded to underwrite some of this large-scale training.

Are CREs specific to the natural sciences?
CREs work with any kind of lab-based discipline—from biology and chemistry to physics, from psychology and CSD [communication sciences and disorders] to engineering. They are adaptable to any lab-based course.

Sounds like you want to train students, regardless of major, to think like scientists.
That’s the idea. Students at Pitt are learning how to propose a question, design an experiment, collect data, and do the analysis. They’re learning how to use their critical thinking skills to solve real-world problems.

Students often don’t get involved with research until their junior year. Even then, it can be on a limited basis. My hope is that Syracuse will make CREs available to all students through introductory gateway courses.

Graham Hatfull
Graham Hatfull

How would that happen?
There has to be an institutional commitment—supported by the chancellor, the provost, and the deans. Surely, there are upfront costs, and faculty would have to be trained, but it might also open up new kinds of funding streams. As mentioned before, companies such as Proctor & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark annually spend billions on R&D. A lot of that money goes to university research facilities around the globe.

At Hughes, I had the pleasure of meeting Graham Hatfull [the Eberly Family Professor of Biotechnology at Pitt]. His SEA-PHAGES project at Pitt is one of the best examples of a CRE, and could serve as a model for us.

At HHMI, you also worked on the Meyerhoff Adaptation Project, intended to bring more underrepresented minorities into the upper ranks of mathematics and science. Tell us about it.   
Right. The Meyerhoff Adaptation Project is a new collaboration between HHMI and three other institutions [The University of Maryland, Baltimore County; The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and The Pennsylvania State University]. The project is the brainchild of UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski, who helped found the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC in the late Eighties. As the name implies, the project is designed to adapt the Meyerhoff Program to UNC, Penn State, and other research institutions. 

Part of what I did at HHMI was to better understand why the Meyerhoff Scholars Program was so successful at Maryland and how it could be replicated elsewhere. I was pleased to learn that 90 percent of all Meyerhoff Scholars graduated from college with a degree in science. Many of them have since earned Ph.D.s, and have landed faculty positions. Other kinds programs for underrepresented minorities have been around for more than 50 years, but the Meyerhoff is one of the most successful.

Why is that?
It is a comprehensive program, and uses the “logic model” to evaluate effectiveness of all of its components. There are 12 different components, including student recruitment, summer bridge programs, and collaborative learning, which contribute to Meyerhoff’s overall success. Data are collected from these components and then used to determine how students study and work together successfully.

Although the Meyerhoff program is rigorous, its students are very supportive of one another and have the added benefit of a full-time advisor. The students create a kind of community, and if one of them fails, it is considered a failure for all of them.

What are other ways the University can attract and retain good STEM students?
It’s important to create a culture of innovation, both on campus and throughout the region. Already, we’re seeing movement in New York’s nanotechnology sector, along with a growing number of regional business incubators and innovation hot spots. These kinds of initiatives can create jobs and help transform the economy.

Hunt Willard
Hunt Willard

Let’s shift gears, and talk about the MBL in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. That must’ve been fun.
It was, really. The MBL is a very dynamic place in the summer, when scientists from the around the world gather to conduct research. This past summer was the first for our new director, Hunt Willard, a leader in genetics and genome biology. I spent a lot of time with him and other scientists, going through the MBL strategic training process.

What’s your connection to the MBL?
I was a postdoc there in the early Seventies—it’s where I cut my teeth as a researcher. I’ve conducted research there for the past 25 summers, in addition to serving on the board of trustees and leading several committees.

The MBL is a fascinating place, known for its summer courses and year-round research programs in biological sciences. After being independent for 125 years, the MBL became affiliated with The University of Chicago in 2013.

Sounds like a win-win.
It is, but it’s not without challenges. For instance, the MBL has to maintain its brand as an independent institution, while accommodating new programs from Chicago. As you suggest, it could be a “win-win.”

You must be excited to be back at Syracuse.
I am. I recently interviewed and selected undergrads to begin research projects in my lab. I’ve also been preparing materials for a neuroscience course, and, later this month, my collaborator, Torsten Wöllert [research assistant professor of biology], and I will present a poster on candidiasis at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology in San Diego.

Yeast infections?
Absolutely. My team has been trying to figure out how this fungal infection penetrates the skin. What’s interesting about this organism [a yeast-like fungus known as Candida albicans] is that normal amounts of it reside on the skin, as well as in the mouth, stomach, and vagina, but when an individual’s immune system is compromised, an infection can occur. Examples include vaginal yeast infections; oral infections [also known as “oral thrush”], common in children and elderly people; and infections due to HIV/AIDS. It is also known that medical devices in hospitals, such as a catheters, are sites of infection.

Are you growing the fungus here to study it?
We use human skin cell cultures to watch how the cells change properties, once the fungus is introduced. It’s exciting, and a paper is likely to follow in the spring.

I’m also starting to put some of my sabbatical activities into action. For instance, HHMI recently announced the 2017 Inclusive Excellence competition, which seeks to increase institutional capacity for the inclusion of students from all backgrounds in science. The emphasis here is on transfer and first-generation students, many of whom are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

This is certainly your wheelhouse, given everything you’ve done for minority students.
Thank you. Some of the work taking place at HHMI is reminiscent of what I did as faculty leader of the E.E. Just STEM Program at Dartmouth. [Named for the pioneering African American cell biologist Ernest Everett Just, the program was founded by Langford, who taught at Dartmouth from 1991 to 2005.] It’s increasingly important to support students who come to college through so-called ‘non-traditional pathways.’

National service is important to you.
I serve on a number of boards. Right now, I’m involved with a couple of foundation boards, including the Burroughs Welcome Fund, which I’ve chaired and supports early career scientists in the biomedical science field. I’m also involved with The Grass Foundation, which is closely aligned with the MBL in the area of neuroscience.

This kind of work is imperative because we, as a nation, need to increase the number of students majoring in the STEM disciplines. It starts by introducing students to things that keep them engaged. Studies show that most students—not just underrepresented minorities—are interested in science when they enter college, but that their interest often wanes after taking introductory science courses. Our job, as teachers, researchers, and administrators, is to create interventions that enable students to persist in the sciences.

Do you think there’s a role here for the arts or humanities? What about STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics] initiatives?
I’ve always been interested in developing strong collaborations between the sciences and the humanities. It’s important for scientists to understand the implications of their work. Who better than a humanist to help them think about these kinds of issues? When a scientists finds a new way to edit genes in a human, it is the humanist who helps him or her fully understand the implications of this kind of work.

This is the idea behind some of the College’s biggest initiatives—from the Humanities Center and CNY Humanities Corridor to the Integrated Learning Majors program. I believe in fostering a highly integrative environment.

Steve Jobs said it best: “Technology is not enough.”

That it has to be married with the humanities, the liberal arts.
If it can work for Apple, it can work here.


George Langford Professor Emeritus of Biology

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Robert M Enslin