SMB People

SMB People

  • Teaching science students visual literacy life skills

    People looking at textbook

    Students who study molecular biosciences can’t actually see what they are learning.

    “We can never see with our eyes the things we study,” says Erika Offerdahl, a biochemist and associate professor in the WSU School of Molecular Biosciences. “It is hard to directly see beyond the sub-cellular level, so as students we learn through representation.”

    Symbols, such as chemical formulas, or schematic drawings that use arrows to show a chemical reaction are just two examples of this type of visual learning. Information can also be conveyed through graphs, cartoons or other artist renderings, or through realistic images such as a micrograph photo of a cell taken through a microscope.

    Dr. Offerdahl and post-doctoral researcher Jessie Arneson wondered how undergraduate students develop the visual literacy skills needed to understand these representations and create them on their own. “No one had clearly defined what scientific visual literacy is,” says Offerdahl. “Verbal and quantitative literacy have been more well defined.”

    In their research, they are asking how visual literacy is taught in the molecular life science and if students are being tested on visual material. To do that, they look at course examinations from biochemistry classes. They found that most exams have written questions, but very few images. “Assessments in courses are mostly verbal. Graphs, realistic images like microscopy pictures of cells, and schematics aren’t used very often,” says Offerdahl. “This is problematic because our exams implicitly communicate to students what is important. If we don’t require our students to use real scientific images, we’re not communicating their importance in the class or for the discipline.”

    She and her colleagues not only research how visual learning is taught to students, but whether students need different skills to understand or replicate different types of representations. In other words, what visual thinking skills do students need to be visually literate and understand a graphic representation versus a schematic model?

    “My job as a science instructor is to help develop the visual literacy skills in my students that will allow them to generate, make sense of, and use visual representations,” she says. “This is true for my science majors and nonmajors.”

    Ultimately, by understanding the most effective ways to learn and retain visual literacy skills, their research could help improve student education in many STEM disciplines.

    “The big picture of our research is helping our students develop visual literacy skills,” she says. “This means that they must be able to understand information from a scientific representation, translate between different types of visual representations, and synthesize them to communicate their findings with their colleagues.”

    But for Offerdahl, learning visual literacy extends beyond the classroom. Many of her students go on to become doctors or pharmacists, rather than academic researchers, so they will need to know how to communicate well with their patients. And scientists play an important role in society, she says, so there is a need for them to better communicate their scientific research.

    “In a world awash with data, the public sees visual images and may not be able to make sense of them, particularly on social media,” she says. “How scientists can best communicate to each other and to the public will help improve understanding that makes a real difference in people’s lives.”

  • Training our Students for Success

    Story by Marcia Hill Gossard ’99, ’04 | Photo by Henry Moore Jr.

    Keesha Matz with Dr. Alan Goodman
    Keesha Matz with Dr. Alan Goodman.

    Keesha Matz wants to understand some of the world’s deadliest viruses. Raised in Chehalis, Washington, her love for microbiology began in a molecular genetics high school class taught by WSU alumnus Henri Weeks.

    “The class gave me a real feel for research, which I think is unique for a high school class,” says Matz.

    That experience inspired her to apply to the WSU School of Molecular Bioscience’s STARS program. Students Targeted toward Advanced Research Studies, or STARS, accelerates learning and provides hands-on research experience. “They help you get into a research lab right away,” she says. For Matz, it meant that she could spend the summers after her freshman and sophomore years conducting research instead of going back home to get a job.

    Her first experience in a research lab was with Dr. Hector Aguilar-Carreño in the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health who studies the Nipah virus. First discovered in 1999 in Malaysia and Singapore, the deadly virus was the subject of the 2011 film, Contagion, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. In Aguilar-Carreño’s lab, she studied how proteins of the virus can spread the disease throughout the body. She also studied Lyme disease with Dr. Troy Bankhead, who has a joint appointment in the Allen School and the Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology department. She is currently conducting research on the Nipah virus with Dr. Alan Goodman in the School of Molecular Biosciences.

    “I am able to directly apply what I learned in Dr. Aguilar-Carreño’s lab in Dr. Goodman’s lab,” she says.

    In Goodman’s lab, rather than trying to understand how the virus spreads throughout the body, they want to know how the virus can evade the body’s innate immune response. When a virus enters the body, the immune system typically responds to the foreign invader. But with the Nipah virus, certain proteins signal the body to decrease its immune response.

    “Keesha is not afraid to take on new, large-scale, challenging experiments,” says Goodman. “She carefully plans every step beforehand to make sure that the experiments are carried out properly and that she can perform them independently.”

    This summer as an undergraduate research fellow at Mayo Clinic, Matz will study a protein of the Ebola virus that also evades the antiviral response at the cellular level, similar to the work she had done at WSU.

    For Matz, the support she has received at WSU to pursue research opportunities and apply for scholarships has made a difference in her academic success. She is 1 of only 240 students nationwide to receive the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarships for 2017–18. She also received two scholarships through the School of Molecular Biosciences—the Alice Lloyd Diers and William E. Diers Microbiology Student Endowment Scholarship in 2016 and the Walter L. & Pauline W. Harris Microbiology Endowment Scholarship in 2017.

    “It was a huge honor to be awarded a national scholarship,” says Matz, who has maintained nearly a 4.0 GPA while working in the research labs. “Being selected for these scholarships has allowed me to focus more on academics and research and take advantage of other opportunities. It feels like a big pat on the back.”

    Matz will graduate in the spring of 2018 with a bachelor of science degree in microbiology. From there she plans to go to graduate school. Berkeley, Mayo Clinic, and Cornell are places she is considering applying to, but the dream is Stanford. “You have to try,” she says.

    Thinking about the future, Matz would eventually like to work in government lab or private industry conducting medical research that can be used to design treatments for infectious diseases, like Nipah. “I would like to be in an organization that works globally, such as the World Health Organization,” she says. She also wants to support the university that has given her so much.

    “In the future, I definitely want to give back, because I know how much it means to students,” she says. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without the mentoring I’ve had at WSU.”

Washington State University