The Science of Discovery

April 13, 2017

Ursinus students are learning that innovation is at the very heart of scientific research and discovery through a new course, “Innovation in Biology.”

The course is part of the U-Imagine Center’s IMPACT curriculum, which encourages collaboration between students across academic disciplines and facilitates entrepreneurial thinking. It challenges students to view biology through an innovative lens — to identify problems and pathways to solutions.

“I want to get students to think about science differently,” says Rebecca Roberts, an associate professor of biology at Ursinus who is teaching the course. “I had been thinking for years about a course that I was calling ‘Hijacking Biology’ and the idea was to look at how viruses and bacteria had innovated through evolution to use biology to their own advantage.”

Scientists are innovators. Whether in a laboratory or a classroom, new scientific discoveries can lead to something that can be of value to society, improve human life, advance the fields of healthcare and engineering, and so much more.

“These ideas coalesced in my mind, and I wanted to engage our students in thinking about problem solving and how biology can fit into that,” Roberts says.

Students are investigating how organisms solve biological problems (such as immune evasion strategies that served as Roberts’s inspiration for the course), as well as how people have innovated using biology (such as the production of injectable insulin and gene-editing technology). Additionally, they are exploring the business side of scientific innovation—scientific funding, patents, technology transfer, and biotechnology.

“This course has allowed me to reflect on how biology reaches people,” says Alexa Beachem, who is a double major in biology and applied ethics. “I suppose that we often separate the sciences from the rest of society, and we don’t think about how our scientific progress — our innovations — affect the world around us. It has opened my eyes to how interdisciplinary the field is.”

This semester, the students are tasked with working in groups and researching a local biotechnology company that is using innovation to solve a specific problem. The students will interview the company’s founders, CEOs, and leading scientists, and the course will culminate in an oral presentation by each student group.

The companies include one that uses DNA-based nanotechnology for targeted drug delivery; a start-up that uses organisms to reduce waste production in the recycling industry; an institute that works at the molecular level to personalize treatments for leukemia and other cancers; an emerging biotechnology company focused on developing medications for treatment of oncological diseases; and a company that has identified biomarkers in tumors that are closely associated with the aggressiveness of cancers.

“Through teaching this course, I’ve felt my own understanding and my own approach shift,” Roberts says. “I think differently now than I did four years ago, and I thought that if I’ve had such a drastic and palpable change in my approach, then my students can do the same thing.”

Roberts has also used the class to talk about current advances in biotechnology, and she brings in several experts, both from Ursinus faculty and outside the institution, to talk to the students.

“One benefit is that they are no longer just relying on me,” she says. “I’m learning just as much as they are. The experts coming in as guest speakers are helping the students dig in to some of these concepts, like ethical considerations, business and regulatory concepts, as well as the science. They can apply that thinking throughout their courses as they continue on here. I want it to have a trickle-down effect.”

“I’ve started to look at things more creatively, looking at trying to identify problems in everyday tasks that I hadn’t thought about before, and thinking about ways to solve them,” says Brandon Lillian, a sophomore majoring in biology and Spanish.

Lillian says taking the course has altered his career path, as he’s now interested in exploring biotechnology.

“The guest speakers have really taught us a lot, not just about their individual fields but different ways to think as well, and they’ve shown me just how many things there are to do in the biotech industry, and that the options are limitless. If there’s something you want that isn’t out there, be innovative and make it happen.” —By Ed Moorhouse