Earlier this fall when I’d asked Dr. Kimberly Murphy of the biology department if I could attend one of her classes, she urged me to attend a lab session rather than a lecture. I enthusiastically agreed, with visions of a white lab coat and goggles!
I am confident that I was in this lab with some of Augustana’s very best students and an outstanding “guide by their side” in Dr. Murphy. I didn’t follow everything, since the last biology class I took was in 1988. There were words like protocol, plasmid, E. coli, controls, pellet and supernatant, and instruments like a centrifuge and vortexer.
But, what I saw really impressed me and I left with some thoughts that shape my observations about the serious science that is happening in Hanson Hall of Science at Augustana College:
Side-by-side teaching is awesome to observe—I don’t think there is any better example of side-by-side teaching than what happens in a lab. Murphy spent time with every single student. She was coaching, clarifying and querying constantly. I think it’s important to note that Murphy is not a graduate student or a lab assistant working with these awesome students…. She is a tenured member and chair of the biology department. Think about that!
Augustana’s science facilities are amazing—Hanson Hall of Science was built in the 1990s, but this building and facilities are excellent. The labs are spacious and have the equipment needed to do serious benchtop research and experiments. Like a good Hootie & the Blowfish song from the same era, Hanson Hall holds up very well.
Student interactions in a small lab are powerful—Watching lab partners work together is a thing of beauty. These teams of two or three are learning how to work together, negotiate, interrogate and solve problems. They have to work together—no soloists here—and they have to communicate. Lab partners did their best to find a solution together before engaging Murphy. I also noticed that students serving as lab partners seemed to take a genuine interest in their partner’s, and others’, success and learning.
Real scientists don’t simply follow directions—Murphy carefully described the steps for the experiments, but I don’t think the object was for students to just follow directions. Murphy and the other lab instructors for Biology 130 are using this lab session to teach students about failure and success and how to navigate both. Through teaching about process and testing and retesting, these students are learning to conduct serious research and what it takes to succeed.
Murphy contextualized what the students are expected to do in lab within her own pursuit of outside grants. She skillfully connected the task in lab that day to her own need to illustrate the value of her research to others, articulate the reasons for her research and the controls she uses. She implied that anyone can follow directions, but she wants these students to be scientists.
Active, hands-on learning in the sciences is critical—in higher ed we talk a lot about hands-on learning, but a lab session is where the rubber meets the road. As an observer, even I got ridiculously excited when the experiment that was described at the beginning of the class actually came out exactly the way it was supposed to. I found myself thinking about that TV credit that has the audio of “I made this.” There is no more powerful learning than doing something for yourself and experiencing success. This is what we do at Augustana College!
Perhaps my favorite part was overhearing two pre-vet students talk about a study-away opportunity in South Africa. One told the other about a $3,000 stipend available (in addition to $2,000 with Augie Choice) to bring the cost down. When one of the students brought up the fact that only 8 spots were available, the other replied, “Well, really, only six, because there is no one more qualified than the two of us.”
I liked their spirit. This was a great reminder of the confidence that a liberal arts education builds in young people. These two are bound to have a great experience in South Africa!
The lab was awesome even if I didn’t get to wear a lab coat. Maybe next time.
Dr. Murphy joined the biology department at Augustana in August of 2011. Her interest in science has been life-long. Her desire to teach and mentor students developed from observing her father’s interaction with students as a professor and from the excitement of her undergraduate professors.
In class, in the teaching lab, and in my research lab, she aims to help students understand how science works, how to think like scientists, and to cultivate excitement for learning.
Her personal research has strengthened her abilities to develop scientific skills in students, and her current research projects are designed to include undergraduate students.
Dr. Murphy earned a Ph.D. in Genetics and Cell Biology from Washington State University.
Her current research activities include identification and characterization of genes involved in fruiting body formation and motility in Myxococcus xanthus. M. xanthus is a model organism for studying bacterial biofilms. In addition, her research includes annotation and analysis of a microbial genome from the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute and a third project on how amphibians use agricultural landscapes to move among wetlands.
Dr. Murphy’s personal interests include hiking, travel for pleasure, watching sports, and time with my family and friends.