‘Science’ awards Yale rainforest class

Students in “Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory” gather plant samples in rainforests.
Students in “Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory” gather plant samples in rainforests. Photo by Victor Kang.

A Yale course that sends student to harvest and analyze plant samples from South American rainforests won the Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction from Science magazine last month.

Since the course began in 2007, students in “Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory” have spent spring break in South America gathering a class of microbes called endophytes for analysis at Yale over the rest of the term and the summer. Science magazine spokeswoman Melissa McCartney said the magazine selected the Yale course because it has so successfully encouraged students to learn through discovery.

“Some of those students have actually classified new endophytes and been published in scientific journals,” McCartney said. “That is the best example that you could ever hope for of students finding their own answers.”

Course co-founder and molecular, biophysics and biochemistry professor Scott Strobel said students in the course pursue Ph.D.s at three times the rate of other Yale science majors and more than 80 percent of students in the course continue their research after the course concludes. While scientists estimate that millions of fungal species exist, researchers have identified fewer than 100,000, which allows students like those in Strobel’s course to document new endophytes regularly.

In the course, students first target certain endophytes for analysis and then complete a battery of biological and chemical tests on their samples.

“They also immediately become the world expert in the particular organism they have identified,” Strobel said. “They know how it grows, they know how it behaves, they know what its activity is. I think that’s a very empowering experience for students.”

Giovanni Forcina ’14, a molecular biophysics and biochemistry major who took the course last spring, said it was the best science class he has taken as Yale. He is currently continuing the research he began during the course and said he hopes to have publishable manuscripts by the end of the spring.

Forcina said the practical and theoretical nature of the course introduced him to a range of interesting laboratory techniques, including two-dimensional nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, which no instructional lab at Yale teaches. He added that the course makes students take responsibility for their projects like no other instructional labs do.

“You’ve played a role in the project every step of the way,” he said. “Having that sort of ownership of the project I think is really motivating, and it makes you want to continue going.”

Forcina said his experience in the course has influenced his career plans. He arrived at Yale intending to go to medical school, but after researching last summer and continuing the project this semester, he said he is deciding whether to pursue a graduate degree in biochemistry or a joint M.D./Ph.D. program.

Russell Ault ’14 said he has always wanted to go to medical school, and he enrolled in the course hoping it would help him decide whether to pursue a joint degree like Forcina. While Ault said he still has yet to reach a verdict, the project he began in the course and continues to pursue has shown him that he enjoys research.

History major Jack Doyle ’14, who took the course last spring, said he does not know what career path he wants to pursue once he graduates, but said the experiences some of his peers had with the course solidified their interest in conducting laboratory research for the rest of their lives.

Science magazine awarded the prize for Inquiry-Based instruction to 14 other courses this year from a pool of over 100 applicants. Entitled “Student-Directed Discovery of the Plant Microbiome and Its Products”, the essay from “Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory” was written by Stroebel, Yale lecturer Carol Bascom-Slack and University of Arizona plant sciences professor Elizabeth Arnold. The essay appeared in the Oct. 26 issue of the magazine.

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