Wednesday, August 29, 2012

First Day of Microbiology...

August 27th was the first day of my latest Microbiology course, and I was excited and a little nervous.  I have been teaching undergraduates at small liberal arts institutions for about 16 years now, so I should not be nervous...but I was. Yet excited!  I truly do love teaching this course.

Here are my 24 young minds to bend to Microbial Supremacy!

As usual, SO much to tell the students, and a limited time to do so.  Sigh.  So I try to focus on overarching themes and truly fascinating "new" developments in the field.  Think of a tree with many pretty branches?  I tend to be a bit (well, more than a bit) flamboyant when I teach, so I'm betting I will have to win some folks over a bit.

It was a short session:  I introduced the course, discussed requirements, and then gave the students a short multiple choice test to measure what they knew coming into my course.  That is intrinsically interesting, of course, but it is great to see them do much better at the end of the course; learning occurred!  I'm sure this class will be no different.

In any event, I gave them some microbially-themed candy to "sweeten" the test taking:

Kind of fun, and part of my master plan to propagandize my students into sharing my deep belief in Microbial Supremacy.  Besides, chocolate is made via microbial fermentation!

I did ask the students to describe some of the basic information they knew about microbiology.  I was delighted to learn that several students were aware that Taq polymerase, used in ubiquitous PCR, was made from Thermus aquaticus.  I went on to tell them that Thermus can be isolated not simply from hot springs at Yellowstone National Park, but also from hot water heaters!  Because I find the people involved in microbiology interesting, I reminded my captive audience that Thomas Brock isolated Thermus aquaticus from Yellowstone...with the help of an undergraduate student named Hudson Freeze.

"Hudson Freeze."  If that isn't a super villain's name, I don't know what is!  Dr. Freeze (there it goes again) is actually a nice fellow; I met him years ago in San Diego, where he did cancer research.

Discussion of moderate extremophiles like Thermus is useful in promoting an idea that is critical to me:  ecophysiology.  To me, this word relates the environment in which the organism lives to its biochemistry, ultrastructure, and genetics.  Thus, enzymes isolated from Thermus work best at elevated temperatures.  Later on, we will discuss temperature and membrane structure, and for similar reasons.  Darwin's dead Hand is always upon us!

All in all, it was a good day.  I enjoyed seeing the faces (so grown up compared to their university photographs online) associated with the names.  Having some nice discussions.  They seemed okay with my feelings about the primacy of the microbial, though I probably take it a bit too far:

"Here I come to save the day!" yells Mighty Microbe!

(artwork by Alena Golubkova, a former Microbiology student of mine)

I look forward to lab this week, and getting deeper into microbiology!


  1. I hope my Genetics students were familiar with the origins of Taq!

  2. Glad it went well. You gave me some good ideas. I often ask them to brainstorm- what words come to their minds when they hear "microbes/microbiology." And yes, chocolate is always a hit. Looking forward more postings :)

  3. Question: is it good, bad, or neutral to have taq in your hot water heater?

    1. Actually, a lot of hot water heaters are colonized by Thermus, from what I read. As for us, I don't think it matters much. It's pretty wonderful!

  4. Why would anyone want to heat hot water? It's more like a cold water heater, right? Just picking! Great post, I had the same feelings teaching college English 25 years ago; the thrill of the first day can't be beat.

  5. Go Loggers!

    Matt Bracken '97
    Assistant Professor
    Marine & Environmental Sciences
    Northeastern University

  6. Hey, a friendly face! You should write to your former department and share your favorite memories/professors! "Arches" should interview you. Best wishes, MM.


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