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Biology workshop for teachers helps build network with minority colleges

by Cindy Weiss - July 24, 2006

Biology faculty in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences are building new relationships with teachers from colleges with high minority enrollment, to help improve undergraduate curricula at minority institutions and to attract more of their students to graduate school at UConn.

This summer, John Silander Jr., a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and Linda Strausbaugh, a professor of molecular and cell biology, directed a workshop on biodiversity and forensic genetics for nine faculty from as far away as Arizona and Puerto Rico.

The goal was to teach the latest laboratory techniques in DNA typing, using the state-of-the-art facilities of the Center for Applied Genetics and Technology, so that the visiting faculty would be able to share new skills with students at their own colleges.

The hope was that the visitors would be favorably impressed with the faculty and facilities at UConn, and that they would recommend UConn to their students for graduate school.

"Our strategy has been to build bridges and institutional memory through a program that targets faculty, rather than students, at historically black and minority colleges and universities," said Strausbaugh, director of the Center for Applied Genetics and Technology.

"We have capitalized on the widespread interest in forensic DNA typing, and the state-of-the-art instrumentation and expertise in the Center."

In two years, the program has attracted more than 30 faculty from colleges and universities that serve mostly minority undergraduates.

"Most of them knew nothing about UConn before attending our workshop," said Strausbaugh.

From the evaluations turned in by the participants this year, the workshop appears to have been successful.

"It was superb, excellent, the best I've taken in my whole academic life," wrote a biology professor from the University of Puerto Rico at Bayamon.

"The help with bridge building and student opportunities was invaluable," wrote another visitor.

"UConn is an attractive institution," wrote a third, adding that said he would strongly recommend the biology graduate program here to his students.

The hands-on laboratory sessions, led by two graduate assistants in molecular and cell biology, Craig O'Connor and Josh Suhl, and two in ecology and evolutionary biology, Andrew Latimer and Nicholas Tippery, were the workshop's biggest draw.

"I came to improve my skills in microbiology," said Ileana Gonzalez, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Puerto Rico at Ponce, who teaches microbiology and immunology and conducts research in marine biology.

Cecilia Vigil, a professor of biology at Arizona Western College in Yuma, said the biology major there is attracting more and more students. Arizona Western has 1,400 students; of these, 70 per cent are Hispanic and 75 percent are women.

"We're trying to build our laboratory and cellular molecular component up to par with the advances that are happening so rapidly," she said.

"One more thing that came out of this [workshop]," she said: "We're all going to get together next year and do a Bioblitz."

How to conduct a 24-hour biodiversity inventory, or "Bioblitz," was one of the modules taught by Silander, with help from David Wagner, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Wagner led Connecticut's biennial species count in 2005 and will do so again in 2007.

At Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, biology is one of the most popular majors, said Anthony Arment, an associate professor of biology there.

Central State is the only historically black college in Ohio.

Many of the students are interested in forensics due to "the CSI factor" - the influence of the popular television show about forensic investigators, he said.

There is also growing interest in biotechnology training, since nearby Proctor & Gamble is a major employer.

"I'm ready to take these techniques back and use them," he said of the UConn workshop.

Two other biology faculty from historically minority colleges came to UConn this summer with longer-range plans to stay.

Ruth Washington and Lee Aggison from Texas College in Tyler, Texas, are joining the molecular and cell biology department for three years as associate professors-in-residence.

"Drs. Washington and Aggison bring with them a wealth of relationships among institutions that primarily serve minorities, as well as teaching expertise and research experience in microbiology and genetics," said Philip Yeagle, professor and department head.

Washington will help develop future workshops in genetics for faculty from historically black colleges.

Aggison will lead the professional science master's program in microbial systems analysis.

They also will develop a pilot summer research program for minority students, and interactive video-conferencing that will connect UConn with historically black colleges.

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