Ready for their encore

A student group that evolved into a course about understanding scientific literature has quickly become a model others are looking to replicate.

When members of the Health and Biological Research News (HBR News) Foundation gave a presentation to a room full of college and high school biology teachers in November, they were more than a little unprepared by their reception. The group received a standing ovation. “We were amazed — and surprised!” says Justin Knight, one of the three undergraduate presenters.

Knight, along with Quincy Rosemarie and Hsiangyu (David) Hu represented the HBR News at the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) Professional Development Conference. In fact, they were the only undergraduates to give a presentation at the annual meeting’s Vision and Change summit. “A lot of the people who came up to us afterward talked about wanting to start something like this at their own institutions,” says Knight. “We even had one professor ask us to help her in designing a student group at her institution.”

The students talked about the genesis of the HBR News idea as well as its evolution into a student group at the University of Minnesota and a class called Deconstructing Research Results for the Public (Biol 3700), led by Professor Robin Wright, which debuted last spring and just began its second run.

The student group, which launched two years ago, sprang from the frustration felt by some first-year students working in faculty labs. “As an undergraduate, when you first join a lab, you are faced with this huge, daunting mountain of seemingly incomprehensible primary literature," says Knight. “As an example, on the first Saturday after I joined a lab my freshman year, I sat down to read a piece of primary literature all set to cure cancer and become a real scientist, and then I spent three hours on the first page. It was like I was reading a different language! We decided we need to do something about this.”

“We wanted to create an environment for undergraduates to explore and discuss research.” But just as important, says Rosemarie, the group and the class foster a community of peers rather than a classroom of competitors. “It’s an opportunity for students to follow their interests and help translate findings for other students and the public.”

The seminar class, which premiered last spring, was created as the result of collaboration between the HBR News Foundation and the College of Biological Science. Students are expected to write three summaries and undertake one creative project. “This last can take virtually any form," explains Hu. "A children’s book, an interview with a researcher, whatever, as long as it demonstrates student’s ability to understand and translate primary literature.”

“Although I love all of my courses, I think we have the most fun in Deconstructing Research!” says Professor Wright. “It feels like a lab meeting where smart, interesting people explore areas of science that they may not have ever considered before. And the creative approaches the students take to explaining these complex experiments to non-scientists are remarkable. Their personalities really come through in their writing and creative project.”

While the trio feels grateful for the chance to represent the Health and Biological Research News Foundation and the College of Biological Sciences, they say their success is built on the contributions of their fellow HBR News Foundation members: Robin Lee, Nhat Vo, Jonathan Keller, Vladislav Ayukaev, and Harsh Parikh.

What is HBR News?

The student group and course are both designed with a few key objectives in mind. They include:

  • Asking students to produce something that helps build better understanding of science by becoming a “translator” of the primary literature.
  • Creating a community of peers instead of a classroom of competitors through discussion and constructive peer feedback every step of the way.
  • Improving students’ understanding of scientific papers through writing, presentation and communication with the original researchers who must approve each summary posted to the HBR News website.
  • Making it fun! Allowing students to choose topics of interest, and making time for science trivia and other activities.