Mitchison Champions Cross-Disciplinary Physiology Course at Marine Biological Laboratory

Interdisciplinary Graduate Training in Teaching Labs


Rather than offering more of the traditional lecture and individually directed research course of study found in so many graduate programs, MBL offers cross-disciplinary courses that unite biologists, computational scientists and physicists in team-building research courses. Professor of Systems Biology and Program Director, Timothy Mitchison’s December 2012 publication in Science explains, “These courses are based on teaching laboratories that have students address contemporary research questions by combining ideas and approaches from biology, computation and physics.”

The article explores instructional methods, desired course outcomes, and offers advice for graduate programs looking to revitalize their students and faculty.

Three Instructional Methods

  1. Boot Camp – level the playing field among scientists from various backgrounds. Two days at wet bench, two days in microscopy and image analysis and two days of MATLAB programming introduce students to a variety of tools.

  2. Real Research Questions – faculty present students from varied backgrounds with emerging research questions that reinvigorate the basic nature of scientific inquiry and ground students in the reality of the challenges they face when trying to dissect nature.

  3. Promoting Collaboration and Peer-to-Peer Learning – by mixing the research group, peers learn from one another; stretching instructors to answer nascent questions helps breaks down the hierarchical structure.

The Course Outcomes
  • Gain knowledge and appreciation of approaches outside one’s own discipline

  • Increase understanding of other disciplines

  • Embrace a broad range of tools

  • Formulate good research questions

  • Develop strategies for answering those questions

  • Learn to overcome obstacles

All of thisfosters a low-risk learning environment. With fear of failure out of the way (it is, after all, experimentation), risk-taking behavior increases, along with the chances for new and exciting discoveries. Faculty and students alike renew their love for scientific inquiry, and learn how to be better scientists in the process.

Mitchison’s advice for graduate programs? Design courses that signal the transition from absorbing knowledge (undergraduate training) to creating knowledge, teach the skills that are needed to become a practicing scientist and energize and engage faculty members.