Category Archives: Science Research

Aligning the Stars: Reflections on Integrating Research into the Teaching Lab

reaching-for-the-starsThis summer and fall has been a tumultuous season: I moved halfway across the country to start my first tenure-track job, and promptly embarked on the challenges of unpacking my house while setting up my research lab and preparing to teach two brand-new classes to a brand-new group of students I’d never met before. It’s been a period of happy chaos.

One of the biggest adjustments from my visiting-faculty life to my tenure-track life has been the new need for me to balance teaching and research. For the past two years, I’ve been focusing almost exclusively on building my teaching skills, conducting research only during the summer. In my new position at a small liberal-arts college, teaching remains at the heart of my job, but it’s again important for me to build and maintain an active research profile. Because I work with cell culture and neonatal rodents, and because I want to offer research experiences to students during the academic year, I’m now running my lab year-round while teaching three lab sections per semester. I’d already learned over the past few years that my research can inform my teaching, giving me plenty of interesting examples and anecdotes to share with my classes. Now I’m working on the next step of learning to successfully function as a teacher/scholar: developing strategies to merge my research life with my teaching life. Here’s what I’d suggest based on my experiences so far:

  • Do the crucial groundwork yourself. I’m incorporating an ongoing research project on neuronal differentiation into a neurobiology course this fall. However, my research students and I are plating the cells, and making and sterilizing the proliferation and differentiation media, ourselves. This lets the lab students get valuable experience working with cultured cells (on the first lab day of this project, they replace the proliferation medium with the differentiation medium and harvest a plate of control cells), but is relatively low-risk.
  • Simplify the experiments. Many of my experiments require multiple expensive growth factors to be administered at precise time points. I’m paring down my teaching lab differentiation protocol to a single-step protocol, using inexpensive reagents and only one media change. This still gives the students an authentic experience, but saves time, trouble, and money.
  • Focus on different aspects of your research in different classes. In my neurobiology class, students will be spending a great deal of time examining the morphology of their differentiated and undifferentiated cells using fluorescence microscopy. However, for a developmental class next semester, I’m planning on using the same cell line but running an inquiry-based lab, asking students to predict the outcome of various differentiation protocols based on their knowledge of developmental signaling pathways. This means that the students and I can continue to benefit from the interplay between research and teaching, but students who take multiple classes with me won’t be doing the same project (or even similar projects!) for each class. This strategy might also help students draw links between material presented in different courses, but connected by labs using the same model system.
  • Fit the research-based project to the class. My upper-level students generally know how to pipet, how to use a microscope, and how to comport themselves around scientific equipment. Students in classes at the 100- and 200-level can’t really be expected to work with cells in culture, or to pipet accurately enough to perform qPCR. However, examples drawn from your research can still be used even at the introductory levels. Fixed and stained slides of my neuron-like cells can show introductory students some key differences between mitotic cells and cells in Go Genomic DNA and cDNA from my cell lines could form the basis of a lab teaching budding molecular biologists about the differences between PCR and RT-PCR.

Incorporating your scientific research into your teaching isn’t necessarily a question of waiting for the stars to align until you’re offered the opportunity to teach an upper-level class in your exact area of research with only 6 enrolled students. Instead, you may very well have the potential to pull the stars into alignment yourself, designing labs that draw on the science that excites you the most, and connecting that passion to diverse sub-disciplines within physiology and biology.






Kat Bartlow received her Ph.D. in Neurobiology from the University of Pittsburgh. Currently, she is an assistant professor in the Biology department at Lycoming College, in Williamsport, PA. Her current courses include Human Anatomy for majors and non-majors, Neurobiology, and Developmental Biology; she’s looking forward to developing an upper-level neurophysiology course so she can rejoin the world of physiology education. Her research focuses on dopaminergic neuronal development and neurotransmission within the dorsal striatum. She is also interested in using undergraduate-led physiology and neuroscience outreach as a teaching tool.


Is “Learning by Osmosis” Real?

Beginning this academic year, the University of South Dakota Honors Program has sponsored a series of FLASH lectures.  This series brings professors from multiple disciplines to deliver “lectures” lasting approximately one to four minutes in a high-traffic area in the student center during the noon hour.  Ideally the lecture topics have some novelty or a unique perspective, may be related to a current event or issue, and may be a little controversial or thought-provoking – something that could get people talking.  Previous FLASH Lectures are available on the Honors Program YouTube channel:

booksleep2I am lined up to present a FLASH lecture on March 2, 2015 and I have chosen to talk about whether or not “Learning by Osmosis” is real.

As a membrane transport physiologist who teaches osmosis, I certainly know that learning by osmosis isn’t a thing (  The true definition of osmosis according to Silverthorn’s Human Physiology: An Integrative Approach is “the movement of water across a membrane in response to a solute concentration gradient” which can be determined by calculating the osmotic pressure gradient across a selectively permeable barrier using van’t Hoff’s Law (Dp = (sDnRT)/V = sDCRT).  Students may hope that sleeping with their textbook under their fluffy pillow or recording a lecture and listening to it in their sleep would allow them to wake up knowing everything about the content.  While educational scholars know that this is not the case, as active learning to construct new meanings on foundational knowledge is how people learn best, evidence has shown that some learning can occur during sleep.

Rasch and colleagues facilitated memory consolidation during sleep by presenting an odor that had been used as context during prior learning.  Their research showed that the re-exposure to the odor during slow wave sleep (delta waves or non-REM sleep) improved the retention of hippocampus-dependent declarative memories but not hippocampus-independent procedural memories.  The evidence implies that odor-induced reactivations of memories in humans during sleep can boost the consolidation of declarative memories related to hippocampal activity during slow wave sleep.

Subsequently, Rudoy and colleagues taught subjects to associate an image of an object on a computer screen paired with a characteristic sound before taking a nap.  White noise was then used during most of the nap; however when the subjects went into non-REM sleep, the sounds associated with half of the objects were presented again.  After waking, the subjects were asked to reposition the objects on the computer screen in their original positions.  Object placements were more accurate for the objects that were cued by their sounds during the nap.  Thus, information presented during sleep can influence subsequent retrieval during waking.

Wamsley and colleagues extended this research by studying the consolidation of a virtual navigation learning task through a maze by dreaming about it during post-training non-REM sleep in an afternoon nap.  The subjects who reported dreaming about the task had experienced greater difficulty in learning the maze, and continued to process the information during their nap leading to improvement on the retest five hours after the initial training.  Thus, dreaming about a learning task facilitated retrieval of the learning on a subsequent retest.

Finally, Antony and colleagues showed that information acquired during waking could be reactivated during sleep to promote memory stabilization.  They had subjects learn two melodies by moving visual symbols and then presented one of the melodies to the subject during slow wave sleep with a retest ten minutes after awakening from an approximately 90 minute sleep period.  Cued memory reactivation during sleep enhanced this type of skill learning as verified by electrophysiological signs of memory processing during sleep.  The auditory stimulation used in this study did not disrupt sleep but did facilitate memory consolidation.  The authors speculate that using suitable sleep cues may improve learning for a number of musical, athletic, linguistic, and other types of skills and question whether sleep cues can have detrimental effects on sleep quality.

Thus while it has been shown that consolidation of hippocampus-dependent forms of memory are enhanced by non-REM sleep, certain skills can also be learned during undisrupted sleep as cues are used for the initial training session and reactivated during the sleep period.  Thus, certain kinds of learning have been enhanced by exposure to the tasks while sleeping.  “Learning by osmosis” may be real!

  1. Anderson, Skylar. Learning by Osmosis Isn’t a Thing.  StudyRight blog post (, 2014.
  2. Antony, James W., Eric W. Gobel, Justin K. O’Hare, Paul J. Reber, and Ken A. Paller.  Cued Memory Reactivation During Sleep Influences Skill Learning.  Nature Neuroscience 15 (8): 1114-1116, 2012.
  3. Rasch, Björn, Christian Büchel, Steffen Gais, and Jan Born. Odor Cues During Slow-Wave Sleep Prompt Declarative Memory Consolidation.  Science 315: 1426-1429, 2007.
  4. Rudoy, John D., Joel L. Voss, Carmen E. Westerberg, and Ken A. Paller. Strengthening Individual Memories by Reactivating Them During Sleep.  Science 326: 1079, 2009.
  5. Wamsley, Erin J., Matthew Tucker, Jessica D. Payne, Joseph A. Benavides, and Robert Stickgold. Dreaming of a Learning Task Is Associated with Enhanced Sleep-Dependent Memory Consolidation.  Current Biology 20:850-855, 2010.





Barb Goodman received her PhD in Physiology from the University of Minnesota and is currently a Professor in the Basic Biomedical Sciences Department of the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota. Her research focuses on improving student learning through innovative and active pedagogy.