Category Archives: Medical Research

Lighting the Spark: Engaging Medical Students in Renal Physiology
Jessica Dominguez Rieg, PhD
Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology
University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine

Recently, I spent some time reflecting on the way we teach physiology at my institution. One thing that kept coming to my mind- why does renal physiology get such a bad reputation? We often hear medical students commenting that renal physiology was the hardest topic of the first year, that there’s too much math involved, and concepts like acid-base and electrolyte disorders are too difficult to grasp. Does a negative attitude about renal physiology really matter in the long run? If the students can successfully pass USMLE Step 1, can I rest easy knowing they are competent in understanding how the kidneys function? Or can I, a basic science faculty, make a bigger impact on how these students view the renal system?

Chronic kidney disease is a growing public health concern in the United States, affecting roughly 40 million adults. Given the increasing burden of disease, an aging population, and modern medicine that is keeping patients with end-stage kidney disease alive longer, we need a robust workforce in nephrology. However, the field of nephrology is in the middle of a major crisis, and there is significant concern that there will not be an adequate workforce to meet the healthcare needs of patients afflicted with kidney disease. Only 62% of available nephrology fellowship positions were filled in the 2019 National Resident Matching Program match and less than 45% of positions were filled by U.S. MD graduates, making nephrology one of the least competitive subspecialties1. When does the waning interest in nephrology begin? Many think it starts early in a medical student’s academic journey.

I recently surveyed our medical students at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine (250 respondents) and found that 60% of students agreed or strongly agreed that the topic of nephrology is interesting and yet close to one-third of them agreed or strongly agreed that renal pathophysiology is too complex and challenging for them. When asked what makes the biggest impact on their future career choice, 60% indicated that having role models and mentors in the specialty field was high impact; however, less than half of the students felt they had been exposed to encouraging role models or mentors in nephrology. Students ranked rotations during clerkships as having the highest impact in career choice; and yet our students are first exposed to nephrology during their Internal Medicine clerkship in their 3rd year, which only last 8 weeks. Not surprisingly, students ranked didactics in the preclinical years as having the lowest impact on career choice. What if we can change that? Perhaps there is too little done too late- and we just can’t get enough momentum going to gain a critical mass of students interested in nephrology. Is there anything that we, as medical physiology educators, can do to help? We can light the spark!

1. Make it matter. The complexity of renal physiology must be taught with meaningful clinical context. Students need to understand the clinical importance of what they are learning or there is a high chance they will get turned off from the very beginning. One of the best ways I have found to make it matter, is to work closely with my clinical colleagues. Not only can they provide (and co-teach) examples of how to

2. Make it digestible. Students often get overwhelmed by the level of detail that is expected in the renal block. We must ensure we are giving them the important content in bite-sized pieces so they have time to think about it, apply it, and understand it. I give our students a blank nephron map2 at the beginning of the renal block and ask that they work together to fill it out. On the last day of the renal block, we go through the maps together as a summary of renal function. Students like having all the transporters, hormones and key characteristics about each region of the nephron in one place. It helps them organize their knowledge and also gives them something to refer to in Year 2 and beyond.

3. Make it relatable. At our institution, students get renal physiology at the end of Year 1, so they’ve had all other organ systems besides reproductive physiology. I use many analogies throughout the renal system and always to try to highlight the similarities with the intestinal tract, which they are more familiar with at that point in time. After all, the nephron is like a “mini-intestine”, with similar histological features and transporter profiles. By relating the new renal content to something they’ve seen before, it can help make it a little easier to understand (and allows them to make systemic connections).

4. Make it stick. Students struggle with grasping acid-base disturbances. Consistent repetition and practice problems is key! Many times, students learn multiple ways to approach interpreting acid-base disturbances (different formulas, different values for expected compensatory responses, etc.) depending on who is teaching. This can be frustrating and confusing for students. We have found that having all faculty that teach some aspect of acid-base balance use a single resource, a step-by-step guide to interpreting acid-base disturbances3, has been very helpful in ensuring consistency in what we teach. Students also work through many practice problems in interpretation of arterial blood gases, starting in Year 1, again in Year 2, and again during the clerkships. The result is that students have gone from scoring less than 50% on NBME acid-base questions, to close to 90%- it’s sticking!

5. Make it fun! One of the notoriously challenging lectures in our preclinical years is integration of acid-base, volume, and electrolyte disorders. Traditionally, it was a lecture given by a nephrologist and was very technical and clinically oriented. However, students were lost and overwhelmed. So, I partnered with an internal medicine physician and we revamped the session into a fun, interactive series of cases where we co-facilitated discussion. Students were introduced to the 14th book of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Hazardous Hospital, where they were asked to investigate the mysterious health issues of Sir Cornelius. The cases we presented were challenging and framed with very relevant basic science concepts, and students loved it! Not only did they have fun while learning, but they really appreciated having a basic scientist and clinician teaching together.

In conclusion, renal physiology is challenging and may be contributing to a lack of interest in a career in nephrology. As medical physiology educators, we have the ability to work with our clinical colleagues and revamp how we teach the renal system. We can get students engaged and excited about renal physiology by making the content clinically relevant, digestible, relatable and fun. After all, there needs to be a spark to light the fire!

References:

  1. National Resident Matching Program, Results and Data: Specialties Matching Service 2019 Appointment Year. National Resident Matching Program, Washington, DC. 2019
  2. Robinson PG, Newman D, Reitz CL, Vaynberg LZ, Bahga DK, Levitt MH. A large drawing of a nephron for teaching medical students renal physiology, histology, and pharmacology. Advances in Physiology Education. 42:2, 192-199, 2018.
  3. DeWaay D, Gordon J. The ABC’s of ABGs: teaching arterial blood gases to adult learners. MedEdPORTAL. 2011;7:9038.

Dr. Dominguez Rieg is a faculty member in the Department of Molecular Pharmacology & Physiology at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine. She is the Course Director for the Gastrointestinal, Endocrine, Renal and Reproductive Systems block and the Physiology Integration Director that is responsible for mapping physiology content objectives across the entire curriculum. She teaches endocrine, renal and reproductive physiology and renal pathophysiology in multiple courses in the pre-clerkship years. She received her PhD in Physiological Sciences from the University of Arizona. Her research interests are kidney-intestine crosstalk and intestinal function in the context of systemic diseases such as obesity and diabetes. When she’s not at work, she is enjoying time with her young daughter and four German Shepherds.

Backward planning of lab course to enhance students’ critical thinking
Zhiyong Cheng, PhD
Food Science and Human Nutrition Department
The University of Florida

Development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills hallmarks effective teaching and learning [1-2]. Physiology serves as a fundamental subject for students in various majors, particularly for bioscience and pre-professional students [1-8]. Whether they plan on careers in science or healthcare, critical thinking and problem-solving skills will be keys to their success [1-8].

Backwards course design is increasingly employed in higher education. To effectively accomplish specific learning goals, instructions are to begin course development with setting learning objectives, then backwardly create assessment methods, and lastly design and deliver teaching and learning activities pertaining to the learning objectives and assessment methods. In terms of development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills, a lab course constitutes an excellent option to provide opportunities for instructors and students to explore innovative paths to their desired destinations, i.e., to accomplish specific learning goals.

In a traditional “cookbook” lab setting, detailed procedures are provided for the students to follow like cooking with a recipe. Students are usually told what to do step-by-step and what to expect at the end of the experiment. As such, finishing a procedure might become the expected goal of a lab course to the students who passively followed the “cookbook”, and the opportunity for developing critical thinking skills is limited. In a backwards design of a lab course; however, the instructor may engage the students in a series of active learning/critical thinking activities, including literature research, hypothesis formulation, study design, experimental planning, hands-on skill training, and project execution. Practically, the instructor may provide a well-defined context and questions to address. Students are asked to delve into the literature, map existing connections and identify missing links for their project to bridge. With the instructor’s guidance, students work together in groups on hypothesis development and study design. In this scenario, students’ focus is no longer on finishing a procedure but on a whole picture with intensive synthesis of information and critical thinking (i.e., projecting from generic context to literature search and evaluation, development of hypothesis and research strategy, and testing the hypothesis by doing experiments).

An example is this lab on the physiology of fasting-feeding transitions. The transition from fasting to feeding state is associated with increased blood glucose concentration. Students are informed of the potential contributors to elevated blood glucose, i.e., dietary carbohydrates, glycogen breakdown (glycogenolysis), and de novo glucose production (gluconeogenesis) in the liver. Based on the context information, students are asked to formulate a hypothesis on whether and how hepatic gluconeogenesis contributes to postprandial blood glucose levels. The hypothesis must be supported by evidence-based rationales and will be tested by experiments proposed by students with the instructor’s guidance. Development of the hypothesis and rationales as well as study design requires students to do intensive information extraction and processing, thereby building critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Students also need to make sound judgments and right decisions for their research plans to be feasible. For instance, most students tend to propose to employ the hyper-insulinemic-euglycemic clamp because the literature ranks it as a “gold standard” method to directly measure hepatic gluconeogenesis. However, the equipment is expensive and not readily accessible, and students have to find alternative approaches to address these questions. With the instructor’s guidance, students adjust their approaches and adopt more accessible techniques like qPCR (quantitative polymerase chain reaction) and Western blotting to analyze key gluconeogenic regulators or enzymes. Engaging students in the evaluation of research methods and selection helps them navigate the problem-solving procedure, increasing their motivation (or eagerness) and dedication to learning new techniques and testing their hypotheses. Whether their hypotheses are validated or disproved by the results they acquire in the end, they become skillful in thinking critically and problem solving in addition to hands-on experience in qPCR and Western blotting.

Evidently, students can benefit from backwards planning in different ways because it engages them in problem-based, inquiry-based, and collaborative learning — all targeted to build student problem solving skills [1-8]. For a typical lab course with pre-lab lectures; however, there is only 3-6 hours to plan activities. As such, time and resources could be the top challenges to implement backwards planning in a lab course. To address this, the following strategies will be of great value: (i) implementing a flipped classroom model to promote students’ pre- and after-class learning activities, (ii) delivering lectures in the lab setting (other than in a traditional classroom), where, with all the lab resources accessible, the instructor and students have more flexibility to plan activities, and (iii) offering “boot camp” sessions in the summer, when students have less pressure from other classes and more time to concentrate on the lab training of critical thinking and problem solving skills. However, I believe that this is a worthwhile investment for training and developing next-generation professionals and leaders.

References and further reading

[1] Abraham RR, Upadhya S, Torke S, Ramnarayan K. Clinically oriented physiology teaching: strategy for developing critical-thinking skills in undergraduate medical students. Adv Physiol Educ. 2004 Dec;28(1-4):102-4.

[2] Brahler CJ, Quitadamo IJ, Johnson EC. Student critical thinking is enhanced by developing exercise prescriptions using online learning modules. Adv Physiol Educ. 2002 Dec;26(1-4):210-21.

[3] McNeal AP, Mierson S. Teaching critical thinking skills in physiology. Am J Physiol. 1999 Dec;277(6 Pt 2):S268-9.

[4] Hayes MM, Chatterjee S, Schwartzstein RM. Critical Thinking in Critical Care: Five Strategies to Improve Teaching and Learning in the Intensive Care Unit. Ann Am Thorac Soc. 2017 Apr;14(4):569-575.

[5] Nguyen K, Ben Khallouq B, Schuster A, Beevers C, Dil N, Kay D, Kibble JD, Harris DM. Developing a tool for observing group critical thinking skills in first-year medical students: a pilot study using physiology-based, high-fidelity patient simulations. Adv Physiol Educ. 2017 Dec 1;41(4):604-611.

[6] Bruce RM. The control of ventilation during exercise: a lesson in critical thinking. Adv Physiol Educ. 2017 Dec 1;41(4):539-547.

[7] Greenwald RR, Quitadamo IJ. A Mind of Their Own: Using Inquiry-based Teaching to Build Critical Thinking Skills and Intellectual Engagement in an Undergraduate Neuroanatomy Course. J Undergrad Neurosci Educ. 2014 Mar 15;12(2):A100-6.

[8] Peters MW, Smith MF, Smith GW. Use of critical interactive thinking exercises in teaching reproductive physiology to undergraduate students. J Anim Sci. 2002 Mar;80(3):862-5.

Dr. Cheng received his PhD in Analytical Biochemistry from Peking University, after which he conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) and Harvard Medical School. Dr. Cheng is now an Assistant Professor of Nutritional Science at the University of Florida. He has taught several undergraduate- and graduate-level courses (lectures and lab) in human nutrition and metabolism (including metabolic physiology). As the principal investigator in a research lab studying metabolic diseases (obesity and type 2 diabetes), Dr. Cheng has been actively developing and implementing new pedagogical approaches to build students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills.