Monthly Archives: October 2019

The Importance of Underrepresented Minority (URM) Representation in Physiology

In 2000 Congress voted to approve the adoption of legislation based on the recommendation of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to assist in ways to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in medicine [1]. Subsequently, the National Science Foundation (NSF), showed that the number of African Americans who held a doctorate or master’s degree increased by two-fold as of 2016 since 1996 [2]. Conversely, it was shown that black faculty representation was not reflected in the increase in minority trainees at universities such as John Hopkins University and other universities [3, 4]. This lack of representation diminishes the overall opportunity for one to see and attain mentorship at early stages of career development. The National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) released that only 5% of African Americans were meeting college readiness benchmark scores in 2012 as compared to 32% for white students [5]. These alarming findings show that from an early stage many African American students are still not on a path of upward mobility and success. The discrepancy in college readiness between African American students and their white counterparts is clearly exhibited in the underrepresentation of African Americans in mid-level science positions to national administrative positions in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Ultimately, if the majority of medical researchers are white, and illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension impact a significant number of African Americans, this creates a pressing need for African Americans to have a greater involvement in medical research. In lieu of this, there is a burgeoning need for improvement to promote the inclusion of underrepresented minorities in STEM fields. In accordance, organizations like the American Physiological Society (APS), have developed several programs targeted toward minority outreach in their unremitting commitment to diminishing disparities in STEM.


From the Porter Physiology Development Fellowship to Physiological Understanding (PhUn) Week, APS has repeatedly demonstrated a collective interest in the success of underrepresented minorities. The Porter Physiology Development Fellowship prioritizes awarding successful underrepresented students who may be at institutes with limited funding and resources. In addition to financial support, APS encourages outreach in the field of physiology in its Graduate Student Ambassador Program. This program specifically functions in educating college students from distinct backgrounds and upbringings on the subject of physiological research and associated career opportunities. Likewise, PhUn week serves to introduce younger students from marginalized communities to the field of physiology. These kinds of programs are paramount in reducing the gap in representation for underrepresented groups, not only in physiology, but across STEM fields altogether.

Originally, when the idea of Physiological Understanding (PhUn) week was introduced to us by Dr. Camilla Wenceslau, a principal investigator in the field of physiology and a member of APS. We were unaware APS implemented programs as such which are directed towards community engagement. However, further research on the services entailed for the program, and its impact on the communities it represented, made us enthusiastic to be a part of an experience. We learned PhUn week is a national outreach initiative to help bring scientists to local schools, which aligns with our goal of enlightening younger underrepresented students in a crucial period of their lives. This opportunity to portray the beauty, strength, and integrity of science and physiology related career pathways for students underrepresented in STEM was a driving force for us, graduate students at the University of Toledo, to pursue PhUn week activities.


We identified a local public school with a large population of underrepresented minorities. Accordingly, we contacted the appropriate staff to set a date, but now we had to decide what activities would be done, who would help, and what kind of impact we hoped to leave on the students. We each decided to create stations and pursue activities that fit our creative and educational interest.


At the beginning of the class, we held a 10-minute introduction. For this, we discussed the goals of PhUn week, how APS influenced our professional lives and what opportunities a career in physiology could look like for students. Subsequently, a question and answer session regarding the students’ career aspiration and what they think is related to physiology started prior before performing the activities. For the activities, the students rotated through 4 stations that addressed a different theme of physiology. At the 1st station, titled Inside the Cell, students were given culture dishes, hardened clay, and clear slime (cytoplasm) and discussed the different part of the cell. Afterwards, the plate bottom and lids were parafilm closed and given as quasi-3-dimensional representation of the cell for students to keep. At the Vascular Function Station (station 2), students learned about the importance of circulatory vessel integrity and used tubes of varying diameters to represent what healthy and non-healthy blood flow looked like. At Dress like a Scientist (station 3), students dressed like what they thought a physiologist should look like and had mini-photo shoots. They were also given a little information on the path to becoming a physiologist and were able to ask additional questions. Finally, at the Heart Rate Race (station 4) students measured their heart rate before and after performing a sprint exercise via holding their wrist. The classes were concluded with distribution of PhUn week bags and a group photo.


Opportunities as such are not common in many places, and therefore, serve as potential catalyst for scientific inquiry amongst children. Although a single event, or person, or action may not completely change the course of a child, it could help orient them to new opportunities that they may not have considered. Underrepresented minority students in science are many times, not exposed to careers in science and technology and, if they are the presenter is often from an unrelatable background. Therefore, seeing African American graduate students can serve as a potential catalyst for the pursuit of careers in physiology and can more authentically portray the success and importance of representation as a means for inspiration.

Darren Mikael Gordon1, Jonnelle Edwards1, Abdul-Rizaq Hamoud2, Ahmed Abokor1, Camilla Ferreira Wenceslau1

1 Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, The University of Toledo College of Medicine & Life Sciences, Toledo, OH

2 Department of Neurosciences, The University of Toledo College of Medicine & Life Sciences, Toledo, OH

Darren is a 5th year MD/PhD student candidate, Jonnelle Edwards is a 3rd year PhD student, Abdul-Rizaq Hamoud and Ahmed Abokor are 2nd year PhD students at the University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences. Dr. Camilla Ferreira Wenceslau is an Assistant Professor at the University as well. All have an invested interest in outreach and believe programs like PhUn week can be paramount to forwarding the aims of progressing diversity in leadership and science.
Human Diseases Graphic Novels

Over my 23 years as an educator, I have noticed that students have an inherent student fear of written assessments, and this when combined with the procrastination and poor management typical of the teenage years, creates a perfect recipe for frustration. Students who do well in class tend to gravitate toward visual and very hands-on techniques to enhance their learning. I have been fortunate enough to create my own curriculum for my Physiology classes, and have implemented many hands-on activities into my classes. I constantly explore different options for assessments which will enable students to learn while at the same time taking responsibility for their own learning. Some examples of these assessments are the creation of heart models to study the cardiovascular system and measurement of heart rate using student-built Arduino based heart rate monitors.

Students were receptive to my innovative assessments. Yet there was a general lack of enthusiasm when it came to listening to peer presentations on common nervous system diseases. Since the material was important for them to assimilate, I tried various techniques to engage them during these presentations, including offering extra credit, but it was not as successful as I had hoped because some students stubbornly refused to pay attention.

Last year, I was selected as a Teacher Fellow and when the time for planning Phun week came around, I decided to implement the use of graphic novels in my class to solve the problem of student engagement. Accordingly, I gave students 2 weeks to research 2 diseases of any organ system in the body. The requirement was that they create graphic novels of their disease, and represent through their art, the inputs and outputs of systems leading to pathological conditions. Initially, students stared at me. What, they thought, could this crazy woman possibly be thinking? Who ever heard of graphic novels in biology? I listened to my students’ concerns, and reiterated that this assignment was replacing their unit exam on the nervous system. And that did it……

Suddenly students were chatting, brainstorming and throwing out ideas. Some asked me clarification questions, others wanted to know if their chosen diseases were acceptable. Giving students class time to complete their assignment, while I circled around asking

and answering questions, seemed to help student engagement. Everyone was on task, and their graphic novels grew and finessed.

When everyone was done, I contacted our Technical Services Supervisor and Digital

Commons Manager, who digitized student graphic novels on the digital commons.

Student graphic novels were evaluated on the basis of creativity, accuracy and connections to other organ systems. This assessment was a success because students realized that they had to take responsibility for their own learning,and therefore worked harder and faster than before. Working in groups of 3-4 also helped them discuss and finesse ideas and research.

Sowmya Anjur received her doctorate in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Iowa State University, Ames. She also has two Masters degrees in Clinical Biochemistry and Agricultural Biochemistry from Bharathiar University, India. She is currently is a Science Faculty member at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a residential school for students gifted in math and science. During her 23 years as an educator, she has developed her classes to be mostly student-centered with many hands-on activities to develop and nurture student creativity and enhance articulation. She incorporates high tech, challenging and inter-disciplinary projects such as the construction of heart models, Arduino heart rate and blood pressure monitors and other bioengineering

topics into her Physiology classes. She has been a member of the American Physiological

Society for several years and was selected as an APS Teacher Fellow in 2018.


A PhUn Week with 1st Graders That Almost Wasn’t: Tips, Lessons, and Luck!

I hesitated to participate in PhUn week, because I wasn’t sure my undergraduate and teaching skills could translate to a K-12 setting and that I could find class for the activity. Luckily, several APS colleagues with amble PhUn Week experience were relentlessly encouraging.

            Start early to identify a teacher/class partner and don’t give up. My PhUn week nearly ended before it began. In July, APS emails out the annual announcement to complete and send in the PhUn week planner for the November event. This gives teachers the opportunity to squeeze the event into a busy Fall semester. Many PhUn Week leaders work with their own child’s class. Not having children, I talked to friends with children about PhUn Week and identified five candidate teachers. I sent each an email describing PhUn Week as an annual APS-sponsored educational outreach program and the Exercise & Nutrition themes; the PhUn Week Save the Date flyer and link to the website were also included. I named and CCed the person who referred them to me, and explained the event could be held another week in November.

Five invites – not one response. By this time school had just started. Where to find a K-12 teacher? Ask friends in non-science groups, community organizations, or hobby-based groups; home-owner association and neighborhood list serves; the school down the street; the Boys & Girls Club. I have a friend married to a pastor and asked whether she knew a teacher in the congregation who might be interested in PhUn Week. “Lisa B. – here’s her email.” I edited my PhUn Week email with the Save the Date flyer attached, hit ‘Send’, and crossed my fingers. Lisa, the lead teacher for 1st grade at a school near my house, quickly accepted. She asked if I’d be willing to include Sylvia P.’s 1st grade class; they regularly team-teach the combined group of thirty-six 1st graders. So relieved and excited, I replied, “Of course!”

            Logistics and assessment of student preparedness. When? Where? Resources? What are students prepared to learn? We ask similar questions when preparing lectures or seminars for our own students. By phone and email, Lisa and I made preliminary plans. We initially selected the Friday of PhUn Week, but due to a school event we changed the date to the following Friday. Flexibility and adaptability help maintain the spirit of outreach.

            With a big extended family, I have met many 1st graders. They are pure energy. Now multiply by 36! The theme from Jaws played in my head. “We’re gonna’ need a bigger boat.” Recruit colleagues and students. My husband Mike is an APS member and exercise physiologist with a bachelor’s in physical education. “I was wondering when you’d finally ask me?!” He had been secretly developing an activity. He thought it’d be fun to teach basic integrative physiology of heart, lung and blood vessels that ensures adequate oxygen delivery to organs and muscles during at rest vs. after a meal vs. exercise. Many topics address aspects of exercise or nutrition. Select a topic you are genuinely excited about and take an approach suitable for the students. Be confident knowing that their teacher has experience and expertise to guide you.

Six weeks before the event, we met Lisa and Sylvia in their classroom where the activity would be held. We explained the activity; they explained what 1st graders were ready to learn. The 1st grade health and science curriculum incorporates The Anatomy Apron that teaches the basic anatomy of major organs (e.g., heart, lungs, gut), concept that organs work together, and importance of good exercise and nutrition habits for all ages and physical abilities1. Students work through the module in spring; PhUn Week activity and timing worked well. They encouraged us to keep terminology simple but accurate; 1st graders are smart and developing a vocabulary. They gave us a copy of The Anatomy Apron. It provided examples of grade-appropriate terminology and illustrations, which helped us tailor the activity to complement the 1st grade health and science curriculum. The classroom had a large dedicated area where the combined group of students regularly met and could easily view a big Smart Board®. Finally, we’d have 50 minutes for the activity.

            Preparing for the activity. While preparedness and organization are critical, we had to consider word choice and account for questions and interjections. You ask a 1st grader a question – they will answer – right or wrong – succinctly or extensively. We patterned the activity after an American Heart Association pre-K activity, Where does the blood go?2, which teaches students blood is pumped to first to the lungs to pick oxygen then flows back to the heart before it is pumped to the body. We elaborated on the circulatory pattern to include blood flow through different organs to ‘give’ oxygen to organs so they can ‘work’ and ‘do what they need to do’; then, through veins blood flows back to the heart and then to the lungs to pick up oxygen. We printed heart, lung, artery, and vein in different colors on individual large cards; on two additional cards we printed stomach and muscle in lower case on one side and STOMACH and MUSCLE in upper case on the other; the latter two cards would be used to indicate digestive and exercise states. In groups of 6, students would pass a red plastic ball, which represented blood would be passed heart à Lung à Heart à artery à stomach à muscle à vein à Heart. around the circuit at different speeds to represent differences in blood flow during different activity states. For the introduction, we found images of heart, lung, vascular circuit, and ChooseMyPlate from on-line sources3,4. Luckily, for their own activities Lisa and Sylvia had students work in preassigned groups of 6. Implementing the teachers’ proven practices familiar to the students, we’d work with those same 6 student groups and made a set of cards for each group. Each group needed a leader; we recruited two exercise physiology graduate students from my husband’s lab (Dylan and Hyoseon) for a total of 6 adults. We had a practice run. I sent Lisa an email with details and called her to answer any questions. We were set.

            Let the PhUn begin. We arrived at the school early, supplies in hand, and a bit nervous. No matter what happens or what is said or asked, stay on track, have fun. Students are attentive and love learning. The teacher(s) will help students maintain focus. When her class gets riled, Lisa says three words, “Class, class, class.”; to which they reply “Yes, yes, yes.” and settle back down. We began with a short definition of physiology: the study of how your body organs each work and how all organs work together to keep you moving and breathing.

            We introduced ourselves as physiologists who study exercise and kidneys. One student quietly asked, ‘You study how we pee?’ Holding back laughter, I answered, ‘That’s right!’ We projected simple anatomically correct diagrams of heart and lungs on the Smart Board® to facilitate discussion with the students about basic anatomy and function. We wanted them to tell us what they knew. They eagerly answered questions and shared what they knew about the heart, lungs, and other organs. 1st graders want the world or whoever is listening to know what they know. Many students already knew the brain ‘tells other organs what to do’! They knew that when the chest ‘gets big’ the lungs fill with air and oxygen is added to blood. One student explained ‘if food goes down your air pipe you might die, but you can do this’ as he mimicked the Heimlich maneuver; then he clarified ‘air can go down your food pipe, you’ll just burp like this (he burped), but you’ll be ok’. He was totally serious. With straight faces we validated him, and got back to the script.

            1st graders know the body needs oxygen, the lung brings in oxygen, and the heart pumps blood around the body. I was not that smart in 1st grade. Mike held up a red ball to represent blood and introduced a new concept: first the heart pumps blood to lungs where it picks up oxygen, then blood returns to the heart, and then the heart pumps the blood to organs – muscle and stomach – then blood flows through veins back to the heart. He tracked the circuit: Heart à Lung à Heart à artery à stomach à muscle à vein à Heart. He told them we’d be learning how the heart, lung and blood work to make sure your organs get enough oxygen whether you’re resting or eating or exercising. He asked them to get into their work groups, as the teachers guided them. For each group of 6 students, 5 sat with cards labeled Heart, artery, stomach, muscle, and vein to form a circle around the 6th student who held the Lung card; each group had an adult leader. Mike asked the class, “What happens when you sit quietly, listening to Ms. B. and Ms. P.?” With stomach and muscle in small font, students slowly passed the red ball around the circuit as the individual group leader directed and explained oxygen loading and delivery. Next, “After lunch, do your muscles or stomach and intestines need more blood?” Students answered “Stomach and intestines!” They flipped the stomach to STOMACH to represent greater blood flow and calmly pass the ball through the circuit again. Next, “What happens when you exercise? Does your heart beat slow or fast? How slow or fast do you breathe when you exercise?”, Why?” “Now which needs more blood – your stomach or muscle?” They flipped stomach card back to lower case, flipped muscle to MUSCLE, and passed the ball through the circuit at a faster, louder pace.

The take home message. With students still sitting in groups, we reminded them how important daily exercise and good nutrition are to heart, lung and overall health and asked them to name different types of exercise. We encouraged non-competitive exercise and daily exercise with family and friends. Finally, students grouped themselves based on organ and lifted their cards as they shouted out their organ in the correct circulatory order: “Heart! Lung! Heart! Artery! Stomach! Muscle! Vein! Back to the Heart”!

We’ve worked with these phenomenal teachers for two consecutive years. They have patiently helped tailor the PhUn activity to their students each year        . We ask for feedback and tweek accordingly. The activity runs smoothly, even when it doesn’t. The first year just after Mike asked about changes during exercise, there was a fire drill. What happened next was nothing short of amazing. The students quietly set the cards and balls down and formed two lines; we followed suit. The teachers escorted us out to the main parking lot where all other students and staff were lined up. Everyone was perfectly quiet. Once we got the all clear, the teachers lead us in single file back to the classroom where we finished the activity. “Keep calm, and carry on.” Trust your teacher, trust yourself and have PhUn.



1) The Anatomy Apron No. 2534M, written by J. Bryson and L. Vessuto with illustrations by J. Nunamaker and J. Zeigler, ©1986 Educational Insights

2) FortheClassroom/ElementaryLessonPlans/Elementary-Lesson-Plans_UCM_001258_Article.jsp#.XKRJQIX9qL3



Alice Villalobos received her biology from Loyola Marymount University and her Ph.D. in comparative physiology from the University of Arizona-College of

Medicine. After teaching Anatomy & Physiology II and Introduction to Human Nutrition in the Department of Biology at Blinn College guest lectures at Texas A& M University on the topics of brain barrier physiology and the heavy metal for the last 5 years, she has moved recently to Texas Tech University. There she will join the Department of Kinesiology & Sports Management and teach Physiological Nutrition for Exercise.