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Department of Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics' Tom Abrams Is Recipient of Maryland Regents Award for Teaching

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

 Tom Abrams, PhD

Congratulations to Tom Abrams, PhD, associate professor, Department of Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics and Department of Anesthesiology, who recently received a 2012 University System of Maryland Regents’ Faculty Award for Teaching. This award is the highest honor the Board bestows in recognition of outstanding faculty achievement. Dr. Abrams was recognized primarily for his involvement in establishing the Core Curriculum in the Graduate Program in Life Sciences(GPILS) program, as well as a “pro-seminar” that teaches hypothesis testing and experimental design.

Dr. Abrams’ involvement in the training of graduate student researchers in hypothesis testing began more than a decade ago.  Based on comments from neuroscience graduate students as they were finishing up their second year, Dr. Abrams realized there was a deficiency in the training of these students at UMB.  “We expected them to understand hypothesis testing and experimental design, yet there was not a specific forum where this was discussed. We all took it for granted that that’s what we were training grad students to do, but in fact it is an area that had been largely ignored and in which we ourselves had not been specifically trained.”

The traditional method of training future researchers involved an apprenticeship-type experience in which students formed a close working relationship in the lab with mentors who passed on their own scientific knowledge. “But in the modern era, where faculty researchers spend much less time in the lab because they have more administrative responsibilities and many more grant-writing responsibilities, they typically don’t work as closely with individual students in that same traditional way,” Abrams says.

So Abrams and several other Program in Neuroscience faculty created the pro-seminar in Hypothesis Testing and Experimental Design to remedy this deficit.   “We developed a series of exercises that engage students in this type of thinking,” says Abrams. “And we kept improving these exercises based on feedback from students and faculty.  One of the most innovative aspects of the pro-seminar is several presentations where faculty present flawed experimental designs from their own research, which the investigator, after critical reassessment, now realizes have serious shortcomings.  The objective is to convince the student participants of the importance of critically examining experimental designs before the studies are conducted. 

In the latter part of the course, the students develop their own sets of experimental designs.  They then work together in small groups to critique their designs and revise them before they are presented to the entire class.  “It’s quite amazing to see how for some students it is entirely novel to develop the process of thinking carefully about experimental design so as to enhance dramatically what can actually be learned from a series of experiments,” says Abrams.  “The better students begin to develop an invaluable skill.” 

With the creation of the new Graduate Program in Life Sciences, Dr. Abrams was asked to chair a Curriculum Committee representing biomedical graduate programs from across the campus.  After extensive discussions, the Curriculum Committee decided to create a Core Course that would provide incoming GPILS graduate students with a strong fundamental background needed for more advanced studies.  This core curriculum had a number of novel features.

First, there was an appreciation by faculty that it was no longer realistic to expect graduate students to master the entire core body of knowledge in their field when there is much, much more for them to learn. “The amount of information published every year has grown dramatically, so if you track articles on any given [research] topic, the number of articles that come out in a year has increased sometimes as much as a 1000-fold. It’s just remarkable,” explains Abrams. “So we began thinking about how students should approach understanding all this information and how to develop their ability to design experiments using new techniques that are constantly evolving.”  In this respect, Abrams and his colleagues were influenced by his experience with the pro-seminar; they had a growing appreciation that what was key for students was not learning facts, but learning how to use contemporary techniques in developing experimental approaches to address important biomedical questions.  So Abrams and the GPILS Curriculum Committee created the Core Course that would fill in the blanks.

Once the Core Course began, members of Curriculum Committee met repeatedly with students to get their input.  This student input was extremely important, because in today’s information-saturated society, students learn differently than they did in the past.  The faculty were initiating a novel experiment; the Core Course needed to be readjusted multiple times based on student feedback before it was truly effective.
It isn’t an easy class for anyone involved. “It’s a very challenging course to present and a challenging course for the students,” Abrams admits. “It immerses them in a very intensive way over about 15 weeks in understanding the fundamentals of modern biomedical research. They have the opportunity not only to get exposed to a lot of information but to really begin to understand how we read papers, how experimental techniques are developed, and how those techniques impact the way investigations are conducted. Ideally if things are being done well - which is quite challenging for us - the students come away transformed during a period of just 15 weeks.”

One key part of this transformation is leaving behind the undergraduate mindset that textbooks hold all the answers and accepting that in reality these texts present information that is already obsolete or that soon will be revised. This means “students have to keep realizing that the models that we have are almost always inadequate, and they have to be actively engaged in developing new models,” says Abrams.

The students also must learn to work with others beyond their specialty areas to bring these new models to fruition. “One of the things we’ve done in the Core Course is that we’ve organized this heterogeneous group of students from different disciplines into small conference groups,” Abrams explains. These conference groups discuss a series of exemplary papers each week and also study questions. “The students really have to work together in a collaborative effort, which we think is a good model for how science is done; in contemporary science, to be successful, you have to collaborate not just with the guy who has the same background as you but with people who have complimentary backgrounds. So this is something we try to foster from the time the graduate students come through the door.”

Another innovative feature of the Core Course is a variety of Vertically Integrated Topics – clinical disorders with known molecular defects that are introduced at the outset and that then reappear throughout the course in different sections, such as in the protein processing or cell signaling sections.  The idea was that the Vertically Integrated Topics provide threads that help the students to integrate the vast amounts of information that they encounter during these intensive 15 weeks. 

Abrams is particularly excited about another innovative approach introduced into the Core Course in the past year:  the UMB version of the “flipped classroom.”  Based on a concept developed by Dr. Brad Alger at UMB and using iPad-based technology spearheaded by Tom McHugh, the program director for GPILS, some of the Core Course faculty are experimenting with pre-recorded lectures that enable students to spend their time in class with faculty discussing the most interesting and complex concepts. Although this approach has been used highly effectively at the high school level, and some institutions have begun to use it in college courses, UMB is the first university where the flipped classroom is being implemented in a graduate program. 

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