Biology professor uses funding to revise popular introductory course

Jasper Rine recently marked two milestones in his Berkeley career: the 25th anniversary of his arrival on campus as a faculty member, and the first anniversary of being named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor.

The four-year Hughes professorship has kept Rine, who serves on the faculty of the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, particularly busy. In 2006, Rine was one of 20 educators nationwide to receive $1 million from the institute, and he’s using that money to revamp the hands-on lab modules in Bio 1A, the University’s popular introductory biology course.

“The Bio 1A labs have been good, but they haven’t kept pace with the changes in modern biological research,” he says. “Our goal has been to try to bring the labs up to date, and to make them more quantitative.”

Ultimately, Rine and a team of colleagues plan to overhaul all 12 lab modules for Bio 1A. The money he was awarded is being used to support the salary of a Hughes fellow working on the Bio 1A revisions, summer salaries for five undergraduates on the team, and supplies and equipment needed for the lab upgrades.

With an eye to the transition undergrads make to college academia, Rine also enlisted the help of a Berkeley High School biology teacher. “I thought it would be really valuable for us to have a much more detailed sense of what students are learning in high school so we have a better idea of where they’re starting (in class),” he says.

Working with his team, Rine spent this past summer developing new modules for Bio 1A, which is taken by approximately 1,500 students each year � about 600 students per semester, plus another 300 during the summer.

First to be rolled out will be a bio-computing module that teaches students how to use the amazing amount of information on the human genome available on the Web. “These are the tools that modern research scientists use on a daily basis,” Rine says. “We’ll have exercises that teach students how to master the use of these tools in studying the functions of the different human genes.”

By stressing quantitative, math-oriented work in other Bio 1A labs as well, he hopes to improve how undergrad biology students learn the science. “We have to develop greater computational sophistication among our undergraduates,” says Rine, who also happens to serve as director of Berkeley’s Center for Computational Biology. “If they believe that math is not relevant to biology as undergrads, they’ll never develop the ability to use it in the future. We have to integrate computation and more quantitative aspects into biology education in the early stages.”

Rine still has three more years to use the remainder of the $1 million provided by the Hughes institute � and 25 years of teaching experience at Berkeley to help guide the process. No matter which direction Rine and his team take Bio 1A, the award-winning professor remains humble in the role he plays with his students.

“These will be the thought leaders of the future,” he says of his students. “I’m privileged to have an impact on them this early in their careers.”

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