Dissecting the Future of Biology Education: A Q&A With Jennifer Osterhage

By Richard LeComte 

Jennifer Osterhage works diligently and creatively to help undergraduate students at all levels of biological studies achieve their goals. As director of undergraduate studies, she manages one of the largest majors at the University. She teaches Introductory Biology I , which can have up to 300 students per section.  Because of the reach of Biology across the UK curriculum, she influences the academic careers of STEM students in many colleges. She feels that Genetics is the most challenging course for many undergrads, but the entire curriculum tests students who may want to pursue careers as researchers or health professionals.  

She grew up in Louisville and attended Mercy Academy, then came to UA on a Singletary Scholarship, which carries full in-state tuition and a housing allowance. A biology graduate of UK in 2002, she earned her doctorate at Vanderbilt University in 2007 with a dissertation titled “Cell-Cycle Regulation of Telomerase Assembly in Yeast.” After teaching for three terms at Hanover College in Indiana, she returned to UK in 2011 as a lecturer. She then rose to senior lecturer in 2016 and assistant professor in 2017. She took over as undergraduate director in 2015. In addition to her teaching and administrative duties, she’s pursuing a certificate in research methods in education and exploring ways to keep online and in-person education at UK interactive and how to better serve the needs of biology students on all levels.  

Q: What originally drew you to biology as a field of study? 

A: It started when my dad got cancer when I was in high school. I just wanted to understand what cancer was really. He actually received one of the first immunotherapies for melanoma and is still alive. he had a low chance of survival, but he was with it enough to look for clinical trials and found one of the first immunotherapy trials for melanoma. Its 20 years later, and it seemed to have worked, so it's great. 

Q: How do you feel now that some of your undergraduate professors are your colleagues?  

A: My intro bio professor was Ruth Beattie, who's still at the university, and I now actually have her previous position--I now teach intro bio. She was the director of undergraduate studies. Now I'm the director of undergraduate studies. So, I never would've thought that sitting there as an 18-year-old, that the person in front of the room, that would be me basically, in 20 years. … Robin Cooper who is still at the university, was my academic adviser. So I talked with him about graduate school. And then Nicholas McLetchie taught my intro bio series as well, and he is now  a colleague of mine. So it's been cool to come back and have people as colleagues that were my professors 20 years ago. 

Q: How did you find your research specialty?  

A: I knew I was interested in cancer, but which specific aspect I wanted to explore didn't come later until Vandy, so I did a few rotations and labs there and found one that was really interesting, that studied specifically how the ends of our chromosomes change, get shorter in normal cells, but actually get longer in cancer cells. That's one of the reasons that cancer cells stay immortal. So, that's basically what I studied in grad school. 

Q: How did you come back to UK?  

A: Well, I had a weird career path. I started a tenure track position at a teaching university for a little while, but then came back to UK and did a postdoc just for a year and then switched into the faculty position after that. So it was a weird trajectory there, a non-traditional trajectory, but it has worked out. 

Q: How do you handle the fact that students have such a wide range of motivations in studying biology, from checking a box for a course requirement to aspiring to be the next great doctor or researcher?  

A: We try to meet students where they are and have something that's of interest to everybody. I just received a grant to study motivation in intro bio, to try to understand what are the factors that are motivating students. I’ve already seen some preliminary results, and there are a range of motivations. First-year students seem to be really motivated by their instructor. and their instructor really helps them maintain their motivation, whereas sophomores and juniors are motivated by their career goals. Some of them do just want to “check a box,” but I’m trying to understand what the underlying motivation is for students so we can enhance their experience. … My research focuses now on science education. I’m always trying to learn new things. 

Q: What is the most challenging aspect of biology for undergraduates at any level?  

A: For every student, understanding what the expectations are at the college level is a big transition. So a lot of students think biology is just about memorizing facts, and it's really not. It requires thinking and applying knowledge. I think a lot of students struggle with realizing that that's what we're asking them to do, that more application, problem solving, critical thinking. So, in our intro course, we have a lot of infrastructure built around helping students realize what the expectations are and helping them build those critical thinking application skills. That's really true for everybody, even coming from great high schools. Sometimes they don't realize that biology isn't just a collection of facts. 

Q: How has the pandemic and online or mixed teaching affected your teaching? 

A: Well, I think it's similar to in-person teaching, especially for first year students, that structure is really important. Having due dates every single day to keep students on track has been ... It's important for teaching first-year students, but it was essential for teaching first year students online, just to have that structure. They need lots of ways to engage with the material. So we use recorded videos, supplemental materials, plus in-person, or not in-person, and Zoom meetings as well. So, putting in as much structure to a course as possible really has helped both in the classroom and online, but it’s essential online. 

Q: How do you meet the needs of advanced students who are biology or biochemistry majors who are planning on graduate work in biology or the health professions? 

A: Well, a lot of those students, if they have AP credit, they don't have to take intro bio. So some students do test out. I think UK does a great job of getting students in research experiences. We have a research course for first-year students, then we also have an upper-level research course. So getting those students in the laboratory, doing some real science, I think, that's great for everybody. That's one of the ways we can give our advanced students some unique opportunities. A lot of those students are authors on papers, and they present at meetings. They are integral parts of the labs that they join. 

Q: Are there anyways biology education has changed since you were an undergrad?  

A: About seven years ago, we realized that biology isn't about dissections anymore. It's real inquiry-based stuff. So we redesigned all of our laboratories to be inquiry-based and real science. That's helping students apply concepts from the lecture portion of the class, into the labs. 

Q: Do you see the University doing more, or reaching out to women and members of minoritized communities? 

A: That's something that we're thinking a lot about. Our department has a new diversity, equity and inclusion committee that meets often. They are developing another seminar course to highlight the scientific contributions of minority groups. In my class this winter, I'm teaching right now, I had students interview scientists for them to see, not all scientists are the stereotypical white dude in a lab coat, that you know. There's a lot of diversity in science and they interviewed diverse scientists within our department to have students see that they can picture themselves as a scientist. They realize that they are part of the scientific enterprise as well. We're also going to try to apply for grants to enhance the success rate of minoritized groups in science too, and that's something we're thinking a whole lot about. 

Q: What do you do for fun? 

A: I've got three young children, so that's ... maybe fun is the wrong word, but that keeps me busy. I actually ran cross country for UK when I was a student. I walked onto the cross-country team. I am still a runner today, so I really enjoy going out for a run. From UK's campus, I love to go out to the Arboretum. That's one of my favorites. 



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