Seminar Archive: Professor Scott Strobel

Professor Scott Strobel

Title: Undergraduate Project Ownership through the Discovery of Microbial and Chemical Diversity

Seminar Date & Time: Wednesday, May 23, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

View the slides from Professor Strobel’s Seminar

Listen to the audio of Professor Strobel’s Seminar

Professor Scott Strobel is the Henry Ford II Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University and a Professor of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. In 2006 and again in 2010, he was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor to promote efforts in undergraduate science education.With this award he instituted a program to explore microbial and chemical diversity in the world’s rainforests as a means to inspire undergraduate students in the sciences. Part of his research program involves the study of biofuel production from novel organisms isolated as part of the rainforest course.

Professor Scott Strobel discusses the project design for his REAL course.

During his seminar, Professor Strobel spoke about a unique course, entitled Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory (REAL), at Yale University. REAL is an intensive research course designed to excite students about science and research by investigating microbial and chemical diversity in the world’s rainforests. The course is designed in such a way that each student makes the important decisions and performs the research for their own project; project ownership is the key facet of the program’s success. REAL is sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and National Science Foundation (NSF).

Professor Strobel designed REAL to enable student discoveries in science. Endophytes, which are microorganisms that specifically grow within and have a symbiotic relationship with plants, provide a platform particularly suited for discovery. Endophytes are primarily unstudied (it is estimated that more than 80% of endophytes are unknown), are easy to grow, and occur most frequently in places with high plant biodiversity.

The course consists of classroom, in the field, and laboratory components. At the beginning of the semester, students partake in intensive classroom training to learn about plants and endophytes. It is during this classroom portion of the course that students start to design their projects and decide exactly which plant species from which they would like to isolate endophytes. Each student is responsible for determining their project design. More specifically, the choices regarding the plants to isolate, endophytes to characterize, and bioassays to perform are all up to the students. To define their plant collections, students come up with a theme, such as “parasitic plants”, “plants used as fish poisons”, or “plants used in the treatment of infections”.

Once the projects have been defined, the students travel to a rainforest to obtain their plant samples. In the inaugural expedition in 2007, 15 students traveled to the Heath River in Peru, a remote location six hours by motorized canoe down river from Puerto Maldonado. Since 2008, the expeditions have traveled to La Selva Lodge in the Yasuni National Forest in Ecuador. While in the rain forest, students are tasked with first identifying and then collecting plant samples. Initially, defining the 25 plants they would like to identify seems like a daunting task by itself, but once in the rainforest, finding the plants amongst all of those in the deep rainforest seems impossible. Percy Nunez, a biologist and expert botanist from South America, helps in this task. With Percy’s help, the students collect their necessary samples and travel back to Yale University to isolate endophytes and characterize them.

Students in the REAL course collect their plant samples in the rainforest.

After students return from the rainforest, they isolate endophytes from their plant samples. Students then identify endophytes by sequencing the DNA and comparing it to known endophyte species. Every year, Professor Strobel has found that each student in the course finds one new fungal genus, which confirms the hypothesis that studying endophytes enables student discoveries in science. Students then select which endophyte(s) they would like to continue to determine whether their particular endophyte has a novel bioactivity. At this point, students collaborate with other research laboratories at Yale University to perform the bioassays and then isolate and characterize the chemical compound responsible for the specific activity.

Prof. Strobel then detailed several different student research projects as a result of this course. First, one student, Sun Jin Lee, set out to identify anti-inflammatory fungi. She utilized a colorimetric assay in which yellow fluorescence acted as a readout for inflammation (for two interleukins: IL-6 and IL-8). She isolated one extract that decreased inflammation following treatment of fetal membranes with her pure endophyte extracts. This particular extract had been isolated from a carnivorous plant and represents a new genus of fungi, which she termed Aurosphaeria flaviradians. Her work identified Brefeldin A, a known compound with an anti-inflammatory role, as the chemical compound responsible for her bioassay’s results.

While some students isolate novel fungal species, such as Aurosphaeria flaviradians, others identify novel chemical compounds when they apply their particular bioassay to the library of endophyte extracts developed by REAL students. Another student investigating Hookworm disease, which is caused by a parasitic roundworm, sought to identify an endophyte that inhibits the nematode’s egg-laying behavior that is ultimately responsible for the spread of Hookworm. This particular student screened endophyte extracts from the library of extracts developed by REAL students and identified a particular Phaeoacremonium sp. isolated from a water hyacinth strongly inhibited the egg-laying behavior. Addtionally, in experiments to isolate the chemical compound responsible for this activity, the student found that the chemical structure is completely novel and does not match any other known compounds.

The projects in the REAL course have been incredibly diverse and fruitful. The list of remarkable discoveries includes the identification of a strain that can degrade plastic and the identification of a compound that inhibits candida, amongst others. Not only have 8 publications resulted from the work initiated during this course, but approximately half of the students have decided to continue research and are pursuing Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D degrees and the other half are pursuing an M.D. degree. Prof. Strobel attributes this success to the project ownership that is instilled in each student from the time they step foot in the course. Students’ results in the SURE (Summer Undergraduate Research Experience) survey confirm these ideas. Additionally, in collaboration with Professor David Hanauer-Indiana at the University of Pennsylvania, they have performed student interviews to quantify project ownership. In comparison to students who completed traditional summer research projects, the REAL students used more personal pronouns and were more emotionally connected to the project. While many students sign up for the course to make an exciting trip to the rainforest, students leave the course with a research experience that hopefully piques students’ interests in the wonders of science, inspires confidence and curiosity, and yields scientific discoveries.

Prof. Strobel joined the Yale faculty in 1995 and served as Department Chair from 2006-09. In January 2011, Professor Strobel began serving as the University Vice President with responsibility for implementing scientific, arts and educational efforts on the Yale West Campus. Prof. Strobel has a rich history of teaching excellence. In 2004, he was awarded the Dylan Hixon Prize for teaching excellence in the Natural Sciences by Yale College and in 2007 he received the Graduate Mentoring award from the Yale Graduate School. In 2008, he received the Schering Plough Research Institute award from the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.  In 2009, he was named a National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellow by the Office of Naval Research.