Two A&M-San Antonio faculty receive $75,000 National Science Foundation grant to improve biology education

By University Communications

Friday, 08 20 2021

Engaging more students in scientific research and boosting the STEM workforce
are longer-term goals for this incubator project

SAN ANTONIO – Two Department of Life Sciences faculty members at Texas A&M University-San Antonio plan to use their $75,000 National Science Foundation incubator grant to engage more undergraduate students in biology research activities occurring in socially meaningful, applied community contexts.

Dr. Megan Wise de Valdez, Associate Professor and Program Coordinator, Biology, and Dr. Bryan Bayles, Research Assistant Professor of Public Health, discovered a mutual concern that became the catalyst for their winning proposal: Too few students early in their academic careers get exposure to the process of scientific research.

“We both come at this from a perspective of wanting to reach as many students as possible,” says Wise de Valdez. “We think all students should have an opportunity to participate in research during their foundation coursework so that they begin to understand the process of research—how it’s done and how it can benefit a community.”

While the underlying purpose of this grant is to improve biology education for undergraduate students, among the grant’s requirements are to develop a network of partners that likewise will benefit from the collaboration. The interdisciplinary network Wise de Valdez and Bayles are bringing together includes city and regional educators, research scientists in the health and biological sciences, a nationally recognized primate research center, and a major regional river authority tasked with ecological stewardship.

One aim of the pilot is to provide opportunities for students to engage with actual data sets. Network partners will help identify some of the publicly available data students can use, such as public health information about various diseases of prevalence within the community, like diabetes, says Bayles.

The incubator itself will take the form of seven one-day workshops, one each month starting in January 2022, explains Wise de Valdez. During these workshops, students will gain hands-on experience entering raw data and analyzing the results. Using actual data sets will not only help students see how researchers work with data but will expose them to the kinds of biological research being done in this region. The process of reporting results through presentations will give students the chance to practice sharing research with the public.

“These are all things students need to experience for a true understanding and appreciation of the process of research,” says Bayles. The modules “will also provide context for the kinds of concerns that can emerge when conducting research, such as data-sharing agreements and ethical issues to consider when research involves animals and humans,” says Bayles.

By the end of the final workshop, Wise de Valdez and Bayles plan to have a framework in place for the actual course-based modules. The next step will be to implement a limited release in fall 2022 with a test module in sections of introductory General Biology 1 and 2 courses that will likely involve from 80 to 200 students, depending on the number of participating faculty, notes Wise de Valdez.

This early exposure to research can be especially critical for a largely underserved, first-generation student population like that attending A&M-San Antonio, says Wise de Valdez. “We know that these groups typically have fewer opportunities to engage in high-impact research activities early in their studies.”

“This pilot also perfectly aligns with our vision in terms of addressing inequities and disparities in our region,” says Bayles. His own experience working in the public health sector has convinced him that A&M-San Antonio in particular—with its strong focus on serving its surrounding community—is ideally suited to help address some of the most significant health disparity gaps that remain. With the potential for a spin-off research agenda emerging from this incubator, Bayles anticipates that the pilot will likewise pave the way for student internships with network partners and beyond.

Another longer-term motive of the project is to help strengthen the future STEM workforce pipeline and to enhance the diversity of that workforce—a direct benefit to network partners, suggests Wise de Valdez. “Collaborative research among students, academia, industry, and community civic services will also expose students to the variety of potential job opportunities and the skills required in the biology and health fields in particular.”

Read the full story here.

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Texas A&M University-San Antonio
Established as a stand-alone university in 2009, Texas A&M University-San Antonio is a comprehensive four-year public university that reflects the culturally diverse, heritage-rich community it serves. Situated on nearly 700 acres in south San Antonio, A&M-San Antonio is a Military Embracing™ institution offering 30 undergraduate degrees and 14 graduate degrees to nearly 6,800 students. The University is home to the Henry G. Cisneros Institute for Emerging Leaders and the Cyber Engineering Technology/Cyber Security Research Center. A&M-San Antonio holds the Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) designation. Military Times ranks the University No. 35 in the nation for Best for Vets: Colleges.” Visit tamusa.edu for more information. #onamission