News - Survival of the Fastest: Newcomer Mao Helps Students Keep Up With Biology’s Rapid Strides

Survival of the Fastest: Newcomer Mao Helps Students Keep Up With Biology’s Rapid Strides

by Rachel Heston-Davis Survival of the Fastest: Newcomer Mao Helps Students Keep Up With Biology’s Rapid Strides

Five days after defending her doctoral dissertation on developmental, regenerative and stem cell biology at the University of Chicago, Lindsey Mao began her first day of teaching in Greenville University’s Department of Biology. Her whirlwind debut at G.U. included writing brand-new syllabi, in some cases “on the fly” after surveying students about which topics they’d like to explore.

It was a busy month, but when you work in developmental biology—in layman’s terms, the study of embryonic development—you learn to embrace a fast pace.

“The field is changing all the time,” Mao says. “New breakthroughs [occur] every three years or so.”

The rapid pace means two things for Mao:

  1. Keeping up with research, learning models and emerging ideas. Knowledge must grow as fast as those speedy little embryos grow.
  2. Keeping biology students up to speed as well, something Lindsey Mao is eager, willing and prepared to do at G.U.

Not Your Mother’s Biology Class

Drop in on Mao’s class, and you won’t find the elements of a traditional BIO 101 course. No Punnett squares or peapod diagrams here! 

“If we are to prepare our students for working in a modern lab, then they need to be prepped with a whole new set of skills,” Mao says.

That’s why she sat down last January and created curriculum from scratch, including the latest research and learning models she encountered in her recent studies. She paid extra attention to the developmental biology syllabus because, as she explains, that is “where the current research is being done.” To stay relevant, students need exposure to that branch of the field.

The importance of developmental biology is the reason Mao chose to specialize in it.

“Almost everything that modern-day scientists are studying utilizes some sort of animal model,” she explains, and animal models include embryonic development.

Research into embryonic development raises a host of questions. Mao draws her students into these questions with each class.

  • When does life begin?
  • How far can researchers go in testing for disease in utero?
  • What can be done to address pressing medical issues?
  • What are the ethical lines for utilizing stem cells in modern therapies?

Students in her genetics class, meanwhile, get a taste for the many applications of modern-day genetics including cancer studies, genomics, medical therapies and gene expressions across large populations.

With the rapid progress of technology and the interest in exploring large-scale genetic trends comes the inevitable increase of computer-based research and plugging large amounts of data into complicated mathematical equations. Mao wants her students to become familiar with those tools also.

In fact, two students studying under Mao for their summer science research experience will conduct research completely in silico. 

“That means none of the experiments are done in a lab setting,” Mao says. “It’s all going to be on the computer, analyzing genomes and transcriptomes between species, between individuals.”

Wide Open Career Field

Mao enjoys preparing her students for the many ways they can impact the world with a biology degree. Most people think of biology majors heading into health professions or environmental work, but Mao lists a host of additional career fields open to today’s biology graduates.

  • Biopharma, currently one of the largest industries next to healthcare that touches the biology discipline.
  • Data science, thanks to the experience bio majors gain with complicated statistics and computer data models.
  • Political work shaping science policy and science education policy.
  • Consultation for biology-related industries.

She’s also proud of the G.U. students who choose the popular path of healthcare. “Our biology majors here at G.U. are interested in the health professions and are very successful at it,” she says.

Seeking the Divine “Why”

Mao views science as “a tool of discovery” with benefits and limitations like any other tool. Benefit: it allows deep exploration of how the world works. Limitation: it can’t explain why it works.

  • Why do molecules and cells operating in a certain way cause muscle contractions that keep a heart beating?
  • Why does the universe operate according to organized laws?
  • Why are human beings even drawn to these philosophical questions in the first place?
  • What is each person’s purpose in life?

“The answer of why will come from our personal relationship with Christ,” Mao says.

It’s a posture she discovered after she accepted Christ in graduate school. After years of digging into the complexities of science that focused on “how,” she embraced new broader questions:

  • What is my purpose?
  • Do I have a calling?
  • Does God draw my heart toward a particular group of people?

Mao prayed over these questions and came to recognize her passion for teaching college students. She found the deepest satisfaction in her work as a teaching assistant and teaching fellow while pursuing her degrees. Her career path became clear.

This is where science ends and reverence for a divine Creator begins, Mao says. Often, when students press deeper into the “why” questions that science can’t answer, Mao tells them, “We can ask Him why.”

 

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You help biology majors get the cutting-edge education they need to thrive in their field. Thank you for giving to support our students.

 

This story was published on April 18, 2019




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