Mary Shawgo, PhD, is bringing skilled scientific practices to Graceland University undergraduate programs and students.
Mary Shawgo prepares her students for graduate studies and jobs in the field by implementing journal club and oral exams – two unique concepts for teaching at the undergraduate level. Last summer, Shawgo was invited to share these with faculty from across the country at the American Society of Microbiology Conference for Undergraduate Educators.
Shawgo remembers the shortcuts she sometimes took as an undergraduate; basing papers on introductions and conclusions rather than actually analyzing data. “Students don’t really comprehend how to analyze data. Through journal club, they get to practice in smaller, less intimidating segments,” explained Shawgo. Journal club is a regular practice in research labs and graduate school, but Shawgo implements it in her upper-level classes.
The students each read the article and focus on a different portion of the figure that they will then present informally to the class: the relevance and purpose of the experiment, method results of the experiment and any implications to the field. Students focus on how to present data by learning how to orientate their audience to the graphs and analyzing the actual data. The assignment helps them understand what the data means and helps them draw their own conclusions. This prepares the students for success in their senior research, as well as beyond Graceland, where the same principles are applied.
Oral exams are another system Shawgo has incorporated into her classes. Like journal club, it gets the students to talk about their studies, helps them organize their thoughts, and gets them used to talking the language of science. The oral exams also let students practice listening. “Listening is half the conversation,” Shawgo continued, “and is imperative in learning how to respond on the fly in discussions.” One great thing about oral exams is that it gives students who do not shine on written exams an opportunity to demonstrate class content in another way.
A conference presenter again this summer, Shawgo will share another technique she has begun implementing in her classes called the flip classroom. Instead of the normal lecture during classes, students are required to read from their textbook and prepare prior to class, so lecture time may be spent discussing the materials and working through problems with their instructor.
Shawgo keeps the learning process exciting while continuing a project on the predation of a soil bacteria called Myxococcus xanthus. Shawgo participated in a program called FUTURES in Biomedicine hosted by University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine utilizing the lab of Dr. John Kirby. The collaborators made and are currently researching over 6,000 M. xanthus mutants. A journal article was published last fall in the Journal of Bacteriology, crediting all researchers involved, including Shawgo and former student Chris Chambers ‘14.
The soil bacteria M. xanthus is not known to cause any harm in humans but eats other bacteria including ones that cause bad, difficult-to-treat infections, such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Shawgo and the rest of the research team plan to resubmit for a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant next year to help fund the continuing research.
Lifelong learners like Shawgo are living examples for their students. She encourages undergraduate scientific research and continues the strong tradition of academic excellence at Graceland University.
“YOU HONESTLY COME OUT OF HER CLASSES KNOWING YOURSELF BETTER AND KNOWING YOU CAN GO THOSE EXTRA LENGTHS AND SUCCEED IN ANYTHING YOU PUT YOUR MIND TO AS LONG AS YOU GIVE IT YOUR ALL.”
~ Cassandra Fronatt `17