Learning to Think Like a Scientist


Eric C. Greene, Associate Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics, and Lawrence Shapiro, Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics

| Photos by Jörg Meyer

“In 1930, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the... Anyone? Anyone?... the Great Depression, passed the... Anyone? Anyone? The tariff bill? The Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act? Which, anyone?” 

— Economics Teacher in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” 1986

We all have endured boring lectures that left us grasping to understand the significance of a particular topic or, worse, struggling to just stay awake, as is perhaps best exemplified by the timeless scene from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” 

The so-called “sage on the stage” approach to graduate education often fails to engage or challenge students, even more so at medical universities, where the traditional “team-taught” approach to graduate education can lead to a lack of continuity and also minimizes the relationship between professors and students. Faced with these problems, we began exploring an innovative approach to graduate education. Our primary motivation was to create an environment that stimulates critical thinking and reinvigorates the classroom for students and professors alike. What has emerged from this pedagogical experiment has been a course perhaps unlike any other at CUMC.

Eric Greene is one of two professors who teach the redesigned biochemistry course to graduate students.

The redesigned Biochemistry & Molecular Biology (BCHM G6300) course has eliminated the comprehensive overview that is so common in graduate biomedical education. Instead, we have adopted a completely different philosophical approach that no longer strives for breadth, but instead focuses on depth, communication, and creative thinking. We have no intention of trying to cover every topic related to biochemistry & molecular biology; instead we have selected a few topics and concentrate on developing more in-depth learning. This approach helps foster a way of thinking that students can then apply to any biological problem they may encounter during their graduate careers.

The course also moves away from the traditional classroom lecture and instead relies more heavily on in-class discussion sessions that encourage peer learning and peer teaching to create a more personally meaningful educational experience for students. Graduate students must learn to think less like undergraduate students and more like scientists: They must be able to identify interesting problems, come up with creative solutions, and convey all of this information to a broad audience of peers. By having students work in groups, both during in-class discussion sessions and on homework assignments, we encourage the types of collaborative efforts that typify modern scientific inquiry. 

Having just two professors teach the entire course allows us to establish a much more meaningful relationship with students. The course requires a tremendous amount of work, but we get to know each student’s strengths and weaknesses and we can tune the discussions accordingly, rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all approach. Similarly, the students get to know us and they develop a much better understanding of our expectations than is possible in team-taught courses with numerous lecturers.

The class culminates with an epic six-hour final exam comprised of a series of highly interrelated problems. The students are required to derive hypotheses from a series of facts, design experiments to test their hypotheses, then present all of this information to the rest of the class. We are always impressed to see students, many of whom may have been tentative about presenting their ideas in front of their peers at the beginning of the semester, rise to the occasion during the final exam and explain a critical piece of experimental information to the rest of the class. 

Perhaps the best indicator of success comes from the students themselves. Here are a few of the comments:

The discussion sessions helped in the transition of the students from learners to scientists. In this sense the class served much better than others to train students toward a research-oriented way of thinking as opposed to a passive-learner way of thinking. The class also had a strong emphasis on collaborative work, and in order to solve the problems in the discussion sessions we were often required to combine a multitude of techniques and approaches. The class exemplified how we could rely on each other’s previous training and analytic skills to get to better solutions and to present them effectively.

— Ehud Herbst, Chemistry, 2014

We were encouraged to learn from our peers and, in turn, teach at every opportunity, more so than in any other class I’ve taken at Columbia. For me, this was an incredibly beneficial introduction to graduate school. The class helps you to really start thinking like a scientist. 

— Meagan Belcher Dufrisne, Cellular Physiology & Biophysics, 2012

The thing I liked about the class was the way it pushed us to be creative. The discussions weren’t a review of concepts and techniques we had learned but challenged us to apply these ideas in the context of a novel problem.

— Travis Morgenstern, Pharmacology, 2014

Eric Greene and Lawrence Shapiro are faculty members in the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics and co-directors of the BCHM course, which has about 50 students each year from different Columbia graduate programs, including genetics & development, nutritional and metabolic biology, pharmacology, pathobiology & molecular medicine, the MD/PhD program, and the Integrated Program in Cellular, Molecular, Structural, and Genetic Studies.