Biology students show off 3D protein models from new, innovative course

Seeing a cell and its protein structure on a flat page in a textbook just isn’t the same anymore for students in Karen Guzman’s Biology 460 and Honors 350 course — not after a semester spent building their own computer-generated protein structures and printing out 3D models of their research.

The students — comprised mostly of sophomores and juniors, many of whom are eyeing careers as physicians or in medical research — presented their work during finals week and explained their models and the work that went into them to department professors and their fellow students. According to Guzman, the projects will be used as teaching tools for future biology classes at Campbell.

“The biggest goal and outcome was to develop materials we can use in other classes,” said Guzman, who got the idea while working with the Center for BioMolecular Modeling, an instructional materials development lab at the Milwaukee School of Engieneering. “Nuclear protein transport is new to these students, and even for them, it can be hard to understand. We had to go about a different way of teaching this material.”

Support for the course was provided by a National Science Foundation grant called CREST (Continuing Researchers, Educators and Students). Understanding protein interactions and developing the visual modeling skills was only part of the desired course outcome for students, Guzman said. Her class of roughly 15 students were split into four teams for their projects, and learning how to work collaboratively with peers and professionals (Greg Buhrman of North Carolina State University’s Department of Molecular and Structural Biochemistry assisted throughout the semester) was equally important for the students’ development.

For biology pre-professional junior Nehemiah Allen of Greenville, working as a team was sometimes as challenging as the course material itself.

“Scheduling with your team was one of the hardest things we had to overcome,” Allen said. “We’re all students, and we all have very busy schedules, whether it’s class loads or jobs. You also learn that everyone has different learning styles and different work ethics.”

Real World Implications

The “theme and rationale” of Guzman’s course reads as such: “Nuclear transport can be used to demonstrate many basic principles of protein structure/function and interactions involved in complex biological processes as well as illustrating principles involved in targeting of molecules within a cell.”

Translation: “Seeing up close how proteins work helps you better understand biology.”

According to Sharidan Hill, a pre-professional biology junior from Raleigh, it also helps you become a better doctor.

“Proteins do almost everything [in cells] and perform so many functions in the body,” she said. “A lot of diseases are caused by something wrong in the protein structure. One problem can change the protein’s entire shape and can cause disease or bring on symptoms. It’s important to understand these things on a cellular level as a doctor.”

“We’ll hit on this stuff in graduate school,” said Miranda Griffin, a junior from Raleigh who’s interested in entering a physician assistant program after graduation. “Knowing how things enter and leave your cells is so important — having a better understanding of this helps you in treating your patients.”

Michael Larsen, associate professor and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Campbell, said the use of bioinformatics — developing methods and software tools to better understand biological — has helped improve the biology department’s performance in the Major Field Assessment Tests.

“We have students who are visual learners who benefit more from 3D models and working in groups,” he said. “More importantly, this experience is helping our graduates, many of whom are in prestigious programs using these skill sets to do real-world research in toxicology, genomics and other health areas. Sure, students see it as a cool course with a lot of new, neat software, but for the program as a whole, these investments are already paying off.”

Bioinformatics and protein modeling are emerging fields, which excites sophomore Emily Linton, a biochemistry major from Fayetteville.

“I want to go into a doctorate program in virology [the study of viruses],” she said, “which requires a lot of research of proteins in viruses. Now that I know how to model these proteins, that could help me out in grad school.”

— Story, photo by Billy Liggett