EmpOwERing Students to Develop their Scholarly Identities

Guest Post by Dr. Natalie Farny, 2022-2023 EmpOwER Fellow, Assistant Professor, Biology & Biotechnology

As an undergraduate student, I had no understanding of the process by which the scientific literature came to be. In fact, the idea that I could write anything even remotely close to something that anyone else would want to read was completely unfathomable to me. For many years, despite the fact that I loved doing research, I resisted the idea of graduate study in biology because I felt that writing a thesis was not achievable for me. Then, I got very lucky. In my first job as a research technician after undergrad, I found the right mentor at the right time who showed me how not only to perform experiments, but also how to write about them. The unfathomable now seemed possible, and with my mentor’s encouragement, I went on to earn a PhD. But not all students will find the right mentor at the right time. And so, in my current teaching practice, one of my goals is to break down the barriers that prevent talented students from entering STEM careers.

The goal of my EmpOwER fellowship project was to engage students as direct contributors to the synthetic biology primary literature. I believe that when students see themselves as legitimate authors, we break down the barriers that discourage their pursuit of STEM careers. We created a project designed to engage students deeply in the process of creating biological literature by writing a mini-review style article, and engaging in the process of peer review. The projects were published on our OER collection at DigitalWPI so that they can be used by others as resources for teaching synthetic biology. To measure the effectiveness of our approach, we adapted a concept inventory survey, which we delivered before and after the project experience. We are currently working on a manuscript to describe the results of our research into this educational approach. In this post, I will describe our general approach to conducting the project and the associated research, and provide links to helpful resources.

The Project: Empowering Student Authors

BB4260: Synthetic Biology is a seven-week, three-credit course, and uses a medley of mini-lectures, case studies, discussion, and active learning to explore current primary literature in the field. Thirty-one students majoring in life sciences (biology and biotechnology, biochemistry, or biomedical engineering), primarily juniors and seniors, enrolled in and completed the course. Synthetic biology is a relatively new and rapidly evolving field of biology that applies engineering design principles to the study of biological systems. Unlike more traditional biological disciplines, synthetic biology research tends, like engineering, to be more application-driven and seeks to build biological systems in order to better understand them.

To define the theme of their project, and to help students place their projects within the context of important global challenges, we prompted each student to review the 17 Sustainable Development Goals identified by the United Nations and rank the goals according to their personal interests. We then used these rankings to create five project groups of students with like interests. The final groups were focused on Good Health and Wellbeing (#3), Affordable and Clean Energy (#7), Reduced Inequalities (#10), Sustainable Cities and Communities (#11), and Responsible Production and Consumption (#12).  From there, students searched the primary literature to refine their topic ideas within their groups. The students iterated on their projects by writing and revising a total of three drafts of their ~1200 word articles. To give structure to their writing, we asked students to model an article in the format of a Forum piece for the review journal Trends in Biotechnology. The course also included discussion of the process of peer review, and an opportunity for students to be peer reviewers for other groups in the class. Students explored the CRediT contributorship model for assigning authorship, and applied this to their articles.

In just seven weeks, the students went from being synthetic biology novices to proud authors of publicly available articles. The student authors have made important contributions in the areas of human wellbeing, equity, sustainability, and environmental health, through their insightful synthesis of the literature. The complete collection, which we have entitled Synthetic Biology for Global Good, Volume I, is available through our OER collection DigitalWPI. We anticipate that this model will inspire others to collaborate with their students to create authentic authorship experiences that permit students of all backgrounds to see themselves as legitimate contributors to authoritative literature. We also expect to use this resource as a model for future student project work, as well as assigned reading to introduce complex topics within the BB4260 course. We plan to expand upon the collection in future iterations of the course.

The Research: Teaching Student Authorship

As part of the course, we conducted a study to assess the effectiveness of our pedagogical approach to authorship (WPI IRB-23-0611). The goal of this study was to measure changes in students’ self-assessed abilities to read, analyze, and write about primary scientific literature. To measure learning gains, a concept inventory was adapted from the CREATE inventory (Hoskins et al., 2011. CBE Life Sci Ed). The concept inventory was delivered both prior to the start of project work, and at the conclusion of the project. Project learning outcomes (LOs) were mapped to the question prompts, which enabled us to measure individual and collective learning gains related to each LO. Our analyses of these data are ongoing, and will be submitted to a special issue on synthetic biology education in Frontiers in Biotechnology and Bioengineering, an open access journal, by March 2024.

In our preliminary review of the data, we noticed that these students (mostly juniors and seniors) already had a lot of confidence in reading journal articles. However, they reported significant learning gains in knowledge of how articles are written, how authorship is defined in our field, and both the process and the purpose of peer review. This knowledge has demystified for these students a critical component of success in STEM fields, that of contributing to scientific knowledge through publication. We anticipate that such efforts will lead to better STEM engagement and retention, particularly for underrepresented and minoritized students.

Overall, student feedback about the project was largely positive, with most students expressing that the project was a valuable experience. Of the 31 students in the course, 24 self-identified as female and 7 self-identified as male. In the field of synthetic biology, which takes much inspiration from male-dominated engineering fields, women are in the minority as authors of the primary literature. This project opportunity allowed more women to see themselves as authors within this field, which is an important contribution to the diversification of synthetic biology.  The feedback reflects the achievement of many of the key learning goals for the project, including the process of reading literature, technical writing, and the process of peer-reviewed authorship. 

“I really enjoyed this project as whole. I liked researching a current issue and looking into how synthetic biology could provide a solution. It was also very interesting to learn about the peer-review process as this will likely be very helpful while working in the biotechnology field.” 

Student Author 1

“I think that our project really developed nicely from our original draft. I think our topic was a little challenging but we created something interesting and very topical. I enjoyed the opportunity to write a review style paper, which is often something I did not get the chance to do. I also really enjoyed learning about the authorship classifications. Overall, I think I learned a lot from the project and it was nice to collaborate with a group of people who I hadn’t worked with before!”

Student Author 2

                Engaging in this project has allowed me to provide opportunities to my students that I did not have during my own undergraduate education. Support from EmpOwER enabled me to highlight student work as well as disseminate a scholarly analysis of the project in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. All of the teaching materials used for the project and the research study are available now by request, and will be available in open access format in our upcoming publication. I hope that this project not only encouraged my students to pursue future opportunities in STEM, but will also inspire other educators to adopt and adapt these ideas to support their own students’ future STEM careers.


I am deeply grateful to the entire WPI EmpOwER team for their critical support of this project, particularly my mentoring team Marja Bakermans and Lori Ostapowicz-Critz, student feedback from Hannah Shell, and for the collaboration of my colleague Lou Roberts.  We thank Trends in Biotechnology editor Dr. Matthew Pavlovich for providing feedback to students about their articles. I also gratefully recognize a WPI DEIJ Seed Grant from the Office of the Vice Provost for Research that will help with the dissemination of our scholarly work through open access publication.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *