New York Medical College

Community Connection - Frontiers in Physiology

GSBMS helps create a fellowship to teach the teachers

Creating a ripple effect is one way to parlay a relatively small action into broader reaching results. This is exactly what Francis L. Belloni, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School of Basic Medical Sciences, and his colleagues at the American Physiological Society (APS) envisioned when they developed the Frontiers in Physiology Summer Research Fellowship more than a decade ago. 

“We wanted to attract more students into the field of physiology,” said Dr. Belloni, a professor of physiology. “Many young children say they want to be scientists or inventors, but lose interest as they go through school. We decided to turn our attention to science education so as to avoid turning off these young ‘scientists.’ We didn’t have the resources to reach many students individually, but by targeting their teachers we hoped to make the same or maybe even a greater impact.”

The Frontiers fellowship is a professional development program pairing middle and high school life sciences teachers across the country with APS research mentors working in area laboratories. Last summer the GSBMS participated in the program when John G. Edwards, Ph.D., assistant professor of physiology, served as research mentor to Judy Toledano, a middle school teacher from Lakeland Copper Beech Middle School in Yorktown, N.Y. For 7 weeks, the 14-year teaching veteran had the opportunity to participate in real-life, in-depth scientific research.

Dr. Edwards, who was one of only fourteen research mentors nationwide this year, explained that his research studies focused on how exercise improves blood vessel functioning. He described what Ms. Toledano, who worked full-time in his lab, actually did day to day, saying, “We applied the growth factor VegF to endothelial cells [the cells that line the inside of arteries]. Then we looked at how this changed gene expression, which on a molecular level involves measuring protein and mRNA synthesis. We were particularly interested in one enzyme—nitric oxide synthase, which generates nitric oxide and plays an important role in hypertension. Patients with heart failure have decreased levels of this enzyme, while exercise has been found to increase those levels. There is potential for far-reaching clinical implications—drugs can be developed based on what we uncover at the molecular level.”

For sixth-graders in Ms. Toledano’s science class the details of this technical research are too advanced. But learning to apply inquiry and equity, and to use technology, is as integral to studying elementary science as it is to conducting research. Ms. Toledano found these concepts easy to integrate into her lesson plans. “It is important for the children to understand that if a hypothesis doesn’t work the first time, it’s okay to go back to the drawing board—again and again,” said Ms. Toledano, who also spent a week in Washington, D. C., with fellow research teachers to share ideas and brainstorm on effective teaching practices. 

Another component of the Frontiers fellowship is participation in Experimental Biology 2004, the APS annual meeting that typically attracts close to 10,000 scientists. Dr. Edwards and Ms. Toledano, along with the other mentors and research teachers, will present their findings and attend an honorary luncheon at the meeting next spring in Washington, D.C.

“The teachers speak about how much they get out of the fellowship,” said Dr. Belloni, who has attended the meeting and luncheon numerous times. “Some are so enthusiastic that the audience is brought to tears. You could almost compare it to a revival meeting, hearing them describe the impact the research experience has had on them and their passion for teaching.”

Since its inception in 1990, the Frontiers program has involved nearly 180 APS members as mentors and 300 teachers from around the country. Dr. Edwards joins a select group of College faculty who have hosted research teachers over the years. In addition to Dr. Belloni, who hosted two teachers in the early ’90s, there is Wen-Hui Wang, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology, who served as a mentor in 1997, followed by physiology professors Michael S. Wolin, Ph.D., in 1998, and Thomas H. Hintze, Ph.D. ’97, in 1999. That makes a total of six middle school and high school teachers experiencing authentic research at the College, who have gone back to their classrooms, revitalized and armed with enhanced teaching methods. With no prerequisites regarding physiology background or lab experience, and stipends up to $8,500 available to each research teacher participant, the program is highly competitive.

“Creating a scientific literate society is the ultimate goal,” summarized Dr. Belloni. “It’s what the National Science Education Standards—developed a decade ago to promote inquiry-based science—are all about. There is less emphasis on memorizing scientific facts, more focus on understanding concepts and developing habits and abilities of inquiry.”

Just how far has the ripple effect reached? While it may be difficult to gauge the increased numbers of students opting to study physiology, a far-reaching transformation to an inquiry-based model of science is more apparent. A quick look on the Internet at the website of JFK Elementary School in Brewster, N.Y., yields the following description of the science curriculum for kindergarten through third grade: “The science program at the elementary level uses an inquiry-based model….The children begin to learn aspects of scientific method through experiments they carry out in class. Observations and documentation are extremely important aspects of the program. These are recorded as pictures, observations, procedures, tests and conclusions in scientific journals, which children maintain. Children leave grade three with an understanding of scientific concepts, vocabulary and reasoning skills.” 

It seems this ripple has reverberated far, indeed.