Freedom to hypothesize: Biology professor prepares Scholars for graduate school

Jeff Rice
January 15, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A few years ago, Claire Thomas attended one of the Schreyer Honors College’s Honors Advising and Teaching Conferences and listened with interest to what some of her Penn State colleagues had to say about problem-based learning. The associate professor of biology and biochemistry and molecular biology decided to incorporate some of those ideas into her BIO 230M honors course.

“It initially felt like jumping off a cliff,” Thomas said. “You weren’t quite sure where it was going to end up.”

Those changes in the course have made for a more invigorating classroom environment, said Thomas. 

Thomas also has brought some of her own research projects into the BIO 230 teaching laboratory, giving her students a bona fide basic research experience in place of formulaic training exercises. The goal is to provide her students with a broader appreciation of what research is and how those facts in the textbooks came to be known.

“We start with fairly simple problems and then build up as knowledge is gained in the course into much more complex things where we bring in the techniques they’ve learned as well as the actual facts from those experiments, and I give them problems where they have to develop hypotheses and how they’re going to test them,” Thomas said. “The level of engagement with the problem-based learning, coupled with them being honors students, who tend to be a little more committed anyway, makes it really amazing in the classroom.”

In both the classroom and the lab, Thomas has inspired a sense of independence in her students while presenting them with various challenges.

“She gave us a lot of freedom to ask the questions we wanted and to pursue the research directions,” said Stephanie Crilly, who worked in Thomas’ lab as a Penn State undergraduate and is now studying cellular and molecular biology at the University of Michigan Medical School. “There wasn’t a lot of ‘Do this exact thing and come tell me what happened.’ It was ‘This might be interesting to do. Why don’t you try it out and then we can talk about it?’ I think that really prepared me for grad school.

“When you’re forced to take ownership and think about your project critically rather than just following instructions, it really sets you up for what you’re going to be doing once you graduate.”

Granting students a degree of autonomy in the lab has not only assisted in Thomas’ research on roles of the cytoskeleton at the cell membrane in epithelial cells but eventually changes the way they approach problems they encounter in the lab.

“I always tell students that the research is the fun part,” Thomas said. “The hard part is mastering the literature. As they gain that knowledge in the literature, that’s when they really start to function more like early graduate students and are really making more of a contribution back to the lab.

“I always look to the time when I suggest that they should do an experiment this way and they turn around and say, ‘No, I want to do it that way.’ And that’s the sort of real sign of independence.”

As she helps students gain their independence, Thomas also helps Scholars with their thesis work. Caroline Cotton, a junior majoring in biology who works in the lab, said she hit a “roadblock” in her research earlier this year, and Thomas helped her switch to a topic that would still allow her to gather data in time to stay on track.

“She has our best interest in mind,” Cotton said. “When we have thesis requirements due for the honors college, she knows what that entails. She thought it was best that if I switch projects, I could get more data out of my research and a better thesis in the end.”

Thomas strives to develop a comfortable, inclusive atmosphere for students in her lab, but she has also worked outside of academia to bring people together. In late 2016, she developed the “100 Percent Sign,” a blend of the skin-color rainbow to celebrate racial diversity, the rainbow flag to celebrate diversity in sexual orientation, and the transgender symbol to celebrate diversity in gender identity. She has already given away about 6,000 of the signs and window decals so far and, with the assistance of Happy Valley LaunchBox, recently created a nonprofit company with the hopes of making the signs a nationwide presence.

“It was a response to the nastiness of the last election,” she said. “There was so much mud-slinging going back and forth that I thought, ‘Look, everybody, we’ve got to realize that we’re all human beings here. The idea behind the 100 Percent Sign is to be nonpartisan and to be recognizing and accepting of everybody as who they are.

“It represents everyone.”

Last Updated January 21, 2019