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A Hands-On Class That Shows Undergraduates the Power of Yeast

November 25, 2013

Stanford offers an innovative class, targeted at sophomore undergraduates, where students use yeast to determine how a mutation in the p53 gene affects the activity of the resulting p53 protein. What makes this class even cooler is that the p53 mutants come from actual human tumors—the undergraduates are figuring out what actual cancer mutations are doing! And the class uses what we think is the most important organism in the world, S. cerevisiae.

To learn more about the course, we decided to interview Jamie Imam, one of the instructors. After reading the interview, you will almost certainly be as excited about this class as we were and it may even get you to wishing that you could teach the class at your institution. With a little help, you can.

The creators of the course, Tim Stearns and Martha Cyert, really want as many people as possible to use this class to teach undergraduates about what real science is and how fun and exciting it can be. To that end, they are happy to help you replicate the course wherever you are. If you are interested, please contact Tim and/or Martha. You’ll be happy you did. Their contact information can be found at the Stearns lab and Cyert lab websites.

Here now is the interview with Jamie. What a great way to get undergraduates excited about the scientific process.

Dr. Jamie Imam

Can you describe the class?

Sure. Bio44X is designed to be similar to an authentic research experience or as close to one as you can replicate in the classroom. During the quarter, students study mutant versions of a gene called p53, a tumor suppressor that is frequently mutated in cancer. Each partner pair in a classroom gets one p53 mutant that has been identified in a human tumor to study in our yeast system. Throughout the course of the 10 weeks, the students study the transactivation ability of their mutant compared to the wild-type version, and then work to figure out what exactly is wrong with the mutant (Can it bind DNA?, Does it localize to the nucleus properly?, etc.). Multiple sections of this course are taught during the Fall and Winter quarters, so several pairs end up studying the same mutant. We bring these students together to discuss and combine their data throughout the quarter, so there is a lot of collaboration involved. I think the students really enjoy having one topic to study in depth over the quarter rather than short individual modules, and the fact that we are studying a gene so important in cancer makes it easier to get them to care about the work they are doing.

Tell me a little bit about how this class was started.

Previously, Bio44X at Stanford was the more traditional “cookbook” type lab course. Every 2 weeks, the topic would change and students would work through set protocols that had a known correct answer. In 2010, Professors Martha Cyert and Tim Stearns set out to design and pilot a research-based course on a medically relevant topic (the tumor suppressor p53) in response to some national calls for biology lab course reform. Two years and many changes later, the new research-based lab course replaced the previous version and is now taken by all of the students that need an introductory lab course in Biology.

What kinds of experiments do the students get to do in the class?

Students get exposed to a variety of lab techniques that can be used beyond our classroom. We start with sterile technique and pipetting during the very first week (some students have never pipetted before!). During the first class, the students also spot out some yeast strains so they can start collecting data on the transactivation ability of their p53 mutant right away. Once they have some basic information about the function of their mutant, the students then extract protein from their yeast strains. Throughout the rest of the quarter, students use this protein to conduct a kinetic assay, Western blot, and assess DNA binding ability of their mutant p53. They also get some exposure to fluorescence microscopy when they use a GFP-tagged version of their mutant to determine whether it can localize properly to the nucleus. But the most important thing of all is that students learn how to analyze the data and think critically about it. Not only do they “crunch the numbers” but they must use that information to draw some actual conclusions about what is wrong with their mutant by the end of the quarter.

How hard is it to set up and run the class?

It takes a lot of organization because we have around 200 or more students that take this class every year! Fortunately, we have a great team to help organize the setup of the labs so that the instructors can focus on the teaching. Nicole Bradon manages a small staff that sets up the classrooms and prepares all of the reagents for the lab each week. Dr. Daria Hekmat-Scafe, who is one of the instructors, constructs many of the yeast strains that we give to the students. The team of lecturers (Dr. Shyamala Malladi, Dr. Daria Hekmat-Scafe and I) all work together on lectures and other course materials so everyone gets a similar experience. All together, it takes a lot of behind-the-scenes work, but then the students really get to focus on the experiments and their results.

Do you enjoy teaching the class? What is your favorite part? Your least favorite part?

I love teaching this class! It is so fun to go through this research experience with so many students and they all bring their unique perspectives to the course (we get engineers, psych majors, bio majors, econ majors and others). Also, each section has only 20 students so you really get the chance to get to know them over the course of the 10 weeks. Sometimes the experiments don’t work as planned (like real science) but overall it ends up being a great learning experience.

What do you hope the students will learn and get out of the class? And are they learning/getting it?

We hope that students learn to think critically and what it really means to “think like a scientist”. Too often, science is boiled down to a series of facts that students are expected to memorize and that isn’t what science really is! Science is all about finding exciting questions and constructing experiments that try and answer those questions. The beauty of a research-based lab course is that students can also feel more in charge of their own learning. We have performed assessments of the class and have found that over the course of the quarter, students develop a more sophisticated understanding of what it means to “think like a scientist” and a large portion are more interested in becoming involved in scientific research. I think this is great, as I feel that undergraduate research helped me understand science so much more deeply than many of the courses I had taken.

How would someone at another University go about replicating this course? Are there resources available to help them get started and/or keep it running?

Our group is willing to share our course materials and knowledge with others that are interested in replicating this at other institutions. Anyone who is interested should feel free to contact us! Also, there is a paper in preparation that will describe some of the key aspects of the course as well as more details about what we have learned from the assessments of the course over the past few years.


There you have it…a great class that uses the awesomeness of yeast to teach undergraduates how to think like scientists. Again, if you’re interested in learning more, please contact Tim Stearns and/or Martha Cyert at Stanford.