Congratulations to Rebecca Brenner, winner of the DBBS Curriculum Pitch Competition!

Read abstracts from the finalists below.

Kevin Blake – New Course: Historical Perspectives on Flawed Science

Graduate education on experimental design and analysis—provided through journal talks, literature critiques, and seminar presentations—almost exclusively features “successful” experiments. These papers are appropriately designed, logically organized, and present conclusions that are fully supported by the evidence. In other words: experiments where everything was done right. These teach graduate students what to do when designing experiments; however, noticeably absent is an education on what not to do, and how to recognize when you’re reading a flawed study. Scientists are not perfect; They’re subject to errors in analyses, internal biases, and conflicts of interest. Peer review is not perfect; It can fail to filter-out papers subject to the above and publish flawed science. History is riddled with examples of scientists, consciously or unconsciously, presenting flawed science that gets published and accepted by the larger community: the Piltdown Man hoax, Samuel George Morton’s craniometry, and Andrew Wakefield’s autism-vaccine link. Every scientist recognizes these realities; however, when the only papers you’ve read are successful ones, it is easy to fall prey to the dangerous assumption that every published study was appropriately conducted. A course that examines examples of flawed science within their historical context and in their original form will teach graduate students how to avoid those mistakes in their own work, and recognize it in others.

Rebecca Brenner – Re-Thinking the Traditional PhD Class

The required PhD courses do not align with most students’ interests, are not interdisciplinary, and are too long. The courses are burdensome and unappealing, especially for older PhD students and Post-docs. Instead of traditional courses, I propose having 6-week modules (5 per year). These modules would fall under one of three categories: Scientific Knowledge, Scientific Methods, or Professional Development. Initially, I propose replacing the first year Neuroscience PhD curriculum with modules. For example, Molecular and Cell Biology would be replaced with Cellular Structure, Cell Signaling, Methods in Molecular Biology, and How to Read a Scientific Paper. Students would be required to take 10 modules, which would be the same number of hours as the current courses. But, instead of taking a whole semester of cellular neuroscience and systems neuroscience, they would only be required to take one module in each, one methods module, and 3 professional development modules. As a result, students could explore their interests more in-depth. Older students would also have the chance to take a short course in their specific area. Plus, is the whole DBBS curriculum was modular, students could create an interdisciplinary program. For example, a student in Neuroimmunology lab could take modules In both neurosciences and immunology without increasing their course load. The goal of replacing traditional courses with modules is to give students the flexibility to customize their PhD courses to complement their interests and projects.

Nick Jacobs – Surviving Grad School

Studies have shown that incidences of depression, anxiety, and other stress-related mental disorders are high among graduate students. Internal investigations by universities have reported causes and recommendations for improving university climate. Proposed solutions increase student awareness of on-campus mental health facilities, foster an environment of awareness and support for mental health conditions, and increase training of students and faculty to support the previous goals. This course follows these directives and takes a preventative approach to mental illness. The course is split into two sections, a lecture and a workshop. The lecture deals with specific topics related to mental health. Starting with how common these issues are and introducing university resources, then address specifics such as recognizing and dealing with mental illness in yourself and others, promoting healthy work/life balance, and fostering a communicative relationship with your advisor. We can also work with student groups on addressing challenges faced by women, minorities, and LGBTQ+ students. The workshop will split into small groups to practice mindfulness techniques that promote strong mental health upkeep as well as changing exercises on possible causes of stress, like public speaking, paper reading, and writing. Mental health issues affect a majority of graduate students. By creating a course that explicitly addresses these issues we can create a supportive environment before that support becomes critically necessary.

Nick Jensen – Science for the In-Laws

A scientist must be prepared to allure his or her audience. One’s research must be attractive to investors, like the NIH or NSF, to be funded; but it must also be attractive to journalists, and even one’s own family or neighbor, to be publicly respected. Facing critics within one’s chosen field requires particular precision, while facing critics in one’s family may require particular charm. In a recent talk on scientific career development, Dr. Beirut said, “if I cannot convince my in-laws that my research is important, then I need to think about whether my research is truly worthwhile.” Thus, I propose a new course module: Science for the In-Laws. This module will be primarily role-play oriented. Groups will be given scenarios, some academic (i.e. a poster session) and some casual (i.e. dinner at your grandparents’ house), in which they must engage their audience about their thesis or rotation project. Each student in the group will have opportunity to role-play from both the scientist’s and the audience’s perspective, and classmate observers will give constructive feedback to support each other. Ultimate goal: students will develop the skills to make their research sound important—to get funded, and to get friended.

Kayla Nygaard – Developing a System to Create Curriculum Standard for each Program within DBBS

There are currently no cohesive, clear standards for graduate student education. Each program is an island. To fix the scattered segments of DBBS, a broad change to our infrastructure is necessary if we hope to create lasting improvements, rather than patches to the current system. The Task Force has begun to implement clear goals for common competencies, which is a great start to developing DBBS-wide cohesion, but this change must also reach program-specific curricula. I plan to create a roadmap to effectively designing a curriculum that each program can follow to develop standards to fit their needs. This map would include designing specific goals, outlining clear learning objectives, grouping related objectives into logical units, and creating unit assessments. Depending on the material, the structure of each unit may change; units could be a class, sections within a class, or even individual modules. Course masters can then assign units or sub-topics within units to teachers, who plan each lesson. Ideally, these would be saved in a common space (WUSTL Box) and improved, year to year, allowing content to efficiently adapt, without reinventing basics. We need a standardized system to store, access, and alter the materials as standards change. Instituting a new class or designing new program requirements will be ineffective if we don’t have clear goals for content and effective tools to measure student growth. Since each program has separate needs, we need to spread the wealth of knowledge on designing effective curriculum to maximize sustainable educational changes. A small group of advisors should help to manage the separate programs so that the high quality is kept consistent across programs, but the legwork must be done by people close to the field. We have all the tools we need. We just need to use them.

Martha Bagnall – Short Topics in Biology

Challenge: Help students develop key skills in critical reading of primary literature while also gaining up-to-date knowledge about new methods and hot topics in biology.

Solution: Offer DBBS students a course called “Short Topics in Biology.” The course would consist of 3 x 3-week modules. Each module would be a 3-week deep dive into literature on that topic, covering (e.g.) 1 review and 2 primary literature papers each week on a given topic in biology. In seminar-style classes, one faculty (or senior postdoc) would lead discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of the papers, with an eye towards covering both the methodological approaches and the content of the papers. Students would get to select which 3 modules they enrolled in, ensuring that they are discussing relevant content to their own research interests. Final 2 weeks of the course would be paper writing.

Faculty would be encouraged to propose module topics that appeal to students of more than just one DBBS graduate program. For example, methods topics (“Cryo-EM: development and new improvements”; “CRISPR/Cas9: origins and new applications”) would be popular across graduate programs. Many basic research topics could be selected for cross-program appeal as well (“Neurogenetics of autism”; “Cellular metabolites”).



Call for Abstracts & Contest Instructions

Do you have a great idea about graduate curriculum? Submit an abstract to the 2018 DBBS Curriculum Pitch Competition! The winner will have the opportunity to implement their proposal with financial and staff support from DBBS.

Contest Instructions:

Step 1: Submit an abstract explaining the Ph.D. education problem you will solve, the curriculum you propose, and the rationale for this solution (200 words maximum). Abstracts will be reviewed by the DBBS Curriculum Task Force, comprised of faculty, staff, and students. Abstracts will be posted on the DBBS Curriculum Task Force Website. Deadline for submissions is Friday, November 2, 2018 at 2:00pm. Submission form is available here. Submissions have now closed.

Step 2: The top five (5) abstracts will be selected as Finalists who get the opportunity to pitch their idea to the DBBS community at the Curriculum Pitch event on November 13, 2018 from 3 pm-4 pm in Holden Auditorium. At this event, finalists will have up to 3 minutes to pitch their idea using up to 3 slides, followed by 2 minutes of Q&A. A panel of judges and attendees will judge each pitch based on the criteria below. Judging criteria can be found here.

Guidelines for Abstracts and Pitches:

We invite you to think creatively about educational modules, coursework, and just-in-time training opportunities that support the priorities of DBBS curriculum revision, including education in core competencies and scientific knowledge essential to twenty-first century interdisciplinary bioscience research. We encourage submissions for new short courses or modules, revisions to existing courses, or wildly innovative training models not currently in use by DBBS.

Pitches should be globally relevant to DBBS and should address graduate education at any stage of the Ph.D. training process. If the proposal is specific to a program, the pitcher must demonstrate the relevance, applicability, and transferability to other DBBS programs. Pitches should address one or more DBBS Core Competencies (but need not address them all). Proposals using current best practices in pedagogy are more likely to be viewed successfully.


Judging Criteria & Prizes

All submissions will be evaluated on the following criteria:

1.    Problem or OpportunityContestant demonstrated a clear need for new or revised curriculum on a topic that is relevant to DBBS graduate education
2.    Broad Benefit to DBBSThe proposal will benefit DBBS students and faculty across Ph.D. programs.
3.    ApproachThe proposal solves the stated problem or responds to an educational opportunity. Contestant demonstrates that this is the best approach.
4.      Innovation & CreativityThe proposal would provide a training opportunity that is not currently available to DBBS students; OR, the proposal would build capacity for future educational innovations.
5.    Feasibility & SustainabilityThe proposal is achievable and the contestant demonstrates the knowledge, skills, and passion to create it with support from DBBS.


  • The winning contestant will receive a $50 gift card and an award certificate. The winning idea will be implemented with financial and staff support from DBBS.
  • Five (5) Finalists will each receive a $20 gift card and an opportunity to pitch their idea to the DBBS community at the Curriculum Pitch Event.
  • The first 10 abstract submissions will receive a Kaldi’s gift card. Submit your abstract early!


Abstracts and pitches may be submitted by individuals or teams. Contestants must be current DBBS students, faculty, or DBBS alumni with a current WashU affiliation (postdoc, staff, or faculty). The winner will be involved in curriculum creation with DBBS, providing vision and input.