MIT undergraduates must take an introductory biology class, and Graham Walker teaches hundreds of these students in a semester. Somewhere in those classes are the next superstars of science, he said, and he's determined to find them.
Science education can sometimes turn into a "bulk experiment," where the goal is to get an average number of students to learn an average amount, he said in a plenary talk at the close of the 2011 AAAS Annual Meeting. But his experiences have impressed him with the diversity of learning styles and motivations of individual students, and he challenges himself to teach "at the single molecule" level, reaching out to each student in a way that will ignite his or her personal interest in science.
It’s an approach that’s produced many successful students, but Walker thinks it might also be an essential spur to his own career. "The more I teach, the more I wonder who's being taught, and the harder I try to inspire, the more they seem to inspire me."
In one of his MIT Project Labs, undergraduates conduct experiments on a bacterium that infiltrates the roots of alfalfa, converting nitrogen to ammonia. The genetics behind this relationship are a major part of Walker's own research, but he wants the lab to be a place where students can "develop their own powers of observation and see things that I didn't know would be there."
Project Lab students have published significant findings as a result, including the discovery of a missing step in the chemical synthesis of vitamin B12.
"Once they got excited, you just couldn't seem to stop them,” Walker marveled. “And once they got going, it sort of didn't matter how you taught them, because they were going ahead on their own.”
He soon realized that innovative teaching needs a “creative engine” model like the traditional lab research group, where researchers trade ideas and forge wide collaborations. One of the most unexpected but popular products of his MIT Education Group, established in 2002, has been a line of freely available biology visualization software.
STARBioChem allows students to delve into the intricate 3D structures of more than 50,000 proteins from the Worldwide Protein Data Bank. With STARGenetics, they can learn about dominant and recessive genes as they mate smiley-face emoticons on their dorm-room laptops.
Walker is always on the lookout for other ways to convey "the wonder of DNA" that he first encountered as an undergraduate himself at Carleton University in Canada. He tells stories about youthful misadventures of DNA discoverers James Watson and Francis Crick, plays music composed by assigning notes to each genetic letter in a strand of DNA, and reminds them of his own continuing fascination. “Even though I've worked on this molecule all my life,” he tells the students, “I'm still not sure I know what it's all about."
Walker is an American Cancer Society Research Professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor at MIT. He received his Ph.D. in chemistry and biochemistry in 1974 from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Like many of his colleagues, the MIT biologist admits to “walking the tightrope trying to balance research and teaching” in his career. But Walker says it’s possible to build an extraordinarily productive and fulfilling career on the tightrope. "There are so many times that teaching and research can be synergistic, if you give them a chance.”