The future of science education and research at Stanford

Inspired by the rebirth of Old Chem into the Sapp Center for Science Teaching and Learning, Stanford professors discuss the future of science education at Stanford.

Prior to Tuesday’s dedication of the new Sapp Center for Science Teaching and Learning, a panel of Stanford chemistry and biology faculty discussed the future of their fields and how the Sapp Center will promote cutting-edge research and teaching in these disciplines and beyond. Stanford is currently constructing a new science quad, which will place chemistry, biology, computer science and chemical biology buildings in close proximity to the School of Medicine, Stanford Bio-X, Stanford ChEM-H, the Stanford Neurosciences Institute and the Science and Engineering Quad. The Sapp Center will be a centerpiece of this new science hub.

“The School of Humanities and Sciences is systematically re-thinking how we teach entry-level courses in the sciences,” said Richard P. Saller, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, during opening remarks for the event. “Half of all freshman enrollments in Stanford are in beginning-level sciences and math. We have tremendous impact by raising the level of teaching in these areas.”

With input from chemistry and biology faculty, the building was designed to encourage collaboration across departments and between students, staff and faculty through both its form and function. This is a design with an eye toward the future of science research and education, which the panelists all described as intensely interdisciplinary.

Highlights of collaborative research

The panel, composed of Carolyn R. Bertozzi, professor of chemistry; Martha S. Cyert, professor of biology; and W.E. Moerner, professor of chemistry, told of how their own research is influenced by multiple fields.

panelist seated left to right: Keith Hodgon, W. E. Moerner, Martha Cyert, Carolyn Bertozzi

Professor Keith Hodgson (far left), chair of the Department of Chemistry, moderated a discussion on the future of science with faculty panelists (left to right) W.E. Moerner, chemistry; Martha Cyert, biology; and Carolyn Bertozzi, chemistry. (Image credit: Joy Leighton)

“Twenty years of my life has been spent trying to figure out how to bring the tools of chemistry to bear on the problems of biology,” Bertozzi said. “And what I’ve learned over the years is that’s best accomplished when you can put the chemists and the biologists in the same building at least and, even better, in the same laboratory space.”

Bertozzi studies cell surface interactions and how those contribute to human diseases, such as cancer, inflammation and bacterial infection. One focus in her lab is on devising chemical technologies that could aid in the simplified techniques for the diagnosis and management of tuberculosis in resource-poor regions. Through this blend of chemistry and biology, her team has developed a chemical method that could detect tuberculosis in mucus and spit samples.

Another area of interdisciplinary research highlighted by the panelists included nanochemistry, a growing branch of chemistry that combines physics, biology and chemistry to investigate what molecules do at a single-molecule level. Moerner won the 2014 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work in achieving very-high-resolution images of individual molecules through optics.

Moerner said that the current overlap between biology and chemistry has led to substantial change in the direction of his field. Although organic chemistry is still essential, he said there is a shift away from heavy emphasis on organic chemistry in favor of integrating more biological science.

“What’s going on is a transformation, in some sense, in the way chemistry is being taught,” Moerner said.

Teaching modern skills

The intersection between biology and chemistry in research is reflected how Stanford’s undergraduate coursework has evolved as well. Cyert said there has been “unprecedented” collaboration in curriculum development between the faculty of these departments to eliminate redundancies and discover new possibilities for partnership.

Bertozzi, who will teach at the Sapp Center in winter quarter, said that the opportunity to teach students in both biology and chemistry in an integrated facility will be a first for her and she, along with the other two panelists, particularly appreciates the high quality of the labs that will be available for undergraduate instruction.

Five “swing labs” in the center can easily be used by either chemistry or biology. This is particularly well-suited for lab courses, such as one Moerner described, where chemistry students conduct biological experiments. The center’s labs, of which there are 10 total, are equipped with modern technology and tools. The innovative learning spaces will allow undergraduate introductory courses to involve lessons and projects that more closely resemble real-world research, as opposed to offering students only elementary tools in spaces that differ in essential ways from actual lab environments. In these courses, students will be able to familiarize themselves not only with the equipment of a research lab but also expectations of their ability to formulate and answer research questions.

More than a place to study

As with many recent buildings on campus, the Sapp Center and the area around it were designed to increase chance interactions between diverse students and faculty. This support of education across departmental boundaries stretches back to the founders, and the center will further this long-standing priority.

“It is the beginning of building a neighborhood,” said Cyert. “Our neighborhood is going to be biology and chemistry buildings. We’re going to have a place to eat. We’re going to have beautiful outdoor spaces that can be enjoyed by faculty, graduate students, undergraduates. At a personal level, I can’t really express how exciting it is for me to be in this room.”

Saller is the Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences and the Kleinheinz Family Professor of European Studies. Bertozzi is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and professor, by courtesy, of radiology and of chemical and systems biology. She is also a member of Stanford ChEM-H, Stanford Bio-X and the Child Health Research Institute. Cyert is the Thomas W. and Susan B. Ford University Fellow in Undergraduate Education and a member of Stanford Bio-X, the Cardiovascular Institute and Stanford ChEM-H. W.E Moerner is the Harry S. Mosher Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and a professor, by courtesy, of physics. He is also a member of Stanford Bio-X, Stanford ChEM-H and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute.