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Using Huntington’s Disease as the basis for an interdisciplinary, inquiry-based research experience

Modern biological research requires collaboration of scientists with expertise in math, chemistry and computer science to develop unique solutions to common problems.  Traditional introductory biology laboratory curricula, however, often do not emphasize connections between physical and natural sciences covering a vast array of unrelated topics in cook-book style labs with predictable results.  To emphasize the cohesive nature of chemistry and biology while focusing on a few core biological concepts such as central dogma and gene expression, we designed a project-based interdisciplinary medically-relevant laboratory experiment for all students taking introductory Biology and Organic Chemistry.

The experiments have multiple success points, unknown results, emphasize the nature of science, and require the students to develop a reasonable level of scientific literacy by reading primary literature articles in both disciplines.  Students taking the organic lab design and synthesize potential polymer inhibitors of Huntington's disease poly-glutamine aggregation using reactions and purification techniques.  Following successful purification and NMR analysis of their polymer, students then test the effectiveness of this potential pharmaceutical with in vivo lethality studies in Drosophila over-expressing poly-glutamine (polyQ), GFP-tagged repeats in the biology lab. Throughout both courses, students are asked to analyze their newly acquired data about the pharmacological effectiveness of their new polymer and its potential use in the medical world. 

This multi-week, interdisciplinary module has been used in our introductory biology laboratory courses for the past two years replacing the traditional single-week laboratory experiences which covered a wide variety of unconnected topics in cell biology and genetics.  Although the majority of students find that their newly designed inhibitory polymer actually increases the death rate of the polyQ flies, the students emerge from the course with a deeper understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry and a heightened interest in and knowledge of basic biological research.  Further, assessments reveal students in this program have a greater understanding of the interdisciplinary nature of biology and chemistry and a deeper understanding of gene expression and inhibition. 

Future course renovations will include the incorporation of additional cross-discipline modules on other medically-based topics such as HIV.  We hope these project-based modules may be used as pedagogical teaching units for other universities demonstrating the value of in-depth, multidisciplinary laboratory experiences for introductory biology students.