SMB People

SMB People


  • From WSU to the Mayo Clinic: My Summer as an Undergraduate Research Fellow


    by Pierce Claassen, a microbiology undergraduate student in the WSU School of Molecular Biosciences

    Pierce Claassen at MayoWalking quickly through an underground tunnel that stretches nearly a half mile, I carried samples frozen on dry ice between two buildings on the Mayo Clinic campus to be tested as part of a clinical study on irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS. Analysis of the tissues may help physician-scientists understand the causes of IBS and one day find a cure. In other places, it could take hours or days for analysis to begin, but here at the Mayo Clinic, I was impressed by how almost instantaneous everything is. The testing for these samples began just 15 minutes after they were taken.

    For 10 weeks in the summer of 2018, I had the pleasure of interacting with some of the most skillful physicians and knowledgeable scientists in their respective disciplines as an undergraduate research fellow at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Most days, shortly after waking up in my sky-rise apartment, I would hustle to the Mayo Clinic campus to work in a laboratory within the Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, analyzing tissue samples where researchers are trying to learn more about the pathological mechanisms of gastroenterological conditions.

    But it was lunchtime I really looked forward to because every day, the Mayo Clinic held Grand Round talks with guest lecturers from top medical institutions such as Yale, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Pennsylvania. There I witnessed physicians discuss cases and learned how doctors think through medical issues and make decisions regarding treatments. On Thursdays, I attended gastroenterology and hepatology sub-specialty case conferences where I observed gastroenterology fellows from the Mayo Clinic discussing medical cases, current research, and even legal aspects of the field. Before this fellowship, I may have had a few minutes to ask questions to physicians I was shadowing back home. Here, I was able to listen to board-certified professionals discuss medicine with their colleagues for an hour every day.

    The physician I worked under was devoted to clinical and translational gastrointestinal research, which means that the investigatory work that was done in the laboratory was directly related to ongoing clinical trials that will ultimately help treat patients. This area of research was ideal for an aspiring physician, like me, because so much of it was directly related to patient care. One of the things I really enjoyed about being at the Mayo Clinic, where over one million patients are seen annually, was observing the interaction between medical doctors and scientists who are always working with the best interest of the patient in mind.

    Being awarded this M.D.-Ph.D. preparatory fellowship is something that I will remember for the rest of my life. This experience showed me how doctors and scientists collaborate to answer extraordinarily complicated questions, how physicians-in-training interact with master clinicians, and most importantly how these professionals collaborate to provide the highest quality of care on such a large scale.


    Pierce Claassen was 1 of 130 select undergraduates in the country to receive a SURF position out of 1,350 who applied. As a junior, he was also one of the younger fellows. Pierce is a WSU Regents ScholarWSU Auvil Fellow, and received the Alice L. and William E. Diers Student Endowment in the spring of 2019. He has been researching in Dr. Rey Carabeo’s lab since the beginning of his sophomore year at WSU and has participated at SURCA multiple years. He is the son of a third-generation wheat farmer from Clarkston, Washington, and has been a dedicated Cougar fan his entire life. His long-term goal is to return to his hometown to practice medicine and serve the community that has been his family’s home for many generations. He is currently going through the medical school application process.

    Pierce would like to thank his School of Molecular Biosciences mentors, Dr. Rey Carabeo and Dr. William B. Davis, as well as his advisors in the Health Professions Student Center, Dr. Lourdes Giordani and Dr. Donald Allison for their steadfast support and professional guidance.

    Read more stories about the School of Molecular Biosciences




  • Teaching science students visual literacy life skills


    People looking at textbook

    Students who study molecular biosciences can’t actually see what they are learning.

    “We can never see with our eyes the things we study,” says Erika Offerdahl, a biochemist and associate professor in the WSU School of Molecular Biosciences. “It is hard to directly see beyond the sub-cellular level, so as students we learn through representation.”

    Symbols, such as chemical formulas, or schematic drawings that use arrows to show a chemical reaction are just two examples of this type of visual learning. Information can also be conveyed through graphs, cartoons or other artist renderings, or through realistic images such as a micrograph photo of a cell taken through a microscope.

    Dr. Offerdahl and post-doctoral researcher Jessie Arneson wondered how undergraduate students develop the visual literacy skills needed to understand these representations and create them on their own. “No one had clearly defined what scientific visual literacy is,” says Offerdahl. “Verbal and quantitative literacy have been more well defined.”

    In their research, they are asking how visual literacy is taught in the molecular life science and if students are being tested on visual material. To do that, they look at course examinations from biochemistry classes. They found that most exams have written questions, but very few images. “Assessments in courses are mostly verbal. Graphs, realistic images like microscopy pictures of cells, and schematics aren’t used very often,” says Offerdahl. “This is problematic because our exams implicitly communicate to students what is important. If we don’t require our students to use real scientific images, we’re not communicating their importance in the class or for the discipline.”

    She and her colleagues not only research how visual learning is taught to students, but whether students need different skills to understand or replicate different types of representations. In other words, what visual thinking skills do students need to be visually literate and understand a graphic representation versus a schematic model?

    “My job as a science instructor is to help develop the visual literacy skills in my students that will allow them to generate, make sense of, and use visual representations,” she says. “This is true for my science majors and nonmajors.”

    Ultimately, by understanding the most effective ways to learn and retain visual literacy skills, their research could help improve student education in many STEM disciplines.

    “The big picture of our research is helping our students develop visual literacy skills,” she says. “This means that they must be able to understand information from a scientific representation, translate between different types of visual representations, and synthesize them to communicate their findings with their colleagues.”

    But for Offerdahl, learning visual literacy extends beyond the classroom. Many of her students go on to become doctors or pharmacists, rather than academic researchers, so they will need to know how to communicate well with their patients. And scientists play an important role in society, she says, so there is a need for them to better communicate their scientific research.

    “In a world awash with data, the public sees visual images and may not be able to make sense of them, particularly on social media,” she says. “How scientists can best communicate to each other and to the public will help improve understanding that makes a real difference in people’s lives.”




Washington State University