University of Calgary

Biology students follow the curiosity

By Amyna Mamdani

With planning of the Experiential Learning Centre—one of the university’s cornerstone capital projects—well underway, efforts are in full swing to provide more opportunities for inquiry-based learning on campus. Recently, 34 undergraduate biology students had a chance to show what is gained from this hands-on, interactive approach to learning.

The Department of Biological Sciences’ first annual biology student conference, held April 12, allowed students to share with the university community results from an eight-month senior project in which they developed programs to answer research questions of their own choosing.

Topics ranged from Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes to flower pollination. The idea was for students to conduct the kind of inquiry that would lead them into unknown territory, just like a real scientist.

“From kindergarten until Grade 12, students have been like sponges, absorbing and consuming knowledge,” says zoologist and biological sciences professor Dr. Anthony Russell, who organized the conference. Some of that continues into university. “Every now and then, we professors like to squeeze, give an exam and see what we get back out.”

The senior thesis project, though, challenges students to think in an entirely different way, becoming knowledge producers instead.

“What I really enjoyed about the 530 project is that, in a very real sense, it was mine,” says student Ryan Warshawski. “It made me look at scientific research in an entirely new way.”

Warshawski explored how muscles monitor oxygen availability and exertion to conserve energy—a mechanism that could be particularly important for high altitude mountaineers who must breathe supplemental oxygen to prevent muscle fatigue.

“The experiments were interesting because I was never really sure what was going to happen,” he says. “I was testing how well I knew the material that I studied. It taught me that what is written in textbooks is actually discovered. It showed me that it is extremely important not just to read the conclusions, but to look at exactly how they were made. I am now much more questioning than I was before.”

Several of the students have already had their results published from projects run in previous years. The department hopes this event will help students see the breadth of opportunities available in science.