I am the module leader of a third year biotechnology module, in which we cover topics from bioremediation to genome editing and synthetic biology. Biotechnology advances rely on innovative thinking, and being able to make new and unexpected connections between topics and concepts. The less obvious those connections are, the more interesting the ideas (potentially) become.

How do you teach students to connect concepts?

Diagram showing the ‘building blocks’ of biotechnology.

Last year I tried to visualise biotechnology as a discipline made of biology ‘building blocks’. I started by drawing the building blocks on the whiteboard: molecular biology, genetics, microbiology, biochemistry… you get the picture. I added other building blocks like ‘business’ or ‘health care’. Then I asked my students to come up with biotechnology product ideas by combining two or more building blocks. For example, microbiology + molecular biology + health care = recombinant bacteria producing therapeutic proteins, or new biosensors to detect diseases. Marine biology + microbiology + pharmacology = screening marine organisms for new antibiotics.

I used the same building block method this year. I realised however that this was a limiting approach, as it kept idea generation on a broader level. How could I help a student writing the discussion of a scientific report or essay to come up with original and novel directions in their thinking?

Brookfield’s Lenses

All new lecturers at Oxford Brookes University are required to complete a Postgraduate Certificate for Teaching in Higher Education (PCTHE) as part of their probation period. Right at the start  we learnt about the existence of formal frameworks for professional reflection. This was a huge revelation for me. Reflection is something that’s hugely important for our personal and professional development. Yet, it rarely is taught ‘properly’ in biology (at least in my experience). Being able to guide my thoughts along a framework or reflective ‘cycle’ made the task so much easier. Something that always had been a bit wishy-washy suddenly became tangible.

One of those frameworks is ‘Brookfield’s Lenses‘. It structures the thought process by asking us to analyse a situation from four different perspectives. As Stephen Brookfield designed his lenses for reflection in education, they include the perspectives of ourselves, our students, our colleagues, and the literature. I wondered if I could transfer his model into biotechnology teaching.

Biotechnology Lenses

The four Biotechnology lenses.

The four biotechnology lenses that I developed each look at a different component of a biotechnology idea. They can be used as part of an iterative process, and are probably best explained through an example: insulin.

A series of scientific discoveries (nicely summarised here) led to the discovery and isolation of insulin by Frederick Banting and Charles H. Best in 1921. Simplified, the science behind insulin was the discovery that pancreatic cells produce insulin, and that insulin isolated from the pancreas of cattle in slaughterhouses could be used to treat human patients. Eli Lilly and Company took on the mass production of insulin (product) by extracting it from pig and cow pancreases from slaughterhouses (technique). The immediate problem of this is scaleability; “according to the magazine Diabetes Forecast, it took nearly two tons of pig parts to produce 8 ounces of purified insulin“.

This problem was solved with advances in our understanding of DNA and proteins (science), the development of genetic engineering, and the ability to transfer the human insulin gene into a bacterial host for mass production in fermenters (technique). Since then, modifications in the amino acid sequence of insulin (technique) have created  a range of slow- and fast-acting insulin types (product) to help patients manage their blood sugar levels better (science/problem).

So, what are the problems and potential future directions of insulin treatment? Finding alternatives to injections by building new devices, inhalers or even artificial or bionic pancreases? Gene therapy to deliver functional insulin gene copies into cells? I will stop here, as I am no expert in this area. But hopefully the example will have illustrated how the biotechnology lenses could be used to dissect an existing idea, and explore new avenues for future scientific developments.

What now?

After explaining the lenses and the insulin example, I asked my students to discuss in groups how the lenses could be applied to genetically modified moths, and non-browning apples. I was very happy with the outcomes of with, as they very critically analysed the products and the problems that came with them (some of the associated problems seemed bigger than the solution that the product promised to solve). In general I feel that this could work well as a tool. The main challenge for me is to try and embed this structured approach into my lectures, to remind the students that this tool exists, and to practise its use.

What do you think? Does this make sense to you? Can you think of other good examples where the tool gives useful results? Let me know in the comments!


I give a lot of talks and  workshops on how scientists/researchers/academics can use social media in a professional context. Two questions that regularly pop up are, for which purposes I use the different platforms, and how much time I spend on social media.

I always find it a bit difficult to reply to the second question. Partially, because I don’t  sit down to ‘spend time’ on social media, like I would sit down to read a book. I check my social media accounts on the go on my smart phone or while waiting for the bus, in the lunch break, in a gap between experiments, or while watching TV.

But more importantly, social media has become such a important part of my professional workflow that it isn’t much different from picking up the phone to call someone or dropping them an email. So I thought that I would collect examples of how I use social media during my workday, and maybe inspire others who hadn’t thought of that particular way.

Today’s example is LinkedIn. LinkedIn seems to stun people. What is the etiquette about connecting? Does anybody care about endorsements? Why is it so annoying? (Tip: turn off email notifications in your settings). Is there actually a point in using it at all?

linkedinI have a profile on LinkedIn that I update semi-regularly. I use the site as electronic business card organiser and I try to add everyone I meet professionally. I also use it to find speakers for seminars and conference sessions. Recently, inspired by my colleague Ana Isabel Canhoto from our Business School, I have started to keep in touch more pro-actively with my LinkedIn contacts. Congratulating someone on their new job or work anniversary doesn’t take much time, but helps to keeps up important weak network ties .

A few days ago, a local business expert requested to connect with me, and offered me a guest ticket to a day conference with speakers from local businesses. As I couldn’t make the date and it didn’t look entirely relevant to me, I asked him if I could pass on his invitation to my colleagues in the Business School. I got a positive reply on LinkedIn and emailed his details onwards. For my colleagues, this opportunity was very relevant and came at the right time, and I was happy that someone was able to take it up.

Later this morning I talked with one of my project students about careers and transferable skills, and what they might be interested in after graduation. I remembered that one of my former project students now worked in a relevant company – I had connected with her on LinkedIn a while ago and exchanged a few lines to catch up. When I came home, I sent her a LinkedIn message to ask if she’d be happy to chat with my current student about her experiences. She quickly replied to say that she was more than happy to do so, and even offered to drop by at the university for a chat. I then sent a connection request to my current student, and once she has accepted it, I will introduce the two to each other via LinkedIn.

What I like about LinkedIn is, that it offers a much more professional way to connect with people than Facebook, and due to its strong focus on work experience, it makes it easy to introduce two contacts with similar interests to each other.