Rethinking the role of a professor

The answer to that question, according to Dr. Hans-Joachim Wieden, a Canada Research Chair in Physical Biochemistry and an Alberta Ingenuity-supported New Faculty Award recipient working on drug-resistance in bacteria, is simple: Don't keep them in a classroom. Make students "build" bacteria that work for a specific purpose and then send them to a huge international competition to present it.

Wieden put that challenge to a team of University of Lethbridge students, who recently participated in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, Mass.

Instead of learning about the process through lectures alone, Wieden pushed the 12-member group to work in the lab to engineer their biological "machine" to perform a specific function. The outcome means specialized bacteria that could have medical or environmental applications.

The team met students from more than 50 universities and was also exposed to new ideas, that in turn challenge Wieden both in his classroom and his lab.

"It's extremely rewarding, but extremely difficult," Wieden says, with no hint of understatement as he explains how the process forces him and his students to rethink the basic concepts of science, research and collaboration. "This is the Olympics for biochemistry students. They are under pressure to work on the project, with limited time. They have to be well-prepared, flexible and work well as a team, and we have to learn together."

Wieden says a big part of the value-added education U of L chemistry and biochemistry students receive is in the opportunity to participate in activities like iGEM.

The process of moving students from the classroom to the work world with real-life projects is paying off. "Our undergraduate students already work at an international level," says Wieden. "They are crucial to our research programming because they help lay the groundwork for further research, collaborations and, ultimately, employment."

Students are also able to present their research and receive funding at professional development events such as the Chinook Symposium, a competition made possible through contributions from 100 per cent of the faculty members in the Chemistry and Biochemistry department.