What is the value of a liberal arts education to future scientists? - The Labster Podcast, Episode 18
April [00:00:04] Hey, everyone. I'm April, and you're listening to The Labster Podcast. I'm proud to say that at Labster, we're guided by our mission to empower the next generation of scientists to change the world and contribute to solving global challenges. If you are an educator listening to this podcast, we know you also share that mission. So thank you.
April [00:00:27] With me, as always, is my friend and fellow Labsterite SJ Boulton and educational designer and former university lecturer who now develops Labster's virtual lab simulations for students in high school, college and university.
April [00:00:43] This is the first part of a special two part episode where we discuss the value of a liberal arts education and the importance of preparing science students to succeed in the culture of graduate school. Now let's meet our guest. In the year 2020, Dr. Lori Banks was named to a list of 1000 inspiring black scientists by Cell Mentor, a web resource that provides support and resources for emerging scientists and their career pathways. Lori is a molecular biologist and an assistant professor of biology at Bates College, where she dedicates her teaching to instilling a love of biology and respect for the natural world, and where she actively works to embrace pedagogy of equity, inclusion and anti-racism in order to deliver an education in which all students will thrive. And with that introduction, welcome to the podcast, Lori.
Dr. Lori Banks [00:01:41] Thank you for having me.
SJ [00:01:42] So Lori, being as I am of the British persuasion and being an educator, that's kind of come up in the UK system. The whole idea of a liberal arts college is something that's a little bit alien to me, as I don't have that educational experience or sit within those spaces in the U.S. So as far as I know, Bates College, it's in a beautiful part of New England called Maine, which is in the northeastern United States, and it's a private, liberal arts college and it's really small, so less than two thousand students. Can you tell me in a nutshell what it means for an institution to be a liberal arts college?
Dr. Lori Banks [00:02:20] Yeah, so liberal arts is this interesting, funny thing that makes sense if you sort of discuss it a little. We are teaching the students to think about problems in a very interdisciplinary way. So, for instance, in a lot of the coursework that I do, rather than having my students memorize chemical structures or structures that are present on different microbes and things, we talk more about how people or food sometimes interact with microbes.
Dr. Lori Banks [00:02:55] I have a class, I teach the one hundredth level that looks at, instead of complex microbial communities in some other, more traditional way, we look at the surface of brie cheese as our model system, you know, as a way to think about how populations of organisms interact with different environments. And when you change the environment, what does it do to the population?
Dr. Lori Banks [00:03:21] So again, you know, that thinking, how do these things work in the real world when we're going to solve problems? What are the different factors that we need to consider and sort of giving them a more well-rounded view of how things in the world work? So in the process, they're definitely learning the nuts and bolts of the chemistry, the biology, the physics and the math, but in more of an application or problem-based learning kind of way rather than just these are the things that we need you to memorize because we said so.
SJ [00:03:57] Now that makes a ton of sense. So I was thinking completely while you were talking about kind of problem-based education as opposed or in opposition to sometimes outcomes based learning says that problems based approach. Is that something that's ubiquitous within liberal arts colleges? Or is that just typical to Bates?
Dr. Lori Banks [00:04:13] No, that's pretty standard among the liberal arts colleges. And it's sort of central to the way that they put together their curricula for lots of different disciplines. You know, we have people who sometimes are double majors in philosophy and biochemistry or, you know, it might be a dance minor and a chemistry major or something. And so again, it's teaching them to see the world from multiple perspectives.
SJ [00:04:41] From what you're saying, it's really obvious to me that you probably turn out graduates that have a really well-rounded problem-solving attitude. But I can also see the flip side of that where perhaps students don't necessarily graduate with industry required, or maybe they do industry required or career ready skill sets. Do you think that that's valid? Do you think this is a just a different way of thinking, and I suppose that kind of goes into whether you think it's worthwhile in kind of a modern society to undertake liberal arts education?
Dr. Lori Banks [00:05:12] Yeah, I do. And I think, you know, the way that we have crafted the environment because it does take some very serious intention there. You do need to consider what are you sending these people out into the world with now that you've granted them this bachelor's degree, what are they actually really going to be able to do with it? And do they have the skills to walk on someone's job and be productive or to go out into public service? Or, you know, a number of different things, but enough that they're able to sustain themselves?
Dr. Lori Banks [00:05:46] So assuming that the environmental crafting has been done well, I think students do come out with a really nice skill set and knowledge base to be able to do some of those things. So in my research laboratory, where I have students at work both during the school year and during the summertime, what I try to help them see is how different professions within professional science work together to make larger projects happen.
Dr. Lori Banks [00:06:19] So I have a collaborator at St. Joseph's College down the street from where we are, but also in Maine, who is a medicinal chemist, Yi Jin Gorske is her name. And you know, she is very in tune with not just sort of chemical habitat, but ways that you can create new chemicals. Just not a thing I know how to do. But, you know, showing them that we work together and actually seeing, you know, the two of us interact with one another as colleagues in a, you know, collegial happy time, coffee-induced way, right? You know, to get really big problems in the world solved, but again, for them to understand that it takes a multitude of perspectives and training and experience to solve these really big problems.
Dr. Lori Banks [00:07:13] There's not one kind of person. There's not one kind of industry, you know, or it should include lots of different people in order to solve these things. So it does two things. Number one, allows them to see and understand and accept that it does require lots of different people, but also to help them see where they fit into that puzzle and know that whatever they're bringing to the table, that experience is very valuable.
SJ [00:07:40] That's so cool. It sounds like this is a a really solid environment for turning out very emotionally intelligent researchers and graduates.
Dr. Lori Banks [00:07:50] We try.
SJ [00:07:51] Yeah, for sure. This is so cool, I guess just kind of riffing on what you're saying about them. It takes multiple different kinds of people and not just one type of graduate to be part of that to solve scientific problems. I wonder to a college like Bates, do you find you have like a very diverse set of students and say, for example, from like very early boarding schools where they've had access to well-equipped labs and then other students come in from under-resourced schools? Is that something that you see? And if you do like, how do you address that? How are you able to kind of cater to all those different needs?
Dr. Lori Banks [00:08:27] Yeah, that's a great question. So historically, the school has accepted students from lots of different backgrounds, but predominantly well-to-do students. That is definitely something on the admissions end that they are continuing to work on so that they can broaden the experience of all the students that come to campus. But also, like, you know, we're talking about to craft that environment in such a way that, you know, if you are saying that you value the experiences and the existence of lots of different people, then you need to be able to show how you're doing that in practice. And so that's something where on our campus in particular, we have some work to do. But there are definitely programs in place to address that in and do better.
SJ [00:09:19] So as I understand it and I've been listening back to our SO:Connected when we first met at the SO:Connected Conference that we ran, I understand that a big part of your focus is on that transitional time where students come in to graduate school and kind of optimizing that experience so that students can go on to great success as they go to their bachelor's degrees. Now again, it is my naivete as the liberal arts kind of paradigm to people study their bachelor's or a liberal arts college, or do they go to another institution?
Dr. Lori Banks [00:09:53] So in our case, we're only bachelors granting, so they have to go to another institution. But yeah, it is definitely, a very sort of trying time, and I think the learning curve for a lot of people is so huge, particularly for students who don't have some sort of familial institutional knowledge of how graduate education works. So I actually was only recently made aware of a statistic that more people who are getting PhDs come from families where someone already has a Ph.D. than not. And so it's sort of inequitable.
Dr. Lori Banks [00:10:35] We're not really well-diversified on multiple levels because of the numbers of different ways that someone's family could fall under one of those two categories. And so what I've seen, especially in the work that I did prior to being in this position at Bates, was that there was just a lot of lack of institutional knowledge and lack of understanding just of the basic nuts and bolts, how to study what's an acceptable conversation to have with your research mentor and what is not how much time you can expect from your course instructors. I mean, all of these kinds of things that really affect your day to day existence.
Dr. Lori Banks [00:11:19] As a graduate student, they really come in the door, you know, having signed some sort of employment contract or, you know, accepted some sort of fellowship money to spend the next four to seven or eight years of their lives dedicated to this thing and not really understanding how the process works. And so with the post bacc program that I worked at in the Genome Center at Baylor College of Medicine, that was sort of what I worked on with the post baccs was really helping them understand what they were getting into and sort of the "off-menu items" that they needed to be aware of so that they could increase their success. But they were just not getting that information from other places.
SJ [00:12:04] That's such an interesting way to put it" "the off menu choices". And I totally hear that. I remember as so I'm like a first generation graduate. No one in my family went to university, but then none of my family actually went on to do a Ph.D., either. So I'm one of those nontraditional students, and my experience was very different when I compared it to those who maybe come from more scientifically equitable. I have more science capital, should I say.
Dr. Lori Banks [00:12:31] I think science capital, that's a good statement.
SJ [00:12:33] Yeah, thank you. My experience is very different to this, and we both came out with the same thing, but they perhaps had vantage on those off menu items that I didn't necessarily know were a thing. Yeah. How do you create that visibility for those - I love it - "off menu" items.
Dr. Lori Banks [00:12:53] Yeah. So I have to say that a lot of the curriculum that I developed for that particular program really came out of like my worst days in graduate school. And so it really, you know, my motivation was born out of, I don't want you to have to make the mistakes that I made and that sort of, you know, I just started a bullet list of what are the things I wish I had known that I didn't. And what were the roadblocks that I walked into where I had more agency than I realized that I had, but I didn't know that I could speak up or I didn't know that I could tell somebody "no".
Dr. Lori Banks [00:13:30] And so those were the experiences that after having run, you know, all of that by the program coordinator sort of developed into a series of not really lectures that were sort of meetings with the post bacc students. But then we started to talk about these things. You know, how do you interact with people at a department or Christmas party? Is that really a party or is that a business meeting with food, you know?
SJ [00:13:57] Yeah, yeah.
Dr. Lori Banks [00:13:58] A more functional understanding of, you know, how you interact in these spaces, who these people are, what power they have over you potentially and learning how to navigate those things. And so that's really where that started.
SJ [00:14:14] I'm loving this is kind of like a cultural cheat sheet on how to get ahead at grad school.
Dr. Lori Banks [00:14:21] Exactly.
Dr. Lori Banks [00:14:21] You mention that, you know, a number of the students that I worked with came from Prairie View A&M University where I did my bachelors as well. And because it was so such an intensive of different kinds of African-American culture from the United States, some students from Canada, lots of students from the Caribbean and even some from different countries in West Africa as well.
Dr. Lori Banks [00:14:50] You know, there were lots of sort of unwritten commonalities or unspoken rules that were common to a lot of us so that once the students left that environment and came to predominantly white Baylor College of Medicine, also where they're interacting with people from other non-European cultures as well. It just was very foreign because they were used to being around people that were like them.
Dr. Lori Banks [00:15:16] And so being able to interact in social spaces, lab get togethers, you know that you would think wouldn't be cause for concern or for someone to be uncomfortable. You realize that you have to in order to survive in that environment, professionally interact socially with these people, but they may be doing things that you don't understand.
SJ [00:15:42] Oh, I completely agree!
Dr. Lori Banks [00:15:44] Yeah, within this context, you know, the culture in terms of this was a funny one for me, just the kind of alcoholic beverages that one would enjoy in an evening atmosphere. You know, we're very different culturally for those students, you know, that had come from the campus that I also graduated from. The scene was very sort of cocktail based, we'll say.
SJ [00:16:15] How interesting.
Dr. Lori Banks [00:16:16] Yeah. There was very little understanding of like wine pairing with food or what this thing called beer pong was. And so you get to graduate school now where it is, you know, your survival is based on your interaction with these people who do things culturally very different. And so you need to interact with them. But then you show up to the study session and they're drinking something that is weird and bitter to you. Or, you know, they all go out after a study session or something to go play beer pong. And you've never heard of it before. You know, these are the places where the students were kind of getting hung up and not sure how to navigate that discrepancy. So those were a lot of the things that we sort of discussed and help navigate in our meetings.
SJ [00:17:08] I'm having real flashbacks to my days as a very early Ph.D. student where I had a pub really close to the university that I went to for my undergrad essay for my post-grad.
Dr. Lori Banks [00:17:22] Yeah.
SJ [00:17:22] And there was a pub quiz and I was like, Great pub quiz. A good British tradition. Good pub quiz. You go we drink some beer and some cider. What we didn't realize is that this wasn't a pub quiz. This was where this is, where people talk about collaborations and share data and talk about the difficulties that they're having with their assay that just won't work with that protein, that just will not purify all that kind of thing.
SJ [00:17:51] That's where those conversations happen, and that's where the true interdisciplinary conversations would sometimes actually come up, right? And I didn't necessarily appreciate that, but those that maybe had had a little bit of a spur from a parent or from a brother or sister that maybe had a similar experience. They understood that that was something that they should, when somebody is moaning about their work, they should maybe be tuning in and wondering, seeing if there's an opportunity for collaboration there.
SJ [00:18:21] So yes, I'm listening to this and I think about the lessons that I had to learn and maybe the lessons that I learned a little bit too late in my case.
Dr. Lori Banks [00:18:29] Yeah.
SJ [00:18:29] As a scientist that was researching very applied technologies. Yes. Oh my word, I love this. I also, I'm listening to you, and I think: it's such a shame that people feel that they need this cultural cheat sheet. And I hope that it's something that's temporary.
Dr. Lori Banks [00:18:47] Yeah.
SJ [00:18:47] That, you know, in 10 or 20 years' time that - hopefully earlier than that, but you know how slow change can be - I would hope that we get to a point where, you know, those games that graduate students play are more diverse and people feel that they can find a space to interact and where they don't feel the need to have a cheat sheet or they don't feel like they have to code switch in order to take part or to fully get involved. So I see this as a temporary measure to create access that will ultimately drive diversity. That will mean that more people feel empowered to take up space in those situations.
Dr. Lori Banks [00:19:25] Yeah, that is definitely the hope.
SJ [00:19:28] Yeah, for sure. I love this. I wish I had one. I wish I had this course. I mean, I'm a white female from a lower socioeconomic background and did some personal things. And my advice was a real barrier, sometimes in universities because it's associated with the poor north, and you would be accused of trying to sound clever. So whenever you gave a presentation and were talking using like high vocabulary or high scientific vocabulary, your jargon, this was a really difficult thing to navigate that you don't. I rarely see until the outside of it. Yeah, yeah, I feel you and I hear you. It's a different place and a different story. I'm sure a cultural change.
Dr. Lori Banks [00:20:13] Yeah. Well, I think that's part of what we're trying to address, and I think it is. It's very important to address who feels comfortable in those spaces and who does not. And I think there's a number of sort of different features that you might have that can make you feel excluded, whether it's your accent - and there are several within the United States where that same exact thing happens - or whether you eat a different food or heck, even being, you know, female is its own thing.
Dr. Lori Banks [00:20:48] But we do have to be conscious that the ways that these spaces were created was for a very specific kind of person. And so as we think about sort of the difference between what is helping us focus purely on the science and what has been accepted within the scientific profession because it was good for the people that were allowed to do it, you know, it's kind of two different things and we need to be aware of that and address it as such as we now have lots of people in these spaces who don't look like what the profession used to look like 50 years ago.
April [00:21:35] And that's all the time we have for today. Thank you, Dr. Lori Banks, for sharing your thoughts on the relevance of a liberal arts education today and for giving us the idea of a cultural cheat sheet that can help science students succeed in grad school. You'll be able to hear part two of this conversation in our next episode. Thanks for listening. We invite you to send us your feedback at info at Labster dot com. If you like this episode, we hope you'll share it with a fellow teacher and subscribe to The Labster Podcast. Until next time, keep teaching, keep learning and stay safe.