The second week of ecological developmental biology


I’m trying to do weekly assessments of how my new class is going…and also to have a regular record of concerns and successes so I can remind myself of what not to do next time I teach the course. We’re wrapping up a rapid survey of a few developmental systems just to expose them to some of the concepts of the field first; last week we blitzed through early polarity formation and gastrulation. This week we covered neural tube formation and neural crest on Tuesday, and this morning it was limb formation and craniofacial development.

One of my concerns is that it’s really easy for me to dominate the class hour. Yeah, just trigger me with a few phrases like apical ectodermal ridge, progress zone, and zone of polarizing activity, wind me up, and I’ll happily talk about cool experiments and nifty results for a few hours, my eyes glazing over as I forget that those students are there. That’s bad. I have to slap myself out of that habit. And as I mentioned last week, it’s not helping that it’s 8am and the students eyes are a bit glazed over, and I’m concerned about drawing them out to talk more. My ideal class would be one where I just help answer questions for the entire period.

I’m happy to say that, while they aren’t quite at that point yet, the students are warming up and I’ve been getting a few sharp questions, including some that I was unable to answer, which always leaves me overjoyed. Challenging stuff! It’s the best!

It also helped that the last half of today was something completely different: I gave them a short review paper that was rather densely technical on craniofacial development. I warned them that I was throwing them into the deep end of the pool to start with, so we struggled our way through all the acronyms and unexplained syndromes and weird little genes. We puzzled out the molecular basics for common developmental problems, like cleft palate, and more exotic and severe ones like Bartsocas-Papas syndrome (if you read the paper, you might not want to follow up by googling the syndromes, because you’ll encounter lots of tragic children). I learned a few things myself, like how common ribosomopathies are in these craniofacial disorders — there are genes like TCOF1 which produce proteins that act specifically in the nucleolar regions to regulate ribosome expression in specific tissues, and haploinsufficency leads to all kinds of failures in cell migration and differentiation.

I got even more questions. That’s good — I wasn’t looking forward to a semester of talking at nodding heads. I’m beginning to relax a little now.

Next week will be even more of a shock. I won’t be leading the discussions at all — I’ll be the one sitting back and answering questions. Tuesday will be student-led reviews of the stages of human embryonic development, with discussions of clinical correlates. Each student has been assigned a tiny snippet of the sequence to explain to us. Thursday they all have to explain The Triple Helix to me. Next week is all about student engagement!


  1. marcoli says

    Very good. One thing I had been wondering about in ecodevo is the environmental effects on development of plant morphology. I admit I know practically nothing about the subject, however.

  2. feministhomemaker says

    Thank you for these descriptions of how your class is going. I know nothing of the subject area but I love reading about what concerns you, how you keep track of what works and what doesn’t, how you evaluate and plan, and I love picking up snippets of info in the subject area! I look forward to each one of these posts!

  3. emergence says

    So, we’re covering the marine phyla in my deep sea biology class, and I can’t believe I’ve never heard of the Echinura before. Those extendable proboscises are so cool!

  4. katten says

    PZ, could you please halt your class a week or so! I’m still waiting for my Amazon order “The triple helix…”, need some time to catch up;-). When I looked up the book at Amazon, it turned out that the kindle version was more expensive then the paperback and hardcover. And I could buy new hardcover book cheaper then Kindle version, strange! But I bought a used hardcover for 1 cent plus shipping cost $16.95. Hope it will be readable.