S.1 E.5 “The Little Biology”Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews microbiologist Laura Burrack.
Posted on June 8th, 2020 by

Laura Burrack, professor of biology at Gustavus, on her love of microbiology and science, innovative team teaching with a historian, researching with and mentoring biology students at a small liberal arts college, and her students’ impressive accomplishments and career trajectories.

Season 1, Episode 5: “The Little Biology”


Greg Kaster:
Learning for Life at Gustavus has produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

I am pleased to be joined today by my colleague from another fine liberal arts discipline, professor Laura Burrack of the Gustavus biology d epartment. Laura earned her undergraduate degree at nearby Macalester College in St. Paul and her PhD at Harvard. Her areas of expertise include microbiology, molecular biology, genetics, and cell biology. In addition to her impressive work as a teacher, she is a productive research scientist, including in collaboration with students, and we’ll hear about all of this a bit more from Laura herself. So Laura, welcome to the podcast.

Laura Burrack:
Thanks, Greg.

Greg Kaster:
I should note that I loved biology in high school, and it may have been partly because my best friend’s dad was my teacher, but the only thing I remember is, and maybe this is true, to so many kids taking bio in high school, is dissecting frogs. Is that something you had to do?

Laura Burrack

Laura Burrack:
I did dissect some frogs when I was in seventh grade. I also took a College for Kids at the community college where I got to dissect a pig as well. So, yes, those were certainly formative biology experiences. But by the time I finished high school, I had sort of decided that I liked the little biology. So I was really interested in sort of the mechanisms of how cells work in microbes and all those types of things. And so since then, I think that seventh grade was perhaps the last time I dissected anything.

Greg Kaster:
So let’s use those remarks as a transition to you telling us a little bit about how you became a biologist, how you became interested in it.

Laura Burrack:
I became interested in biology because I’ve always been fascinated by science, but I’ve also been fascinated by sort of complexities in the world. One of the things I love about biology is how it sort of takes all of these different mechanisms and processes and puts them together to make life. So to me, a cell or a… whether or not it’s a bacterial cell or a human cell, they’re just so amazing in all of the functions they do, all of the little molecular machines that are there, all of the interactions they have with each other. And so it was really sort of that complexity as well as the potential impact on humans that drove me to become interested in biology originally.

I also love the experimental design aspect. So I love designing experiments to figure out a problem. I love the creativity that’s involved in thinking up experiments. I love then trying to analyze the data, figure out what it might mean, take new information from different places and sort of put it all together to sort of think about a new understanding of our world.

Greg Kaster:
And did you know going into Macalester that you wanted to be a biologist? Is that what you majored in there?

Laura Burrack:
Yes. So I went to Macalester knowing that I was interested in biology. I had a very, very excellent high school biology class where our teacher really sort of allowed us freedom to do much more experimentally than a lot of high school students would able to do on a very shoestring budget. I remember he made these little containers where we could analyze DNA out of Rubbermaid containers and had like soldered in the wires himself.

And I think that that sort of experimental thing really captured my interest as a high schooler. And so I went into college knowing that I wanted to do biology, but I didn’t really know what type of biology I was interested in the most. And throughout my college career, I sort of flitted through lots of different aspects of biology. I did some biochemistry, some very sort of technical work through an internship at 3M. I worked in an immunology lab, and then by the time I graduated, I’d really settled on this idea of being interested in studying human disease.

And in particular, when I went to graduate school, I was really interested in infectious disease and thinking about the evolutionary processes that happen between a human and a host and how they interact with each other. So the human as a host and the bacteria or the virus and how they interact with each other and really sort of how these pathogens take advantage of us, but also how we sort of our immune system responds and eliminates the pathogens. And so that was my interest going into graduate school. And obviously that’s sort of very still true when I think about teaching microbiology and things like that at Gustavus.

Podcast host and historian Greg Kaster

Greg Kaster:
Well, you just mentioned virus and pathology so I must ask and stipulate you’re not an epidemiologist. You’re not a medical doctor, obviously. But I just wonder as a scientist, whether your disciplinary training, background, love of science, love of microbiology, affects at all, in ways conscious or unconscious, how you are understanding and even may be experiencing the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Laura Burrack:
Yeah, so certainly I think that my place as a microbiologist… I took graduate course in virology, I’ve rotated in a virality lab when I was in graduate school. It certainly has changed, I think, how I view the pandemic relative to a lot of people around me. It’s certainly come in very handy in being able to teach to my students what’s going on.

So when we transitioned to the online classes, my 300-level class normally does a lot of experiments in the lab thinking about microbiology and then practices writing research proposals about those. And so we just completely switched over, and all of the students in the class are writing research proposals for the class about the COVID-19 pandemic. And they’ve really come up with an amazing array of experiments that they want to propose to do, on everything from what makes a carrier asymptomatic to how the virus actually enters the cell, to thinking about what might be ways to go about looking for new possible treatments for the virus.

And so I certainly think that my training has allowed me to be an effective teacher in this moment. And I think that’s been really useful for the students because they’ve been really engaged with thinking about how all of this is working. And I think that that mechanistic understanding is really important. I think that my training as a biologist also helps me to maybe be okay with a little bit of the complexities and uncertainties that are so prevalent with this pandemic.

So there’s so much information that we don’t know yet. We don’t know why some patients are essentially asymptomatic and other patients become incredibly ill. And so my microbiologist brain always wants to go and figure out what’s the molecular understanding. And so I’ve been reading lots of papers about, what does this protein in the virus do, and what does that protein in the virus do?

And I think that it both is sort of uncomfortable because I have some knowledge of all of the ways in which things can go wrong, but it also makes it a little bit more understandable in some ways and maybe a little less… maybe I’m more able to sort of be okay with knowing that we will figure it out. Because if I think of all the other complex biological processes that have been figured out in the past, I think that there really is so much promise to understand things in the future. And I think that maybe I’m more optimistic about that than a lot of other people that I talk to. It’s not a fast process, but it’s certainly something that I see hope in eventually.

Greg Kaster:
Well, I’m already feeling better myself. Thank you. And in all seriousness, the projects you describe with the students, one, just a great example of how the virus, how the pandemic is offering us as professors, as teachers, some creative opportunities that we might not otherwise have. That’s maybe a small silver lining to the pandemic. And I would think, you’re touching this, I would think that it’s both interesting to the students and even in some ways reassuring for them to be engaged that way.

The other thing is you mentioned, which I can relate to as a historian, is your point about your comfort level with uncertainty and complexity. And as historians, always reminding our students that looking back at the past things look a lot more certain than in fact they were, and that contingency is so important in how history develops over time. So that is extremely interesting.

Back to Macalester for a second. You attended an undergraduate college. Any thoughts about how your education at a liberal arts college, Macalester, made a difference in your development as both a scientist and a teacher? That is, would things have been the same had you attended, let’s say, a big state university?

Laura Burrack:
Yeah, so I don’t think it would have been at all the same had I attended state university. I think that for me a couple really important things that came out of the liberal arts college experience was the opportunities I had as a student to do research in classes in a way that just doesn’t happen at a lot of other places. And so we do the same thing at Gustavus, where a large portion of our upper level biology classes are focused on students conducting research on projects, either related to the professor’s research or on the student’s own sort of interests as part of the class.

And so that was a really transforming experience for me as an undergraduate because it meant that I got practice researching so many different types of questions. That then when I went to graduate school, I think I was more prepared to think about the lots of different angles of biology because of this sort of routine practice that I had as an undergraduate. There was also the close relationship with my professors that I had as an undergraduate. That was really important for me.

I went in to college as someone from a very small town where I didn’t know a single person that had ever gotten a PhD in their lives. And seeing the faculty and having them encourage me was really instrumental for me in pushing myself beyond a sort of, “Oh, I’ll go work for a company in a lab,” sort of mentality that was sort of my idea going into college. And so that was super important.

And then the other aspect was the diversity of classes that I took. So I took, I think, three different anthropology classes as an undergraduate that have definitely shaped the way I view the world. I took multiple history classes, international studies classes, English classes, all of these different ways of viewing the world that I’m not sure I would have taken had I been at a larger school.

And I can see the ways in which things like the immigration history class that I took as an undergraduate at Macalester have shaped my teaching at Gustavus. Because certainly that was highly informative when I started team teaching with a historian on a class on eugenics. And so that idea of being able to integrate disciplines and thinking about how all these different ideas come together really started as an undergraduate.

Greg Kaster:
You just made a terrific case for a liberal arts education. You mentioned that you were… I neglected to ask earlier, where did you grow up? You mentioned in a small town. Was that in Minnesota or elsewhere?

Laura Burrack:
Elsewhere, in Illinois, sort of at the Illinois-Iowa border in a northwestern part of Illinois.

Greg Kaster:
What town?

Laura Burrack:
It’s called Geneseo.

Greg Kaster:
Oh my goodness. Well, I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and I went to Northern Illinois university in DeKalb for my BA and MA. And let’s see, where’s Knox College? I used to have a friend… Was that in that area? I’m trying to remember [inaudible 00:14:25]

Laura Burrack:
That’s in Galesburg, which is about 40 minutes or so from where I grew up.

Greg Kaster:
Yeah. Close. Yeah. Nice to learn that. So back to your point about working, both when you were a student at Macalester, having the opportunity to do research with professors, and now you as a professor at a liberal arts college, Gustavus. Having students work with you, and the students have the opportunity to work with you. And I’d like you to talk just a little bit, if you would, about two in particular, Katie Aney and Maicy Vossen, both of whom you have mentored. And they each won a prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship. So maybe you could say a little bit about the scholarship, your work with them, and what they’re up to.

Laura Burrack:
Yeah. So Katie actually started working with me very soon after I started at Gustavus. She came to me, I think, within the first month of arriving on campus. And she was incredibly excited about the idea of just getting started with research. And so we read lots of papers. We went back and forth, and she really sort of designed her own project. And she worked on it in my lab from… that was her beginning of her second year, all the way through her senior year, where she completed an honors project in my lab.

She also did several research experiences off campus at the Mayo Clinic and at Harvard. And after she graduated, she went to the University of Minnesota to work in the lab for a year. And then now started medical school at Harvard. And so I think she’s planning on becoming sort of a health scientist. So she’s part of this health scientist training program there, which really focuses on combining medicine with research.

Yeah, and then Maicy started in my lab through this program called FYRE, that Gustavus has. So that stands for First-Year Research Experience. And it’s a chance for students that have just finished their first year of college to really get into the lab. And then after that first year, we continued working on the project. And actually she was working on finishing the project that Katie had started. And then we applied for a presidential student-faculty research collaboration grant, and were accepted.

And so then she worked in my lab a second summer, and then we were able at the end of that second summer to submit a paper together. And so that paper includes both Maicy and Katie as authors, as well as another FYRE student that was in my lab this last summer, Hanaa Alhosawi. And the three of them are the three authors on the paper other than me. So really they all conducted graduate level work at Gustavus.

They really owned the project. They did all of the experiments except for a few that I kind of did on the side, but really it was the three of them that owned this project. And it was published in December, and I’m just incredibly fortunate to have had the chance to work with so many amazing undergraduates. In addition to those three students, I’ve had a number of other students that have been amazing, including Erica Power, who’s now a PhD student at Mayo. She also published a paper with me soon after I started. And really the Gustavus undergraduates have been amazing.

Greg Kaster:
That is all just fantastic. Much of that, I didn’t know. Congratulations on the publication and what a tremendous opportunity for those students. You must be so proud. I’m proud, and I don’t even know them. I’m proud just as a member of the faculty hearing about it. Just terrific. Why don’t you say a little bit about the kinds of courses you teach and what in fact your research is about in a way that someone like me could understand?

Laura Burrack:
Okay. So I’ll start with the courses. So the classes I teach at Gustavus range from Bio 101, which is the first introductory biology course that covers a wide range of biology, from the structure of the cell to genetic processes to evolution. And then I also teach a cancer biology class, which really thinks about what are the mechanisms by which cells develop mutations and go astray and over replicate within the body.

I also teach microbiology classes at two different levels. So I teach a 200-level microbiology class. That’s really focused at students involved in health professions. So it’s very focused on the diseases and the impacts of microbes on humans. And then I also teach a 300-level microbiology class for biology majors that thinks a little bit more about the evolutionary processes and the molecular biology of how bacteria and viruses work in addition to the better understanding of how microbes interact with humans.

In addition to these biology courses, I also teach a couple of other courses in the general education curriculum. So I’ve taught FTS a few times. So that’s First Term Seminar. And my First Term Seminar theme is genetic testing. I’ve always been really interested in genetics in addition to my interests in microbiology and cancer biology. And so the genetic testing class, we talk a little bit about some of the science of how these tests work, but really we focus on a lot of the sort of broader societal impacts that genetic testing might have.

So we think about what are the ethical implications of prenatal genetic testing? What are the privacy issues that might be there with tests like 23andMe? What are the really amazing cancer diagnostic genetic tests that have been available that have dramatically improved treatment, but how accessible are they to lots of different people? So we really think about these sort of complex issues related to genetic testing all while having the students practice writing and communicating orally, and just thinking about analysis and critical thinking and things like that.

And then the last class I’ve taught at Gustavus is that team-taught class that I mentioned earlier. So that is going to be taught again next spring as a pilot for the capstone experience in Gustavus’ new general education curriculum. And that course is, as I mentioned, on the history of eugenics and how eugenics interacts with genetic testing. And so, in other words, how does the history of eugenics in the United States influence our current understanding of genetic testing?

And so we’ve thought about all the ways in which science has been used and misused in the past and how science might be being used and misused currently. And thinking about how it’s so important to understand the historical context when you’re doing scientific research in the present. So I have quite a few classes that I just mentioned. I don’t teach all of them all at once, but I have really, really appreciated the chance to think broadly about a lot of different disciplines.

And so my research actually kind of bridges a lot of those topics that I just mentioned. So my research is on essentially, how do cells acquire genetic diversity? And how in particular do they acquire mutations that might be bad for human health? And so when we think about the types of mutations that are bad for human health… We could think about cancer mutations. We could think about microbes developing antimicrobial drug resistance.

And so my research uses a yeast model system to really explore these evolutionary processes about how cancer develops, how microbes become resistant to the drugs they want to use to treat them. With the goal of if we better understand how these processes happen, that then we can better understand the types of decisions that we might be able to make as scientists to be able to prevent this from happening. And so I really think that it’s sort of at that intersection of genetics and microbiology and cancer biology, and the fact that I’m at a liberal arts college, is so refreshing to me because I actually do have that freedom to think about how all these processes sort of work together.

Greg Kaster:
And I think, I mean, what you just said about the intersections in your teaching and your work, that is exciting. And that is one of the… I didn’t attend a liberal arts college. My wife Kate, who retired from the history department attended Bard College. I attended, as I said, Northern Illinois University and then a big private university, Boston University for my PhD. But one of the things I do love about Gustavus and any good liberal arts college is that ability to cross boundaries, even within your own disciplines, crossing sub-fields. And as you know, I had the opportunity to, the pleasure to, sit in on the course you taught with my colleague, Maddalena Marinari. It was terrific. And remind me, that was in connection with one of our Nobel Conferences, is that right?

Laura Burrack:
Yes. So we originally conceived of the class through planning the 2017 Nobel Conference on Reproductive Technologies. And so it originally came out of this idea of thinking about how reproductive technologies, including genetic testing, have changed over time. And how history and biology might come together to improve our understanding of these really important topics. And so we first taught the class that spring, right after the 2017 Nobel conference. We even brought back one of the Nobel conference speakers to virtually conference in with our class.

And it really was an amazing sort of connection that we had, but because it worked so well, we want to be able to continue to teach it even after that particular Nobel conference has ended. And so now we’re looking to transition the class into being part of the capstone curriculum. In general, Nobel Conference is something that I have been incredibly happy to be part of while I’ve been at Gustavus.

I was part of the 2017 conference on reproductive technologies. I was a host for the microbiologists that came for the 2018 conference on soil. And I’m actually co-chair of the 2020 Nobel conference, which is on cancer treatments and thinking about how does the biotechnology revolution change our conceptualization of cancer treatment and what advances have been made. But also what are some of the ethical issues related to access and equity for cancer treatment?

Greg Kaster:
That is all so exciting and interesting. I hope to, not hope, I will devote an entire podcast to our Nobel conference, which is really our signature event along with MAYDAY!. And it’s incredible to see these Nobel laureates and other prominent scholars, including humanists, not just scientists, come to Gustavus and speak before hundreds, thousands of people, many of them, high school students and their teachers.

In the time remaining, let me put this to you. I am a student thinking about biology. Why should I study biology at Gustavus in particular?

Laura Burrack:
I think that a really big advantage of the biology department at Gustavus is that we have a really sort of integrative approach to how we think about the biology core curriculum. And then there’s these 300-level classes that I mentioned before, many of which involve the opportunity to pursue independent research. And so certainly those are some advantages.

The advising in the biology department is fabulous as far as I can tell. I think that everyone in the department really cares about getting to know the students and helping them figure out what exactly is the best career for them. So in addition to career development, advising for things like health professions, there’s the faculty advisor. And so you have both of those advising sort of partners as you move through.

There’s incredible student research opportunities. So I’ve worked with quite a few different students, not just the ones that I mentioned earlier, in my lab over the summer, during January and during the semester. And a lot of other faculty also work with lots of different students. So there’s those opportunities. And then I think that the biology students at Gustavus also just have a really nice cohort.

They really seem to get along well. The students just have a great view of biology. They get to know each other. They have fascinating discussions in class where we talk about, “Why is this the best way to have done this experiment?” Or, “Why not?” Or, “What other controls would have been good to ask?” And so I think it’s that combination of the people that make up the biology department, as well as the research and the personalized attention in classes, that make the Gustavus biology department awesome.

Greg Kaster:
Well, you’ve sold me. And I would say to all high school students out there listening who might be considering Gustavus, when you come to Gustavus, be sure to seek out Professor Burrack and her colleagues in the biology department. Laura, thank you so much. This has been a real treat and take good care.

Laura Burrack:
You too.



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