S.8, E.2: “Showing Up Authentically for Our Students”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus alum and biochemistry professor Jeff Dahlseid '90.
Posted on February 18th, 2021 by

Jeff Dahlseid, Gustavus Class of ’90 and Professor in the Departments of Biology and Chemistry and Biochemistry program at his alma mater, recalls his undergraduate and graduate experiences, and talks about researching messenger RNA and “nonsense-mediated mRNA decay,” collaborating with and mentoring undergraduates in the lab, changes in science education and Gustavus itself, and what the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology program offers.

Season 8, Episode 2: “Showing Up Authentically for Our Students” 

Greg Kaster:

Hello and welcome to Learning For Life @ Gustavus, the podcast about people teaching and learning at Gustavus Adolphus College, and the myriad ways that Gustavus Liberal Arts education provides a lasting foundation for lives of fulfillment and purpose. I’m your host, Greg Kaster, a faculty member in the Department of History.

DNA. We’ve all heard of it and even know a bit about it. It is, forgive me, part of the DNA of our popular culture. But RNA? Not so much. Though, by the end of this conversation, you will know more. My guest today, Dr. Jeff Dahlseid of the Biology and Chemistry Department at Gustavus, devotes to votes a lot of time to thinking about and researching messenger RNA or MRNA. Specifically, the wonderfully named “nonsense, mediated MRNA decay” or NMD, which he’ll help us make sense of shortly.

A 1990 cum laude graduate of Gustavus, where he majored in chemistry and minored in biology, professor Dahlseid earned his PhD in biochemistry, molecular biology and cell biology from Northwestern University. He returned to his alma mater as a faculty member in 2002, following a stint at St. Olive College in Northfield, Minnesota.

Jeff teaches courses in biochemistry, biology, cell and molecular biology, proteins and genetics, and directs the Biochemistry Molecular Biology program at Gustavus. Over the years, he has mentored numerous undergraduates in research and presented and published in various scholarly venues, including with students. Along with internal funding, his work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, Project Kaleidoscope and the W.M. Keck Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Merck and the American Association For The Advancement of Science.

He is passionate about undergraduate science education, as well as quite thoughtful about matters of institutional import. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation with him. Jeff, welcome to the podcast.

Jeff Dahlseid:

Thank you, Greg. I’ve been looking forward to this as well.

Greg Kaster:

Thanks so much. We’ve crossed paths on some committees and got to know you a bit better that way. I’ve really, really been looking forward to learning more about you and your work. Before we dive into that, let me just say for listeners, if you hear hammering pounding, drilling, it’s because I’m recording in the den of the condo, downtown Minneapolis, where I live with my wife Kate. And dear neighbors, friends, they’re engaging in the remodel, so we may hear some noise. But we’ll just power through that.

Jeff, how did it go in the fall? You were teaching in the fall and what was that like with COVID? And maybe in the spring as well, I guess you were doing that probably.

Jeff Dahlseid:

I think it was at a time of steep learning curves for faculty, jumping into a new set of technologies to engage students remotely. I think the students here are really good, when you put an earnest effort forward they give you a lot of grace to try new things and have some failures and pick up and try again.

But I think it went pretty well. It helped in the fall, I think, that we knew a little bit ahead of time what was coming and so that we could brace for it and plan for it a little bit better. The spring was a little more chaotic. But both times, I’ve had good groups of students and we’ve been trying to make the best out of it and I think we did.

Greg Kaster:

Boy, I never taught online. Had you done that?

Jeff Dahlseid:

No, I never had.

Greg Kaster:

I had the same experience. Many faculty, really every faculty member at Gustavus I spoke with has kind of echoed you. In my experience as well, for the most part, the students rose to the occasion. I felt really genuine learning was going on, as good as there would be in person, although it’s not the same, obviously. I did feel good about it. I learned a great deal. And some of it I’ll probably continue even when we’re back in person. [crosstalk 00:04:14] Go ahead. What’s that?

Jeff Dahlseid:

I was going to say likewise. It was good to learn some things that I can put to use in the future.

Greg Kaster:

Same here. I wondered about scientists in their labs. Did you do labs virtually or how did that work?

Jeff Dahlseid:

We employed a couple of different strategies. This fall, I had a section of the capstone course for the biochemistry major, where we do semester long investigative projects. And there’s a planning stage to that. While we were kind of in the remote period of the first few weeks, we engage students in that planning work. And so then with the idea that, once we were able to convene on campus, they were ready to roll with their plans.

It shortened the number of weeks we actually had for hands-on work. But we emphasize that the planning as part of doing good science anyway. So we just drill down a little bit harder on that and took advantage of the opportunity that sort of the distance learning enforced on us.

Greg Kaster:

That’s fantastic. I love that. The plan, yes. This is what we need to do anyway. That’s great.

Jeff Dahlseid:

Then in some of the other classes, we took kind of A group B group strategy where we had kind of every other week, half the lab was engaged in lab with hands-on in order to allow for the distancing requirements. And then the other half, we found space in other places where they could work on the sort of post lab data analysis scientific writing and the other skills that we try to emphasize in the lab curriculum.

Greg Kaster:

That’s all great. This just, again, reminds me maybe I should stop reading the Chronicle of Higher Ed and some other industry publications. Because they’re filled with how things are not going well. But in fact, there’s a lot of good stuff happening, even amidst these challenging, awful circumstances, as we all adapt and are creative.

Greg Kaster:

There’s so much I want to ask you about, about you and about science at Gustavus. Let’s start with you. Tell us a little bit about your background, where you grew up and why you wound up at Gustavus.

Jeff Dahlseid:

I was born and raised in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. So it’s kind of the west central part of the state. It was the place that my parents landed after their education and they are both public educators, retired now. They found both jobs in Fergus Falls and so settled there. I heard a lot about Gustavus growing up, because my parents went to school at Gustavus. They actually met there.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, yeah.

Jeff Dahlseid:

Along the way as was more common in those days, they got married while they were students. That resulted in kind of the deal they made with at least as the story goes, with my grandfather, is that if my mother would switch to Minnesota state, Mankato, the tuition drop would save him money that he could use to pay for the wedding. It’s kind of a fun story. [crosstalk 00:07:48] She finished there and my dad continued at Gustavus. Then after that, and some student teaching, they ended up in Fergus Falls.

Greg Kaster:

I was amazed at the number of people who go to Gustavus, who have sometimes ancestors, not just like parents, but great grandparents who went. Was that the case with you or was it just your parents?

Jeff Dahlseid:

It was my parents. And then my dad had an older brother that went here in advance of him and then went on to dentistry. They were both first generation college students. So that’s really where it began for my lineage anyway.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great. What were your parents studying? Was it science or?

Jeff Dahlseid:

My dad was studying science. He was initially thinking that he wanted to kind of follow the pattern of his older brother and pursue dentistry. According to him, his interest in the fraternity life kind of dashed his grades and changed his plans. So he ended up looking at doing science education. And so his major was in biology. But at the time, the certification scheme for high school science, was sort of a broad high school science certification. That’s what he finished with, is a biology major with science education certification. Then my mom pursued elementary education.

Greg Kaster:

So you are educators in your family.

Jeff Dahlseid:

Yeah, big time.

Greg Kaster:

Did you consider any other schools or was Gustavus it?

Jeff Dahlseid:

I think in the end, I ended up maybe applying to three different schools, maybe having looked at a few more within the upper Midwest. So it kinda came down to St. John’s in Collegeville, Luther College and Decorah, and then Gustavus.

Greg Kaster:

And we won out.

Jeff Dahlseid:

Gustavus won out.

Greg Kaster:

Happy for us. Did you know already that you were going to major in some scientific discipline? It was in your case chemistry. How did you come to the chemistry major?

Jeff Dahlseid:

That’s an interesting question. I don’t know. I remember a big influence was this paper that I wrote in high school, on recombinant DNA technology. And that inspired me, that sort of learning about how genes could be spliced together and unspliced and recombined. So when I came to Gustavus, I think it was my interest to learn more about that.

Started with biology and chemistry and through kind of the advising that I got through the time, we didn’t then have a biochemistry and molecular biology major at Gustavus. So following the guidance of the advisors that I had, I ended up majoring in chemistry with enough biology to kind of create maybe something functionally equivalent.

Greg Kaster:

Were there professors that at Gustavus had a particular impact on your learning?

Jeff Dahlseid:

The professors I had in biology and chemistry they did. It was kind of fun in terms of returning to the faculty to be able to then teach as colleagues alongside some of the very ones that inspired me to go on beyond Gustavus. The biology side of things, it was John Lammert, Will Heidcamp and Colleen Jacks. They were still on the faculty when I returned to Gustavus, as faculty. Then on the chemistry side, it was Larry Potts, [inaudible 00:12:00] and Brian O’Brien.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, really? Brian’s here. Brian, I think, came to Gustavus about a year before me, before Kate and me, and we got to know him and just recorded a podcast. Brian’s awesome. Larry Potts, I still talk to now virtually mostly through Facebook, because of his interest in genealogy. That’s amazing. And Colleen went to Gustavus. I’m not sure any of the others-

Jeff Dahlseid:

No, I don’t think so.

Greg Kaster:

I don’t think so either. But they were all they were major figures in the faculty when Kate and I came. I guess Colleen was hired after we came. Kate might have been on her search committee actually. Anyway, the sciences were so strong and still are. We can maybe come back to that later when we talk about how you think things have changed at Gustavus. How did it work? Were you sort of on the graduate school track from early on at Gustavus?

Jeff Dahlseid:

No, I don’t know that I knew a whole lot about what the steps right after graduation were going to be for me when I started. I work with a lot of students now that come in with a pretty laser focus in a sense of their trajectory well beyond Gustavus, and I’m always kind of stunned and amazed at the apparent foresight they have.

For me, I was interested in learning more and kind of taking advantage of the college experience and kind of open to seeing where it led. I think it was really the combination of being inspired by learning in the field that drew my passion. And some of my experiences teaching assistants for laboratory sections, while a student here, that helped connect for me, what it might look like to pursue my academic interests and teaching in the form of a career.

Having public educators as parents, I had a lot of value in education and the importance of learning, lifelong learning, I really kind of swallow that pill. It was a big emphasis in my household, to the extent of we were discouraged from having jobs outside of high school, because it was more important to be focusing on learning and taking advantage of the learning opportunities, curricular and co-curricular that were available. Friends who had cars, but then had to have jobs to make the payments on the cars. It was just one of those things that was not encouraged.

Greg Kaster:

To me, that’s a great gift and it’s something I’m grateful still to this day to my parents for. I remember vividly one of my best friends in high school, his dad was a biology teacher. I can still remember him holding up a frog, and the frog suddenly peeing, a live frog peeing on him and people in the first row are [inaudible 00:15:23].

Anyway, one of the things that biology teacher, Mr. Ray [inaudible 00:15:28] said to my dad, I’ll never forget this, was that as I was going to go to Northern Illinois University, he said something to my dad, college, it will be his full-time job. So I was not required or expected by my parents to work during the school year. Just to focus on the academics. Which I’m so grateful for. What a difference that can make. Some of our students have to work, not just at Gustavus but elsewhere. They really juggle a lot.

Jeff Dahlseid:

Quite amazing, really.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, no kidding. I agree. Just before we turn to graduate school, but just briefly, were there other courses in other disciplines you enjoyed out of the sciences at Gustavus?

Jeff Dahlseid:

Yeah. I took some American history-

Greg Kaster:

Oh really? Was that with Tobin or Kevin Byrne.

Jeff Dahlseid:

Kevin Byrne, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, Kevin [inaudible 00:16:28].

Jeff Dahlseid:

It was sort of one semester for the general ed requirement, but liked it. So I took a second semester. That was fun. Out of that grew an interest in sort of the literature that was in being written in America at the time. So I took American lit too in the later stages of my time at Gustavus. I had a fun course on Finland.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, really?

Jeff Dahlseid:

Taught by Roger McKnight.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, yeah.

Jeff Dahlseid:

And I had been an exchange student in high school to Finland. It was kind of one of these unexpected boons that comes like many people, I think, experience when they go to a liberal arts college. Here I had had this exchange experience and then I had a chance to take a course on the country and the culture of the country. I think I learned as much or more in the course, than I did when I was an exchange student. It just added pound for pound, my appreciation. That was fun to kind of [inaudible 00:17:46].

Greg Kaster:

That was great. Those guys, both Roger and Kevin now, emerita retired, but really amazing professors. Now I want to go to Finland. Kate and I have been watching all these Scandinavian, noir, crime detective shows lately. [crosstalk 00:18:01]. Suddenly, I want to go to Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, one day. Why Finland in high school? How did that come about?

Jeff Dahlseid:

It came about because the US Senate sponsors an exchange with Finland from the five states with the highest degree of immigration from Finland.

Greg Kaster:

Oh yeah, sure.

Jeff Dahlseid:

They have a scholarship program. And the exchange program that administers it is called Youth For Understanding. So Minnesota happens to be one of those five states. I was encouraged in high school by my guidance counselor to give it a try. “Why don’t you apply?” So I did, and I ended up winning the scholarship. That’s how. I don’t know if I would have singled out Finland. I don’t know if I would have even considered going abroad in high school otherwise.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. That’s fantastic. Were you able to go abroad while at Gustavus or not?

Jeff Dahlseid:

I was not. Just the fight financial constraints for me at the time, where I didn’t have to work outside of my work study assignment, but going abroad was out of the question.

Greg Kaster:

But you had that experience coming in and then you were able to build on it. That’s great.

Jeff Dahlseid:

Exactly.

Greg Kaster:

I was able to go to Mexico for a semester I think I was a junior undergrad and that experience still informs me. As I’m sure yous in Finland does, in some ways. Have you been back to Finland at all or no?

Jeff Dahlseid:

I have not. While we were there, we had some opportunity to travel. This was before the Berlin wall came down, but to go to Leningrad.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, wow.

Jeff Dahlseid:

So that was kind of interesting. Going through border stations and very orchestrated visit. But it was getting to see some really different kinds of country and living expenses.

Greg Kaster:

Retracing Lennon’s footsteps or something. That’s awesome. From Gustavus, you went to Northwestern. I just know having grown up in the south suburbs of Chicago, I love the campus, I love the lakefront and all that. But anyway, what was it about Northwestern that drew you there?

Jeff Dahlseid:

It was kind of interesting. I ended up kind of considering three graduate programs. One in the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Michigan in Ann Arbor and then Northwestern. It kinda came down to between Michigan and Northwestern. I was absolutely captivated by Ann Arbor. I thought that would be just the coolest city to be a grad student in. Not as keen on the heavily urban sort of seeming for this small town, Minnesota guy, North end of Chicago.

But their program really was the best fit. It was kind of, if you could imagine it, kind of liberal arts inspired program in biomolecular science. They just had a broad range of folks there doing interesting work from the kind of extreme physical side of biophysical science all the way through to just some really interesting genetics and everything in between.

I think the diversity and a range of opportunities there, fit well with the kind of broad curiosity that liberal arts cultivates and was certainly something that I still have. Just really have an appreciation for all kinds of questions.

Greg Kaster:

Right. You do. I mean, there’s no question about that. We’ll come back to that too. That sounds like a great program. That’s the sort of program I find very, just hearing about it makes me excited. Was it a four-year program or how long does it take to do a PhD in your field?

Jeff Dahlseid:

They kind of range. Four would be really, really quick. Typical, I think in my field would be sort of in the range of five to seven years. Some programs are known for holding their students longer, like Caltech in particular, is one of those known more for the seven year timeframe. When I was recruited by the program, they were talking about trying to keep those numbers reasonable. And I ended up finishing a four and a half years.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. That’s amazing.

Jeff Dahlseid:

The second person in my program to finish up. The one in front of me had the advantage, I think of some maturity from having worked in industry first and knowing why he was there and he just buckled down and plowed through. Then I was the next to come along.

Greg Kaster:

That’s impressive. In history, I don’t know what it is these days. It used to be five to eight. I think I took eight. I wasn’t finished when I started a position at Gustavus, which I wish I had been. Actually, I didn’t finish for another three years I think.

Jeff Dahlseid:

Wow.

Greg Kaster:

That’s fast. That’s really fast. Good for you. I just love that phrase, nonsense mediated, NRNA decay. As best you can, in lay person sense, and you’re talking to someone who had, I think I’ve only had one chemistry course in my whole life, and that was high school, I’m embarrassed to say. Which I loved. In fact, one of those aptitude tests said I should be a chemist, but I became a historian instead. Anyway, what exactly is your research about? Let’s just start there. Tell us what you do.

Jeff Dahlseid:

I’ll give it a try.

Greg Kaster:

Okay, great.

Jeff Dahlseid:

What I study in a model, a single cellular organism, baker’s yeast or brewer’s yeast. The simplicity of the system helps, and it also has a tremendous sort of set of experimental tools available to it as well. But in that simple system, it also allows to kind of explain the research question, because we don’t have the added complexity of multicellularity.

If you imagine just one, nucleatic cell, cells with nuclei, the information archive is the set of instructions encoded in the genome, the genomic DNA in the nucleus. So, anytime the cell needs to carry out some kind of function, it needs to tap into the information content in that genome. The process by which it does that, geneticists would say that it expresses its genes.

At a molecular level, what that means is, it starts in the nucleus with the DNA and the information content of this polymer of four different sort of the alphabet of DNA has four characters. It makes a copy of that information in the sister molecule ribonucleic acid or RNA. Which has an analogous set of alphabet, four characters. And then that RNA molecule then leaves the nucleus as an instruction set for making the protein that will then carry out some kind of cellular function.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. Part of what you’re doing is looking at proteins, is that right?

Jeff Dahlseid:

Ultimately the end product of gene expression would be the production of some kind of protein, that would then fold and carry out some function in the cell enzymatic activity. It could be embedded at the cell membrane to have transport nutrients from the outside to the inside. It could be a structural component to give sort of shape and structure to the cell. In a generic sense anyway.

But for any one of those proteins that the cell might need, and baker’s yeast is estimated to have about 6,200 different genes, with corresponding proteins. Any time any one of those needs to be made, this process of making an RNA copy of the information in DNA, moving that RNA out of the nucleus, into the cytoplasm of the cell, that would need to be done.

Jeff Dahlseid:

Then there’s a set of enzymatic components called ribosomes that engage the RNA molecule as sort of an instruction template, to guide the joining of the building blocks of proteins together, amino acids. That’s where we think about the genetic code, the way in which the four letters in the alphabet of DNA and RNA, correspond to specifying particular amino acids in particular order.

Greg Kaster:

Well, first of all, is this something you observe through a microscope? Or how do you [inaudible 00:28:04].

Jeff Dahlseid:

We can see the end output of protein production sometimes with microscopy. We do a fair bit of molecular experiments where we’re sort of breaking cells open and extracting either the RNA molecules or the protein molecules and using various laboratory techniques to analyze them. A lot of times, running them through kind of a molecular sieve to separate them by size in a process called electrophoresis. And then trying to identify them or detect their abundance.

So sort of in that process, one of the things that my interests have focused in on, is sort of how the abundance of the RNA molecule is manipulated by the cell in order to manipulate the amount of protein that’s available. So if you’re at a point in cell process where you need a little bit of protein, or you need a whole lot of protein, the cell responds to its environment and those demands and changes how much it makes.

And that’s all a tightly regulated and orchestrated process. And one of the steps that it is regulated along the way is regulating the amount of RNA. In particular, looking at it from the point of view of how rapidly the RNA is degraded, does affect how much is available to be able to instruct the production of protein.

Greg Kaster:

It’s so cool. So interesting. So amazing. By the way, I’m happy. I have to say some of these terms are coming back to me from microbiology. But in any case, like recombinant DNA. These are processes, are they just happening all the time? And are they happening virtually instantaneously? Do you have any idea how fast these processes occur?

Jeff Dahlseid:

Yeah. One of the statistics that I share with my students is that, this would be quite rapid, but in the context of bacterial, so this would be cells without nuclei. For protein production, for a protein of about 100 amino acids long, it would take about five seconds to produce the protein.

Greg Kaster:

That’s so incredible.

Jeff Dahlseid:

In the process of making copies of DNA, I remember did this in grad school, I was using this product for DNA sequencing and it involved making copies of DNA with an enzyme called DNA polymerase. So there was something on the packaging of the product about how quickly it could assemble the building blocks of DNA over time. I remember thinking, well, I wonder what that translates into like miles per hour.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great.

Jeff Dahlseid:

I got the metrics involved, I had to translate from nanometers up to miles. It turns out that those polymerases, if they’re moving along sort of a linear chain of these alphabet characters of DNA, it moves faster than the speed of sound.

Greg Kaster:

Oh my God. That’s incredible.

Jeff Dahlseid:

Just to think that, we have these little sound barrier breaking crashes in our cells all the time.

Greg Kaster:

It’s extraordinary. Definitely one of the things that’s happened to me since teaching it at Gustavus, I think it’s in large part… Well, it’s from the Nobel Conference, our annual Nobel Conference, and also listening as I am now, listening to scientists, colleagues like you. I have a much greater awareness of all the stuff that’s going on inside my body.

Jeff Dahlseid:

Whether you like it or not.

Greg Kaster:

Exactly. I’ll never forget the, was it the Nobel Conference? I think it was on the brain, I’m not sure that that’s what it was called. But where we could hear one of the speakers placed this video and you can just hear all of the electrical stuff happening inside. It was absolutely literally, I guess pun intended, mind boggling. That’s so cool. [inaudible 00:32:42] sound, and I love that. I don’t know if only a scientist, but certainly a scientist would say, “Hmm, how can I figure out what that would be in miles per hour?” What is this phrase nonsense mediated?

Jeff Dahlseid:

It’s a curious nomenclature The pathway that I study for how RNA is degraded, is known for accelerating the degradation of an RNA molecule from what its normal rate of degradation might be. It speeds it up. Then the net effect on the sort of pool of that particular RNA would be lowered. If you think about the water level in the sink, in the morning, in the bathroom, you’re getting washed up, you’ve got the input flow from the faucet, and then if you have the drain partially stoppered, then the water leaves at a faster or slower rate. Sort of lowering the overall level in the sink.

That’s kind of what we’re looking at, is that that degradation rate or the removal rate. And the nonsense term comes from how the pathway was first discovered in that, RNA molecules that carry a mutation, a mistake, if you will, that essentially has the protein making process terminate prematurely from normal, because the code has been changed and it inserts the signal for a stop before it gets to the normal position for a stop. That particular codon, in genetic terms is referred to as a nonsense codon.

Greg Kaster:

I love these terms in disciplines and the origins of them.

Jeff Dahlseid:

Isn’t it interesting? An amino acids specifying codon, would be considered a sense codon. And then if it’s changed from making sense, it then becomes nonsense.

Greg Kaster:

All right. Well, I’m going to start yelling at my body to stop the nonsense and start making more sense. That’s so vaguely. Are there practical applications of your research? You mentioned gene splicing. That’s certainly important.

Jeff Dahlseid:

Yeah. We use that technology routinely in the laboratory. The practical applications would be distal to the research that’s immediate to my lab. We’re clearly in the camp of basic research, where we’re using kind of a model system with baker’s yeast. We’re not really looking to improve the ability of bakers to raise bread or brewers to make beer.

But rather just get at the fundamentals of understanding and then trusting that in the research apparatus for biomolecular science as a whole, that the impact on human health and welfare will follow. There’s some pretty good examples, particularly with baker’s yeast, where that has occurred. In particular, there was a Nobel Prize that went for to Lee Hartwell and colleagues, Paul Nurse, for a genetic screen that they did, where they attempted to uncover all the genes that would be involved in controlling the cell division cycle.

They did that using these model systems of yeasts. And it turned out then once they had identified those genes, that most of those genes had analogs in the human system. And they were the very genes in many cases, that were misfunctioning in cancer.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Jeff Dahlseid:

So where we had kind of the skeleton of how the whole cell controls this division cycle revealed by such efforts. Then when we were looking at human health conditions where the cell division cycle had gone wild, we were really able to make the connections there and see how the basic research informed human health in direct ways.

Greg Kaster:

That is so cool. I am never going to look at a package or packet of yeast the same way again. I love that. I’m thinking too about our colleague Margaret [inaudible 00:37:31] Causey and her work on like the humble fruit fly, what can come of that. It’s very cool.

And this is a nice segue, actually, since you’re describing the kind of basic research you’re doing. But to your, I don’t know what the right word is, partnership, collaboration with students, tell us a little bit about that. Everyone in the science does, this and some of the humanities. But to collaborate with students, to work with students on research. And you’ve done at least three dozen or starting it all off and continuing at Gustavus. What’s that process like? What do you enjoy about it?

Jeff Dahlseid:

Sharing the thrill of the pursuit, and even just the elemental curiosity with sort of emerging scholars as you kind of engage in looking at questions deeply and seriously in the laboratory. The model for training in science, in my field in particular, but I would say science wide, is kind of the apprenticeship model. It follows that certainly there’s kind of the knowledge component, the content that someone has to acquire to kind of have a good understanding of the field.

But when it comes down to actually then practicing inquiry, there’s a whole set of really practical tools, more like work that a mechanic might do compared to a scholar in some ways. So you have to just get in the lab and roll up your sleeves and sort of apprentice students into those practices. It’s a very close relationship, kind of inquiry, working shoulder to shoulder, a lot of demonstration. It’s kind of like show once, watch once and then they’re on their own. Then come and ask me if you have questions.

There’s kind of a maturing that happens there, just to learn the methodologies. Then of course methodologies by themselves leave you kind of a technician level. But to move them more towards the scholar level, you need to begin to understand how do you ask questions and how do you pursue those questions using a scientific method, so that you can interpret results with some confidence?

Greg Kaster:

You’ve just had some amazing experiences in students. I’m thinking about Abby [Trials 00:40:19], who I think won the Goldwater Scholarship, in maybe 2019 and one named Sarah Graves. Tell us a little bit about some of the students themselves that you’ve worked with, like Abby and Sarah.

Jeff Dahlseid:

I remember meeting Abby as a prospective student. She and her mom were visiting campus. She was already very seriously science-minded, asking as a prospective student, about research opportunities for students early in their career. She was one of our presidential scholar interviewees. And then right away, when she was in her first semester, then she came by my office and said, “Remember me?” And the started asking about research opportunities.

So here it was, we had claimed to have these now let’s see that put into action. I worked with my colleague Scott Burr, to get Abby into the lab for the first January term that she was on campus. She just dove right in. Her part of her experience was finding that she was kind of in over her head, the deep end as we sometimes say. That’s a pretty normal part of the experience.

Then just to have that kind of normalized for her through the coaching that she got from Dr. Burr, especially and myself some, to kind of understand that, you’re often feeling out of your depth when you’re asking scientific questions. And that persistence is a big part of it and that you just need to hang on and it starts to come together.

Greg Kaster:

That’s such an important lesson for students, I think no matter the discipline. Everything you just said, it applies to history, I know it applies to any discipline where someone is doing research. That feeling of, it’s uncomfortable, it’s scary, you’re in over your head. [crosstalk 00:42:31] What was that?

Jeff Dahlseid:

What are people going to think? Can I convince them?

Greg Kaster:

Yes, exactly. Do I want to continue? Does this really matter? Some of that just, I don’t know, that’s just being a graduate student working on a dissertation. I think that’s all really important. Then she won the Goldwater, which is really a prestigious award. What is she doing now? Do you know?

Jeff Dahlseid:

She’s gone on to graduate school and is actually interestingly, she and I never did research together. I helped her get into that research experience in her first January term and I’ve had her in class. But she’s actually pursuing study in RNA. She’s in University of Colorado in Denver.

Greg Kaster:

I’m trying to think of how to make a terrible joke about messenger RNA getting to her from you or [inaudible 00:43:24]. That’s awesome. These are just students, I know you could talk about others and feel free to. But I another student I came across in preparing for the podcast was Sarah Grace, what is her story?

Jeff Dahlseid:

Sarah’s an interesting one where she came to me later in her time at Gustavus, where she just a real go getter and very interested in science and the pursuit of science. A lot of these folks come in with a pretty deep interest in medicine initially. Some find themselves sticking with that in terms of looking at medical practice and her case moved toward pursuit of research, more of kind of a translational medical research orientation.

But she had gotten herself into research opportunities off campus first at the University of Michigan at the Mayo Clinic. But as she kind of was looking at, I guess it was before and after the summer that she went to the Mayo Clinic, she had time on her hands and wanted to do some more research. She came by and asked if I had projects in my lab.

So we got started on some new directions that I was looking at, the RNA degradation for some genes that we hadn’t had time to analyze yet. I think she’s probably the single most productive student I’ve ever had in lab. She just dug in through a January term and spring semester, did a huge amount of work. Then went off to Mayo for the summer, did research there and then came back and kind of pushed through to draw our project really nicely together in the fall.

She ended up graduating early, so three and a half years, and then jetted over back to Mayo where she had an offer from the lab that she had worked in the prior summer, to continue doing work and then started graduate school there. And so she’s in her graduate studies there.

Greg Kaster:

That’s just fantastic. Wow. It’s got to be so gratifying to work with those. Well, I know it is. I mean, obviously, to work with those kinds of students and then see them. One of the things I love is just seeing what alums wind up doing. I love that so much and keeping up with them as you have with Sarah and Abby, and I know so many others.

This leads me to a kind of a big question. I’m asking, because I know how much you care about and think about your teaching. That’s reflected in some of the grants you’ve received and been part of. What are the ingredients of really excellent science education? You can come at that from the vantage point of a professor or student or both, if you like.

Jeff Dahlseid:

Sure. That’s a huge question.

Greg Kaster:

I know it’s a huge question.

Jeff Dahlseid:

I think that I think there’s a tendency to go toward content in that conversation often, by professionals. What do you need to know to be able to do, to accomplish, to demonstrate that you’ve obtained an excellent education? I would say that in terms of the teaching side of that, certainly, in the case of science, and I think you’d probably argue this for history that to really get a top flight education, you should have some practice in the discipline as part of kind of finishing at least a major. Outside of just maybe a general education exposure.

I think that’s where our laboratory experiences come into play. Traditionally those were kind of more oriented to be illustrative of what is done in science. Increasingly, like the current leading edge right now, is really to engage students in the practice of science authentically, through our laboratory experiences. I think about that in the context of providing freedom within bounds for students.

On the earlier stages of the curriculum, there’s more bounds and less freedom. And they might be learning more methods that are basic or foundational, but then as they go through the curriculum, it should become more and more freedom and fewer and fewer bounds. To kind of the ultimate would be that research collaborative experience where you’re really engaging in an unbounded way, authentic research. You keep pressing until you get the answer. And it’s not bounded by even a semester long research project in the context of a course, is bounded by the fact that you have to turn grades in at some point, right?

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Jeff Dahlseid:

It has to come to some kind of conclusion and is time bound in that case. But in engaging students then in the actual practice, well above and beyond the content and sort of thinking about the content piece, I think that sciences have shifted to become more and more like how we think about the field of law. Where to become a practitioner in law, you don’t know all of law. You get your law degree and then you kind of dig down and become an expert. And so you practice law, you don’t know all of law.

I think an old paradigm for the sciences was to be a chemist or to be a biologist, meant that you knew all of chemistry. And that’s just simply impossible these days given how much we know. I think the paradigm is shifting to that, you practice chemistry or you practice molecular biology, and you can’t possibly know all of it.

It makes the liberal arts background a great preparation for it, because you’re really learning how to learn at a really high level. As your career continues to demand that of you, you continue to either find collaborators who know what you need to know and work with them and learn from them, or you become somewhat of an expert yourself by picking it up and learning.

Greg Kaster:

All of this is making me excited and smiling because it’s exactly the same, excuse me, shift that’s occurred in the history of the discipline. And maybe across the academy where we talk now about thinking historically. What does it mean to think historically? In other words, it’s the old coverage versus skills wherever you want to phrase it, tension. Certainly, I’m in my teaching, I do a lot less worrying now about, “Oh my God, I need to cover this. I need to cover that.”

An educator, has a history background, Sam Weinberg, who came to Gustavus years ago, has put it in his latest book, something like, “Why study history when it’s on your iPhone?” It’s too much information and the information is readily available and a lot of the information is garbage. It’s more important to know how to find information, how to process it, how to tell good information from junk information, et cetera. But yeah, exact same thing. Less about content, not that content isn’t important of course, but about the practice as you said.

Jeff Dahlseid:

So I think then, when it comes around to teaching, for me at least, one of the things that was always inspiring as a student, was the authenticity of the engagement I had with my instructor. What was true and real about them? What was inspiring? Their passion, their knowledge, their skills, their ability, their excitement. And so, I think about, Parker Palmer writes about the classroom or the teaching profession as being sort of at the intersect of the public and the private. I think it’s easy to become a sort of uber professional about it and distance our engagement in a less authentic way with students. Sometimes, even just for self preservation. But I think the real mojo lies at showing up authentically for our students.

Greg Kaster:

All well said. You reminding me, by Parker Palmer, I don’t know if he came to Gustavus, but at some point, maybe a group of us reading. I don’t remember the title, but his book about teaching, the courage to teach. [crosstalk 00:52:34] Which definitely had an impact on me as it’s had on so many.

That’s all incredibly well said and important. The other thing, you kind of in a way touched on this, when you were mentioning your experience as a student, just a minute ago. What’s your sense of how things have changed at Gustavus? Again, I know that’s a big question. But are there any things that really stand out all these years later from when you graduated?

Jeff Dahlseid:

Yeah. That is a huge question. It’s a hard one to know how to tackle. I think about, even from the time I’ve been on the faculty at Gustavus, I might say, “Well, which Gustavus are you referring to?”

Greg Kaster:

Yes. That’s good. That’s a mini answer.

Jeff Dahlseid:

Because it’s really been and continues to progress as an institution. With that change, there are some things that stay true and then there are some things that really kind of change. I would say that some of the things that have changed, from the time that I was a student to the present, probably track the STEM fields as a whole. In that this emphasis on practice is, is more supported and facilitated these days than it was when I was a student. In terms of, in particular, the undergraduate research experience, as being an important and integral part of more students’ experience.

Greg Kaster:

And by supported you mean it’s really funded by external-

Jeff Dahlseid:

Yeah. I think things in like changes in the number of contact hours that faculty have with students, so that the teaching load is more accommodating of having additional time to work with students in the research laboratory. I think like when I was a student here, I’ll bet you that Larry Potts and Bill Heidcamp and company, that I named earlier, were probably looking at 18 contact hours a semester instead of 12. It’s hard to have time to do as much research with students, when that’s the teaching load. So I think some of those things have come along. Our new facilities obviously are a pretty exciting in addition to that repertoire of resources.

Greg Kaster:

My God, the new Nobel. It’s remodeled, expanded. It’s incredible. It’s amazing.

Jeff Dahlseid:

It’s really, totally a different facility from what it was in some way. I think it came off to great effect in that, my location in the space now is in the new space that was added to the South end of the existing building. But usually move into the renovated original, Nobel, it’s just seamless in design. You can’t really tell which is old and which is new. And yet, there’s enough features that are recognizable from the past, that you can kind of see,” Oh, that’s kind of like what it was before.” And yet had it’s an entirely new facility.

Greg Kaster:

I walked through and I also sat in on a class there, one of your colleagues in biology. Aside from the awesome facilities for the scientists, the professors and the students, it’s a dream come true for me, because I used to fantasize about having pastry carts and coffee [inaudible 00:56:22]. Not just in one location, but various locations around campus.

I walk in and I see there’s a, I can’t remember. There’s a coffee and pastries place right there in the [crosstalk 00:56:35]. Yeah, that’s it. Wow. This is incredible. For me, definitely the facilities, there’s continuity for sure about the, not new anymore, the campus center that was built after the tornado in ’98. The new Nobel, the way that Social Science, that building has been refurbished and made really beautiful and I think more functional.

Then also, there always been great professors and dedicated professors at Gustavus from the get go. I think it seems that the faculty is maybe a lot more even diverse. I don’t mean just in terms of ethnic and racial background, but in terms of geographic background as well. I didn’t attend, regular listeners don’t. I didn’t attend a liberal arts college. My wife did. She attended Bard College. I just love…

One thing that stayed the same is that, I think there’s a lot of freedom at Gustavus for faculty and students alike to explore. I mean, look, at a lot of schools, I wouldn’t even be doing a podcast. Forget it. You’d be [inaudible 00:57:45]. But just to be able to do the kind of teaching and learning we’re able to do, is truly, it’s a blast. Yeah, there’s grading, there’s always the, that goes without saying. But it’s mostly just a blast, I think. I really, really enjoy it so much.

The other thing I wanted to ask you is, and I should have asked this maybe much earlier, is to offer us a definition of biochemistry. You’re the director of that program. What is biochemistry about. What’s your pitch for the biochem molecular biology program at Gustavus?

Jeff Dahlseid:

The title of our program is Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. I find myself and talking with prospective students, current students, outside constituents, really referring to it as the field of biomolecular science. Kind of like we maybe use the term neuro-science, it’s really quite a broad field. It sort of starts when you lean toward things biological from chemistry and continues all the way over toward the molecular sides and even cellular sides of biology.

It’s quite a broad field. It intersects with other fields that we would know by name like immunology and neuroscience. So the program here I think is strong and in three regards. I think we’re distinct, we’re robust and we’re flexible. By that, I mean, the program is distinct in particular, by being jointly created by the biology and chemistry departments here. That sort of origin story for the program, means that it started in such a way that the program itself could live at the center of the two departments. Or the continuum of the field between those two points.

Whereas a lot of places will have a second major in biochemistry, either offered out of the biology department or the chemistry department. So then the net effect is you get kind of a flavor degree. In our case I think we do, we can celebrate the whole continuum between biology and chemistry, because of that origin and the centristic sort of orientation as a program. I think we’re robust in that we give students a great grounding in the foundations of the disciplines. Lots of opportunity to practice and we develop lots of transferrable, liberal arts learning gains.

Then I think the last part would be, that we’re flexible with the way that program is structured. We really prioritize helping students land where they’re supposed to, or where they need to land. Which we, I think do, through some very effective advising in chemistry and biology and in the program. So that it allows students to change majors when that’s the appropriate thing to do. Maybe from biochemistry to biology or chemistry or maybe something else.

Then within the program, we put some energy, especially through the capstone course on vocational reflective activities, to help students think deeply about where they are to land and what their gift set in the world’s needs, how that those might intersect in ways that bring them happiness and impact.

Greg Kaster:

I’m sold. I’m so sold.

Jeff Dahlseid:

[inaudible 01:01:28].

Greg Kaster:

You pretty much had me at the first point about why it’s distinct, which I think that is distinctive and important. Then you definitely had me at the end with the piece about thinking about vocation beyond just the major. I could keep going, as always. It’s so interesting and energizing to speak with you. I’m going to have to go back and read some more about RNA and DNA. [inaudible 01:02:00] Just the way that the DNA, the way that gets thrown around. We even, some historians are like, “Slavery is the original sin or slavery is in our country’s DNA.” It’s interesting and has interesting, problematic implications.

But Jeff, this was really fun and interesting. Thank you so much. Any prospective students listening, be sure you contact professor Dahlseid and see if you’ve got the right stuff to do some research with. You’ll be in good hands.

Jeff Dahlseid:

[inaudible 01:02:30].

Greg Kaster:

[inaudible 01:02:30] That would have been a great answer to my question. What’s your [inaudible 01:02:36]? It’s all nonsense. That’s a good tagline. So take good care. Good luck. You’re on sabbatical this spring, right?

Jeff Dahlseid:

I am.

Greg Kaster:

Good luck with that. Maybe at some point we can get together again in person, I hope, once we’re vaccinated.

Jeff Dahlseid:

That would be lovely. This has been a total [inaudible 01:02:55], Greg.

Greg Kaster:

Likewise, Jeff. Take good care. Thanks so much.

Jeff Dahlseid:

All right.

Greg Kaster:

See you later. Bye-bye.

Jeff Dahlseid:

Bye-bye.

Greg Kaster:

Learning For Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of the Gustavus Office of Marketing, Gustavus graduate Will Clark, class of ’20, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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