As a teaching faculty member of the Department of Biological Sciences, I conduct research on two topics related to science education 1) science communication skills and 2) teaching strategies that support memorable learning. I also participate in basic science research during the summer in the Lew Jacobson lab where the focus is on muscle protein degradation in C. elegans.
Science communication, whether written or spoken is an important, but often, neglected skill that students need for presenting data in lab meetings, summarizing primary literature in journal clubs, explaining a project at a poster session or delivering a seminar. An inability to express oneself can mask competency in science and may be a critical obstacle in real world situations too, such as job interviews or communicating a policy position to a client or the public. My research has shown that students benefit from formal instruction on the general processes for written/oral presentations as well as the discipline specific norms and conventions of biological communication. The opportunity to practice, revise and receive feedback on drafts for both venues is also critical. Technological support as a means to provide feedback for student's oral communication skills has been especially useful. Adapting a rich-media format that allows students to view their recorded talks with instructor commentary in an easily accessible online format is a valuable tool that improved student's final presentations (Figure 1).
A second area of science education research focuses on altering the way cell signaling is presented in basic biology courses from the notion of a singular pathway response from ligand to effector to perceiving signals as being integrated modulators of cell function. I continue to develop and refine instruction and/or assignments to encourage an interactive way of thinking about signals in, for example, representational tools (concept maps) or problems (deciphering intracellular cross talk in drug treatment scenarios). While I initially focused on cell signaling, I recognize that many biological functions show patterns of complex interacting inputs; control of gene expression, developmental differentiation and maintenance of homeostasis. Combinatorial regulation rather than a simple "on/off" response is a common modus operandi that awaits these students in upper level courses. Designing and coordinating teaching modules that support this learning goal is the focus of this pedagogical research.
In my basic science research projects I have examined the phosphorylation status of multiple signaling components in pathways that mediate muscle protein degradation in C. elegans. Components of an autophagic pathway, Raf-MEK-MAPK, are not equally sensitive to modulation by intracellular calcium calmodulin protein kinase II (CamKII). Using a western blot analysis of signal proteins from mutant worms displaying loss or gain-of-function of pathway or kinase genes revealed varied sensitivities. Raf is influenced by CaMKII in a permissive manner; in the absence of CamKII it showed less phosphorylation at its activation site, while gain-of-function CamKII had no effect beyond control levels at this same site. MEK and MAPK are positively regulated by CamKII with MAPK may actually be potentiated by CamKII. Becuase this pathway has many inputs and interactions, deciphering its function is a challenging and changing research project.
Dr. Curto began a research career as an undergraduate working on learning generalization in Emus (Dromaius Novaehollandiae) during a senior year long project at Chatham College. The work was conducted at the Pittsburgh Zoo. After obtaining a Master's degree in the Experimental Analysis of Behavior from Bryn Mawr College, she worked as a technician at the Food & Drug Adminatration, Bureau of Radiological Health. This research focused on behavioral/developmental changes following exposure to nonionizing radiation (microwave and ultrasound). In a position at the University of Arkansas she assisted on research pertaining to the behavioral effects of pesticide exposure in mice, while taking courses to qualify for a return to graduate school in Pharmacology and Toxicology. After obataining a PhD (The Effects of Phthalate Acid Esters on Developing Male Reproductive Organs) in Pharm/Tox (West Virginia University), she worked as a post-doc in protein biochemistry and reproductive endocrinology both at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. A subsequent postdoc and Research Assistant Professor position at the University of West Virginia focused on molecular biology indicators in rat models of hypertension. Prior to coming to the University of Pittsburgh to teach, she was a National Research Council Fellow at the NIH, National Institute on Aging examining cell signaling mechanisms in smooth muscle cell migration. Dr. Curto joined the faculty in Biologcal Sciences in 1999 and has worked during summers, when funding was available, in the lab of Lew Jacobson, PhD studying mechanisms of cell signaling in C. elegans muscle protein degradation.