JSU Biology: Teaching Students to Think Like Scientists


Kaylee Rawlins working in Dr. Lori Hensley's biology research lab as a sophomore in 2019. She's now in medical school at UAB.

by Brett Buckner

At the end of her freshman year, Morgan Brown decided that JSU was too small and transferred to a “big-time university.” It didn’t take long for her to realize her mistake.

“The school was huge,” she said. “I lost the close-knit connection that I need to perform well as a student. I didn’t know the professors, and they didn’t know me, or really seem to care.”

Morgan lasted one academic year before transferring back to JSU – breathing a “huge sigh of relief.” She received her undergraduate degree from JSU in 2018 and completed her master’s degree in biology in May 2022. She is currently employed by the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology.

Stories like Morgan’s are common at JSU, the Friendliest Campus in the South, where faculty know their students by name. With a student/faculty ratio of 19:1, students get personal mentoring from their professors – which can make a huge difference in the lives of future scientists. In addition to its supportive faculty, the Department of Biology has built its reputation for academic excellence based on a core curriculum, lab work and research that challenges students to think like scientists.

“They are innovating science education across the curriculum by providing undergrad research experiences in almost every course,” said Dr. Tim Lindblom, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics. “Instead of students doing cookbook lab work exercises, and coming up with an expected answer, they’re coming up with their own research questions and doing real science in every class.”

The term “cookbook” echoes through the halls of the department. It stands as the antithesis of what JSU faculty want to give their students, explains Dr. Lori Hensley, department head and biology professor. 

“Traditionally, students go to a lab and are given a lab manual or a handout, and they follow step-by-step what they should do,” Hensley said. “They know what the conclusion should be and then they answer some questions at the end about what they did. I call those ‘cookbook labs’ because it teaches students to bake really nice cakes, but it doesn’t necessarily teach them to think like a scientist.”

One of the innovative teaching methods JSU’s faculty employs to prepare students for a career in the sciences is the course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs). This has transformed the way science is taught in that it essentially replaces all course-based labs with labs that provide authentic research experiences. 

“It’s critical,” Hensley said of the impact the CURES program has on science majors. “They’re going to be hired by doctors or lab technicians – people who are making decisions based on scientific data. So, if they’ve never had to design a research question, or figure out which experiments would be appropriate to answer that research question, or how to analyze data once they have it in their hand or how to communicate the value of that data once they have it, they simply aren’t going to be very effective in a position in science.”

Growing up with a mother who worked in healthcare, Kaylee Rawlins can’t remember a time when she wasn’t interested in science. She enrolled in JSU’s pre-health biology program because it offered a quality education at an affordable cost. She said JSU’s spirit of cooperation makes it special.

“Unlike some of the larger schools where competition between students is rampant and one-on-one help from instructors is nearly impossible to acquire, there seems to be a common goal of helping students succeed from both peers in your classes and your instructors,” said Rawlins. “I've forged extremely close friendships with my classmates, typically starting by one of us asking a clarifying question to each other about an assignment or lecture topic.”

Rawlins graduated with a bachelor’s in pre-health biology in 2022 and has been accepted into medical school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham for Fall 2023. In 2019, she, along with Caitlyn Yongue were the first JSU sophomores to perform cancer research as part of a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.  

“JSU has given me many unique opportunities that I believe will make me stand out amongst other medical school applicants,” she said. “The recent push towards CURE-based labs have enabled me to have authentic research experiences that I believe will increase my likelihood of success in medical school and after.”

The CURE-based approach allowed JSU to join the Small World Initiative, which encourages students to pursue careers in science while addressing a worldwide health threat – superbugs and the diminishing supply of effective antibiotics. More than 330 undergraduate institutions and high schools are involved worldwide. 

“It’s a great opportunity for our students,” Hensley said. “They’re really making a difference in the world.”

Asley Adamson wanted to make a difference in the world. When her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, she realized just how much scientific research could directly impact the lives of those she loved. It wasn’t until her senior year in high school that the Haleyville native learned about JSU and its available scholarships 

“Being able to afford college was a struggle for me and most other kids in my hometown, so being awarded a full ride to JSU was kind of an answered prayer,” she said. “I ended up getting very, very lucky that the professors in the biology department were so invested in their student’s learning and success because I didn't even know what to look for at the time.”

Adamson graduated from JSU in 2019 with a bachelor's in cellular and molecular biology and a minor in chemistry. She is currently pursuing at Ph.D. in neuroscience at UAB. Like Brown, Adamson found that JSU’s smaller classes were a benefit rather than a hindrance.

“Another fantastic thing about JSU,” Adamson said, “is that because there weren't hundreds of students in my classes, I was able to get my hands dirty - so to speak - in actual lab techniques that made me a talented and experienced candidate after I left.”