Initial Publication Date: April 10, 2020

Cell Biology Education Consortium (CBEC), Ouachita Baptist University and Jacksonville State University

Nathan Reyna, Ouachita Baptist University; Lori Hensley, Jacksonville State University

The Cell Biology Education Consortium (CBEC) is an NSF-RCN funded network of faculty and students designing and utilizing tissue culture resources in the context of cell biology CUREs. These resources are called Cell Blocks and can be used in a mix-and-match fashion to answer unique, authentic research questions. The modular design of CBEC makes it extremely flexible to implement. Faculty can address very different research questions using the pedagogical and technical tools, ranging from studying cancer lines to neuron functioning.

CURE Development

CBEC was started at Ouachita Baptist University (OBU) by Nathan Reyna and Lori Hensley. Nathan Reyna was the regular cell biology instructor and created a partial CURE for the lab centering on his research with oxidative stress pathways in plants. When he went on sabbatical in the fall of 2015, Lori Hensley (formerly at OBU, currently at Jacksonville State University) taught for him and initiated what eventually became the basis for the CBEC idea. Cell biology students were asked to address questions related to cell proliferation and migration using tissue culture of cancer cells as a model system. Her students adapted basic protocols for investigating cell viability and migration and invasion to be feasible in the context of the course-based lab. Protocols, instructional videos, pre-lab activities, and presentation rubrics were developed and utilized in this Cancer CURE. This work was closely related to Lori's faculty and independent student research funded by the IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE, NIH). This allowed students from the cell biology CURE lab who were interested in further pursuing their work from the class to easily develop independent projects as a result of the lab.

In the subsequent years, Nathan has been able to utilize, improve and expand the modules created in the initial pilot lab. He is a team member of the AR-EPSCoR funded Center for Advanced Surface Engineering (CASE) and has increased student involvement in his research by incorporating related work looking at the role of exosomes in neuron differentiation into the lab portion of Cell Biology. We had not expected that it would so easy for Nathan to adapt what had been created to a completely different project. It was exciting to think about how that could grow into something bigger to help other people adapt our ideas similarly. Because these projects were complex and the classes were large, we had to come up with an organized plan to implement our vision. This plan became the foundation for the Cell Biology Education Consortium (CBEC).

CUREs were used to replace traditional labs to ensure that every student would have the opportunity to participate in the CURE. Incorporating CUREs into established classes was the best way to achieve this goal. We supported the CURE with funds already allocated for purchasing supplies for the labs they were replacing. Essentially, we funded the CURE by changing how we spent the funds allocated to the lab course. Because the CURE lab reflected our research interests, we were also able to split costs between our class supplies and our research supplies. We could purchase material (i.e. media) in bulk at a reduced rate and split these costs between our research and class budgets.

We try to keep the research novel by asking a new question or having a theme for each year's class. In their final presentations, students are expected to propose next steps by answering the question, "where should the project go from here?" We build off of these ideas or new ideas generated from independent student projects. The lab is organized slightly differently every year so that students always feel a sense of ownership for what they are doing in the lab. This seems to be a significant factor for student engagement and continued interest.

The cost of facilities to allow for CUREs is always a stumbling block. Spaces need to be updated and renovated to accommodate research-based labs. We have been successful at leveraging our grants to make these changes.

Indicators of success are still largely intangible. Faculty morale, excitement about the labs that is fueled by our student engagement, and drastic increases in faculty and student presentations seem to be changing the culture over time. Expectations of our students are high. This drives us to continue and feels like success. Actual assessment data from national CURE surveys reflect the change in the attitude of our students.

We are working on increasing the relevance of CBEC outside of the classroom by building a website with online resources.


To fund the CURE, we changed how we spent our money. Traditional labs are not free. After our grants ran out, we just used our regular budgeted money for that class. Often the CURE lab is cheaper than buying kits or material for a traditional lab. Because the CURE lab reflected our research interests, we were also able to split the costs between our class supplies and our research supplies. We could purchase material (i.e., media) in bulk at a reduced rate and split these costs between our research and class budgets. Most of our CURE began by using funds allocated to each class. However, we just stopped purchasing "kits" and started buy material in bulk to conduct our CURE lab. Often our CURE labs are cheaper than the lab it replaces. We forget how expensive cat dissections are. Current RCN-UBE funding helps with our lab costs and provides leverage for future funding.

Stakeholder Buy-In

The first formal CURE at OBU was the HHMI-SEA phages. Student buy-in was initially hard because they could choose from a traditional one lab/week option or the phage lab which met twice/week and was more work. However, as we scaffolded more CUREs into the biology curriculum, the culture began to change. Student buy-in became easier. We stressed the community aspect of our CUREs and emphasized the relevance and application of the science they were doing. This helped the students be more engaged and connected with the scientific community. Students were encouraged to present at state and regional meetings. Joining groups like the AR-CURE helped students have a sense of being part of a broader idea and community. Buy-in is no longer a problem; now, students want to be a part of the project.

At both OBU and JSU, CUREs are scaffolded throughout the curriculum. JSU is still scaling this up in introductory classes, but students completing a biology degree at either school will complete multiple CUREs by the time they graduate through required courses for the major. Students also work on project ideas or develop new techniques as part of their Honors directed studies or other independent study courses. Ideas that emerge from these independent projects often become the basis for new course-based projects and are then implemented into Cell Biology. Additionally, student research projects are spun out of class projects. All of the ideas are related to the theme of our research grants. We are generating data that satisfies personal research needs and incorporating as many students as possible.

We have also worked with nearby community colleges to ensure that students taking CBEC courses at the community college will be able to transfer research credits when they transfer to a 4-year institution. This involved presenting and communicating about CBEC with both institutions and helping facilitate communication about the program and credits.

We had faculty at both institutions who were open to change before starting this project. As a group, we were discussing new options and looking for ways to better serve our students. It was important to us that our graduates had completed real science and could think like scientists. At JSU, consideration is given to faculty who are trying new CUREs in their courses when it comes to teaching loads. This helps give them the time they need to incorporate change and build a successful program.

Support from administration within the schools of science (i.e., from chair/department head and deans) has been strong. However, it has been more difficult to gain support at higher levels of administration outside of the natural sciences and this effort continues to require our attention. Our upper administration is not opposed to our projects, but they do not know or understand what we are doing. Additionally, faculty who do not use the CURE model within our schools do not fully understand the workload or the impacts.

At OBU, faculty using CUREs started presenting their projects at a monthly faculty colloquium, and we have written articles for the local and university newspaper about our projects. The JSU Cancer CURE has also been featured in campus and local news stories ( Currently, we are trying to incorporate what we do into social media. Upper administration cares about enrollment. Selling the CUREs and what they do for our students is critical in gaining administrative support. Over time, our CUREs have become a selling point for recruiting new students. Recruitment is the number one way to get our administration to buy-in.

The modular design of CBEC makes it flexible for faculty to implement because they can select which modules align with their goals and constraints. Additionally, protocols have been modified so that they can be implemented in class sessions of different time lengths to accommodate different class schedules. For example, modules have been designed to work in a standard three hour lab period, but can also work in other time period formats because "acceptable stop points" in the protocol have been identified to help instructors customize the time.

Sustaining Change

The HHMI-SEA phages lab was a significant initiator of change. Receiving funding and guidance to help faculty learn how to do this was critical. Neither school would be where they are without that start. HHMI sent a program officer to OBU who met with all levels of administration and stressed the significance of what we were doing.

The tipping point was a combination of administrator turn-over and grant success. The department chair who initially encouraged CUREs became Dean, and Lori Hensley became the Biology Department Chair. Once this happened, support was in place at multiple levels. Funding for the projects soon followed, and we began to be invited to speak at other institutions.

Importantly, in 2017, Lori Hensley took a job at Jacksonville State University. When Lori was hired, there were no CURE labs at JSU, but since has implemented CUREs in introductory biology, cell biology, genetics and ecology. Ironically (several years prior to hiring Lori), JSU was one of the first schools invited to participate in the HHMI-PHAGE program. However, due to lack of administrative support, at the time, JSU did not stay in the program. It should be noted that strong support from the department chair is critical to successful CURE development and implementation.

Some degree of burnout is inevitable because implementing CUREs is hard work and the faculty who are willing to implement CUREs are generally already very active. At both institutions (JSU/OBU), we have changed how we hire. New job descriptions discuss the development of CUREs or student-centered research projects and emphasize the type of faculty member we want, not necessarily a specific area of interest. Candidates are informed in the advertisements that they must have a strong interest in innovative teaching and student-centered pedagogy. In the past, candidates were asked to give a research presentation as part of the hiring process. Now, candidates are asked to present how they will incorporate research into class projects. We have emphasized CUREs in our department and school strategic plans.

Ensuring that faculty research is counted towards their teaching loads has been pivotal in helping faculty manage the additional time necessary for successful CUREs. At both JSU and OBU, faculty are given course credit for supervising independent research; this essentially buys them out of one class, reducing the traditional twelve-hour teaching load requirement. Providing summer stipends for faculty who are developing research projects and providing course release for CURE implementation can all contribute to decreased burn-out. As the Chair at JSU, Lori is giving more support to faculty that participate in CUREs by providing travel money, load protection, and general support to encourage CURE development. Another important factor in sustaining this CURE is recruiting outstanding students in the course to become peer instructors in future semesters. This greatly reduces time faculty spend preparing for labs and provides critical assistance to students during labs.

Faculty turn-over and engaging existing faculty to implement CUREs is one of the hardest aspects of sustaining a CURE. At OBU, we have two champions of CUREs (N. Reyna and R. Plymale). However, it took a few years of participating in pre-existing CUREs before we were able to create a novel CURE.

While we both love to teach, we also tend to get bored quickly unless what we teach and the way we teach it is always moving forward and incorporating new things. We did not enjoy "cookbook" labs and wanted a way to do research without having to run an extensive research lab. CUREs were the way to make class exciting while allowing us to conduct research in our own interest areas. Our research labs and funding have grown as a result of doing CUREs. CUREs are an excellent way for faculty at small schools to remain relevant and connected to the scientific community. We talk about the impact of authentic research experiences on student learning, but we often forget what CURE labs do for faculty morale.

Advice for Implementation

We wish we had understood the need for assessment when we began the CURE. We did not do a good job of assessment early on, and it is still a struggle. It was easy to capture data and feedback that helped to improve our labs but did not necessarily contribute to a clear data set that could help with publishing, presenting, or gaining funding.

Collaboration is very important when trying to get a CURE started. We should have tried to get more people involved and connect with others with similar interests earlier in the process. Lack of assessment data and a lack of confidence in our process resulted in our initial hesitation to tell others about our project. Initially, we did not attend science education meetings or present our work. Once Nathan received funding for AR-CURE, things started to move quickly. After our initial funding, others took notice of what we were doing at OBU.

Learning from past mistakes is essential. The CBEC went from an idea to fully funded NSF–RCN UBE in less than two years. This was because we had collaborators and assessment data to back up our project. As the directors of AR-CURE and CBEC, we now encourage others to present as often as possible. In order to establish long-term sustainability of this work, a plan to develop distributed leadership is necessary but challenging. The CBEC is currently looking for ways to increase the stakeholders and involve network faculty in leadership roles.