Outside the Lab: Biology Colloquium Prepares Students to Present Research

Dr. Leslie Griffith, M.D., is director of The Volen National Center for Complex Systems at Brandeis University and the Nancy Lurie Marks Professor of Neuroscience.

Dr. Leslie Griffith, M.D., is director of The Volen National Center for Complex Systems at Brandeis University and the Nancy Lurie Marks Professor of Neuroscience.


Every Thursday, Room 050 in Fogarty Life Science begins to fill up with RIC faculty and 50 to 60 students enrolled in Associate Professor Sarah Spinette's Biology 241 class. They have come to attend the Biology Colloquium and to listen as scientists from a wide range of research facilities throughout New England discuss their research. 

RIC Associate Professor Sarah Spinette

“I always look forward to colloquium,” said Spinette, who took over the planning of the colloquium six years ago. “Because our guest speakers work in a variety of scientific fields at facilities that range from pharmaceutical companies to higher education institutions, I always ask them to talk about how their B.A. degree in biology led to their current position. It shows our students how they can apply all the information they are learning in class to a future career.” 

The first colloquium of the semester is always presented by a RIC biology professor engaged in research; thereafter, presentations are given by outside speakers. The lecture runs about 45 to 50 minutes; there is a 15-minute question-and-answer-session, followed by refreshments and 20 minutes of one-on-one discussion with the speaker.

At that time, Spinette’s students introduce themselves to the speaker and pose questions about the research that was presented. “Our guest speakers are always impressed by the questions our students raise,” said Spinette. “The conversations that ensue are very dynamic.”

Later, the students post the questions they asked and the speaker’s responses to an online discussion board. Those who weren’t able to engage the speaker are required to post the question they would have asked on the discussion board. “Everyone is expected to respond to their peer’s posts,” Spinette said. “I’ve found that discussion boards really increase student engagement. Students post things like ‘Dr. so-and-so gave a great talk!’ Or ‘The one thing I wondered was . . .’”

One of Spinette’s students had this to say about colloquium: “I love it. It’s challenging and it provides some great real-world experiences . . . For most students, including myself, getting out of our comfort zone and asking questions in public is a daunting task. That’s compounded when you have to discuss the complexities of cutting-edge research with someone who is more proficient. . . . Such are great life lessons.”

By the end of the semester, as part of the capstone course (Biology 460) taught by Professor Suzanne Conklin, seniors are required to present a recent, cutting-edge report at Biology Colloquium. After weeks of listening to experts discuss their lab and field work and after weeks of being exposed to a wide range of scientific methods, seniors are able to step up to the podium with more confidence. “A sense of camaraderie develops over the years of attending colloquium together,” said Spinette. “The students really support each other.”

RIC’s Department of Biology requires majors to take Biology 241 twice prior to, or concurrent with, Biology 460.

Upcoming colloquia at 4 p.m. in Fogarty Life Science 050:

March 6 – Page Owen, Ph.D., from Connecticut College, will discuss “Plants That Eat! Glands in Carnivorous Pitcher Plants as a Model System to Examine Plant Cell Biology.”

March 20 – Carey Medin, Ph.D., from the University of Rhode Island, will lecture on “Virus-Host Cell Interactions – Potential Targets for Therapeutics."

March 27 – Hazel Sive, Ph.D., from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will present the “Development of the Vertebrate Face.”

Remaining colloquia are senior student presentations.