"Hot" Scientific Topics with Critical Thinking Skills
Professor's Casual Style Belies Intensity of Her Pedagogy
by Anne C. Paine
Jan Thornton (second from left) listens as a student makes a
point in her "hot topics" course. In fact, she listens quite
a bit in this course, allowing students to lead the discussions,
ask questions, and draw conclusions about the journal articles
rarely request that a professor teach a class in addition to the
full load she's already teaching. But that's how the Current
Topics in Biology and Neuroscience course came to be.
the fall 1999 semester, biology major Charlie Nokes '00 formed a
journal club with other students as a way to keep up with current
literature. The discussions were stimulating, but the students were
sometimes stumped by accounts of complicated experiments or sophisticated
Nokes asked his advisor, Associate Professor of Biology and Neuroscience
Jan Thornton, to turn the club into a class. Thornton graciously
agreed. The course meets once a week and covers a wide range of
subjects, from cancer research and transgenic plants to time perception
and cystic fibrosis gene therapy. Grades are based on participation
in discussions on articles assigned for each week.
class is much more like graduate school. I'm assuming the students
have the background knowledge so we can really discuss some of the
current, dynamic scientific literature," Thornton said. "The students
came up with the topics for discussion, and they're doing the work.
They're learning more about the subjects that interest them and
about cutting-edge research. They're getting to see not only the
scientific issues, but also the ethical, moral, and economic issues
involved. I'm just here as a resource person."
recent session focused on the placebo effect and possible neurological
mechanisms to explain it. The conversation -- an easy give and take
punctuated by much laughter -- leaped from topic to topic: the ethics
of placebo surgery; whether desperately ill patients can really
give informed consent when participating in medical trials; the
role of social learning and classical conditioning in the placebo
effect; and how to design a study that accurately measures something
subjective like pain.
with Thornton's teaching style, the class is both casual and intense.
"I'm very concerned about critical thinking. I want students to
learn experimental design and analysis so they can understand when
science has been done properly. In all the classes I teach, I use
primary literature and work on experimental design and analysis,"
she said in an interview in her office, which also suits her style,
decorated with brain-related toys, artwork done by her 11-year-old
daughter, and shelves and shelves of thick science books.
very realistic," said Nokes, who has worked in Thornton's lab. "She
wants to train you as a scientist, not just put information in your
That's not to say her classes don't pack an information punch, however.
Isaac Natter '01, a neuroscience major who has taken several courses
with Thornton, described her Neuroendocrinology course.
knew the material well and presented it with amazing clarity, succinctness,
and relevance," he said. "I don't think there was a wasted sentence
spoken in that classroom. I had more work for that class and the
accompanying lab than I did for my other classes combined that semester,
but every assignment was relevant. And the tests had less to do
with recall than with putting what we had learned to use in novel
Thornton, who is also the neuroscience program director, focuses
her research on how hormones exert their effect on the brain to
affect behavior. She didn't always dream of being a neuroscientist.
originally thought about going into journalism," she said. "In my
junior year of college, I took a class in physiological psychology
-- the biological basis of behavior -- and became greatly interested
in it. I changed my major to psychology and spent an extra year
in undergraduate work. I was a first generation college student
-- I didn't even know what a Ph.D. was. I had a work-study job in
the costume shop of the theater, but was able to get another job
working with animals in the labs and helping professors with their
research. I found something I really loved, I learned about graduate
school, and went on."
like Oberlin because it's fun to teach here," she continued. "Students
are academically bright and academically serious. They want to learn,
and they appreciate when you challenge them."