VIB Alumnus Marcelo Vinces explores the intersection of science, education and policy

18 March 2018
Putting evidence-based science  education into practice

As a postdoctoral fellow in Kevin Verstrepen’s lab at VIB-KU Leuven, Marcelo Vinces used brewer’s yeast to study the biological function of highly mutable repetitive ‘junk’ DNA sequences. Although he left VIB in 2011 to work at the National Science Foundation (NSF) through an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship, part of his heart remained in Belgium. He arrived at the interview in a KU Leuven sweater with Kristof Calvo’s book ‘F*ck de zijlijn’ at hand. “A much better politician than Donald Trump,” he says with a wink, “and the perfect way practice my Dutch.”  Marcelo Vinces

The step from being a successful microbiology researcher to a role in public service must have been gigantic.
“Not so much for me, no. I have always been engaged in policy issues: broadening participation and increasing diversity in STEM fields, communicating science to wider audiences, but also teaching and working with students at various education levels. “The AAAS fellowship is open to PhDs in science and engineering and allows them to spend one or two years in the US federal government. The idea is twofold: scientists and engineers experience how the US government functions and how policy is formulated. At the same time, scientific thinking and expertise is lent to the federal government.

“My motivation was to connect my research experience with the bigger picture of where science and academia fit into society. It was an eye opener. I became interested in supporting science and education at the institutional level, instead of becoming a professor and teaching ‘my’ class, and ‘my’ students. The NSF work allowed me to think about the next step in my professional life.”

That next step being Oberlin College in Ohio?
“Exactly. At Oberlin College, I established the Center for Learning, Education and Research in the Sciences
(CLEAR), an interdepartmental resource for faculty and students. With the support of an HHMI grant of $800,000, CLEAR provides ongoing support for faculty development and curriculum development. It also helps students strengthen their understanding of quantitative and formal reasoning skills.

“For example, CLEAR provides peer support for basics such as math and graphs, but also for advanced skills, such as modeling. These skills are common in different disciplines and necessary for interdisciplinary research. They come in handy in virtually all academic fields and in almost every profession.”

Oberlin College is, at least in Europe, not the most well-known US college or university. What’s so special about it?
“Oberlin was the first college to grant undergraduate degrees to women and, historically, was a leader in the education of African Americans. Oberlin is a small, highly selective, liberal arts undergraduate school with an impeccable reputation. Per capita, Oberlin sends as many or even more students to PhD programs in the sciences as renowned institutes like MIT and Caltech. Of Oberlin’s alumni, 22 are members of the US National Academies of Sciences. That is a huge number for such a small college.

“There is something special about the science education program at Oberlin. It attracts science students with broader societal views. The students are more creative and think out of the box.”

Why is that?
“The college is better-known – fortunately and unfortunately – for its arts and music programs and his home to a world-renowned music conservatory. The unfortunate part is that many students ignore the fact that Oberlin is also strong in sciences. The fortunate part is that Oberlin attracts an interesting group of students. They might major in sciences, but are at the same time very interested in music, culture and society. A lot of the science students I worked with were also doing theatre and composing music.”

As CLEAR’s first director, you had to start from scratch. And now, five years later, you are leaving CLEAR and Oberlin. Why?
“In the beginning, I had to establish partnerships with offices and departments across campus to form learning communities to advance inclusive excellence and transformative learning approaches in all STEM fields and at all levels of the curriculum. I believe we did a good job, as five years later in 2017, we received a $1 million grant through HHMI’s Inclusive Excellence Initiative. This grant will support CLEAR’s aim to advance Oberlin’s historic role in inclusive education by enhancing the climate and success of a diverse student population in STEM.

“It was also a good time to leave. The CLEAR program is in good shape, there are exciting plans and an excellent new director. It is hard to let go of your babies, but moving to Chicago – where my partner moved – will bring me new challenges and opportunities. I want to do the same work, but in Chicago there are bigger  institutions and universities, and thus bigger challenges.”

Where do you see yourself in the future? Will you return to the lab and your experimental work, be a science educator, or work in science policy?
“I would say yes to all of the above. I miss experimentation, for sure. One of the things I would really like to do is apply my research skills to the educational setting. Why not do controlled experiments on the effectiveness of educational strategies? Evidence-based teaching: that’s my future!”

Go back to the overview on 'Microbiology'

Marcelo Vinces