Chris Watters' Teaching Interests


Cellular and developmental biology are very exciting fields these days, more so than I recall them being any other time in the past 35 years! Advances in molecular genetics and genetic engineering have dramatically extended our understanding of genes, their activities and their regulation. This genotypic information in turn provides ever freshening wellsprings of ideas and hypotheses about protein structure, function and regulation - the phenotypic bases for the wide variety of organisms, their forms, functions and for their developmental and evolutionary changes. And newer techniques in microscopy and spectroscopy, electrical measurement and small scale biochemistry are being used with great success to characterize these phenotypes at the molecular level.

From this perspective cells and their organelles are the stages on which protein phenotypes are displayed. They are the basic building blocks of organisms at every stage in their life histories from egg to adult. Importantly, they are also the "tests" of our ideas and hypotheses about both how organisms and their cells work and about why they are the way they are: about proximate mechanisms and ultimate adaptations. These days we are blessed with many ideas to examine and many methods to use in these examinations: there is much to do and our horizon ever expanding.

Cells and organelles and the developing organisms containing them, of course, are much more than "tests" or model systems. They are fascinating in their own right! The more we learn from our models and paradigms, the more we realize how yet inadequate is our understanding of what Darwin called "this tangled web" of life. Models and paradigms allow us to generalize about cellular structure and function and the underlying genetic control, but cellular variation is immense...fascinating...and indeed, the stuff on which natural selection operates. There is, indeed, much to do and the horizon of ideas ever expanding.

My courses convey both the general features and interesting variations of cells and developing organisms, but I also temper the often heady, enthusiastic results of recent research with more critical examination of the necessary tentativeness of those results and of their method- and perspective- dependent realities. It is not enough for Liberal Arts students simply to learn the latest "facts"; they must also understand how those results were obtained and how to develop and test alternative explanations for themselves. They must appreciate that cellular and developmental "facts" are also artefacts (in the anthropological sense): something scientists make as well as observe and record. Without this appreciation, they will remain uneducated, being only knowedgeable; and then only as knowledgeable as the most recent textbooks on their bookshelves.

During the Fall I teach advanced lecture and discussion courses in either developmental biology (BI305) or membrane biology (BI440: Membranes in Health and Disease) and an advanced laboratory course in practical cell biology (BI360). In the Spring I offer an introductory lecture and laboratory course in cellular and molecular biology (BI250) that is part of the core program in both the department of Biology and the Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Program. I am also from time-to-time involved in teaching immunology, mechanisms of hormonal regulation and the concepts and controversies of human nutrition.  Most recently, I have taught the nutrition course from the perspective of the evolution of human nutrition, asking the question: "Should we eat like our ancestors ate?" (The webpage for the nutrition course is still under construction.)

Joe Patlak, a biophysicist at the University of Vermont, and have developed interactive Lab Books on membrane structure and fluidity and on various membrane transport phenomena that rely on diffusion.  Please make suggestions for their improvement to either Joe or me.

Most recently, I have been developing a virtual study guide (Studying Cell Biology), which consists of problems built around real and imaginary data sets and, in some cases, research videos taken from essays and articles published since 1998 in the journal Molecular Cell Biology.  For copyright reasons, internet access to the guide is temporarily restricted to the Middlebury campus.


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