Exciting times in biomedical sciences

Guest blog by Scott Napper (Lead, Undergraduate BMSC Program Development)

New biomedical science (BMSC) undergraduate majors are on the way for May 1, 2020. Changes are coming for the honours, four-year and three-year degree programs.

For the honours and four-year degree programs, there will now be a single biochemistry, microbiology, and immunology major instead of two separate majors—biochemistry being one and microbiology and immunology the other, currently. As well,  the development of two new majors: cellular, physiological, and pharmacological sciences; and biomedical neuroscience, replace the current majors of anatomy and cell biology; and physiology and pharmacology.

The current three-year options in the separate majors in each of: biochemistry, microbiology and immunology; anatomy and cell biology; and physiology and pharmacology, will be replaced by a single, unified three-year degree option with the major of biomedical foundations.

Within these new majors, updated content, new classes and an enhanced priority on critical thinking and multi-disciplinary training will serve to better prepare our biomedical scientists of the future. The new majors were formally approved by University Council in Oct 2019. Current students will have the option to continue with their current program through completion (encouraged for those entering their third and fourth years) or transition to one of the new offerings.

A significant new experiential learning opportunity has been offered since 2018-19, when the Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) classes were introduced. They are designed to provide students with an authentic research experience where they develop and test a research hypothesis. This is a considerable departure from traditional lab classes where students follow a prescribed list of experiments to gain competence in specific techniques.

Rather than prioritizing competence in individual techniques, CURE classes challenge students to think and function as independent scientists. On completion, students will be competent in the process of defining a testable hypothesis and designing experimental approaches to test the hypothesis. Students will also have gained valuable experience in planning and preparing their own reagents (substances or compounds added to a system to bring about a chemical reaction or to see if a reaction occurs), setting up and conducting experiments, budgeting of time and resources, scientific communication (both written and oral presentation) and being a productive member of a team.

The changes to our biomedical science program have generated considerable enthusiasm among our faculty and students. Enabling the success of our students ensures the success of our program, at the undergraduate level and in recruitment to our graduate research programs. In addition to higher-quality training, the new program—coupled with USask’s unique infrastructure, such as VIDO-InterVac and the Canadian Light Source—will attract more highly qualified students from across Canada.

A further benefit of these efforts to optimize the biomedical science programs is the closer working relationship growing between the CoM and the College of Arts and Science. The USask biomedical science program is somewhat unique in that the biomedical science departments are housed within the CoM, while the associated undergraduate degrees are offered through Arts and Science. Academically, each biomedical science major reflects nearly equal contribution of courses taught by faculty of each college. While the colleges have historically maintained a strong working relationship, recent united efforts by faculty and staff of both colleges have enhanced appreciation for the greater partnership opportunities that are possible. Ongoing collaborations between the colleges will further improve the program while epitomizing the priority in USask’s Plan 2025 of cross-college collaboration. In this regard, there are other exciting plans for the future!

A history of steady improvement and progress in USask’s biomedical sciences have aligned with these rapidly evolving fields of study. In July 2018, the five College of Medicine departments within the biomedical sciences merged to two departments. This new structure better supports collaboration and multidisciplinary work, as the perceived boundaries between the biomedical science disciplines are becoming progressively blurred. In 2009, a coordinated effort by all of the biomedical science departments resulted in the creation of a two-year BMSC platform that consists of six courses which provide a broad introduction to the biomedical science disciplines. This platform serves as a common foundation of all of the biomedical science degrees. Over the past ten years, the BMSC platform has been highly successful in providing students with a strong interdisciplinary foundation as well as enabling them to make informed decisions of a biomedical science major in their third year. The new platform will include seven common courses.