Showcase Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia 2015

ALURE: Undergraduate research into novel high-volume data sets within the human microbiome (#35)

Jack TH Wang 1 , Joshua N Daly 1 , Jayee Patil 1 , Roy A Hall 1 , Mark A Schembri 1 , Gene W Tyson 1 , Philip Hugenholtz 1
  1. The University of Queensland, BRISBANE, QLD, Australia

Abstract Content (up to 300 words recommended)

The digital age has seen an explosion of innovation, with new knowledge and insights being discovered on a daily basis.  Modern professionals must be able to synthesize and rapidly analyse large volumes of information, before recontextualising any lessons learnt towards their own situations. Critical reasoning and problem-solving capabilities are crucial for graduates to thrive in any professional setting, and students need to be given opportunities to develop these transferrable skills in Higher Education.  To address these concerns, an Authentic Large-Scale Undergraduate Research Experience (ALURE) in microbiology was designed at the University of Queensland, Australia.  This ALURE aimed to characterise the totality of the microscopic organisms living on the human body – the human microbiome – by analysing clinical samples taken from 5 different body sites across 1000 student volunteers.  Each clinical sample was tested for hundreds of different microorganisms and students were responsible for generating and evaluating this high-volume data set.  Students validated qualitative and quantitative biological data over thousands of novel observations, the output of which directly fed into the research programs of professional microbiologists.  Given the complexity of this analysis, a wide range of standards was observed in how students presented and interpreted the microbiome findings within the ALURE.  Despite this, in every offering of the project from 2012-2014, pre and post survey testing revealed increased student confidence in laboratory, analytical, and problem-solving skills after completing the ALURE, as well as learning gains in student perceptions towards the application of knowledge in research contexts (p<0.05 using the Mann-Whitney U-test).  This undergraduate experience is a part of the national OLT-funded ALURE program, which has the potential to improve the transferrable skills of graduates and bolster their competitiveness within the global knowledge economy.

Addressing the theme/s of the Conference (up to 200 words recommended)

This proposal addresses the conference theme “Learning for life and work in a complex world”, specifically its sub-theme: “Navigating uncertainty and complexity”.  Authentic scientific research is a process that is driven by the pursuit of the unknown, and all of the uncertainty that comes along with it.  Researchers must constantly devise new ways to extract meaning from the complex systems they are investigating, and utilise every research method at their disposal to make sense of experimental findings.  The microbiome ALURE provides access to authentic research environments for hundreds of students each semester, giving them an opportunity to grapple with the uncertainties and inherent complexities of investigating real-world research questions. The ALURE facilitates the development of problem-solving skills through student interactions with novel high-volume datasets.  These learning activities promote transferrable inquiry skills that prepare graduates for modern data-rich professional environments that highly value analytical insight.