Fall 2013
Collaboration results in new microbiology degree

synapse: University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine

microbiologists teach students

From left, microbiologists Pari, Verma, AuCoin, Courchesne and Gault are teaching undergraduate students who are declared majors in the new degree program this fall. Photo by Matt Lush.

Need drives creation of undergraduate program

By Matt Lush

University of Nevada, Reno undergraduates have a new option to consider when picking a major. They may now earn a Bachelor of Science in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, thanks to the work of Greg Pari, Ph.D., chair of microbiology at the University of Nevada School of Medicine, and Jeff Thompson, Ph.D., dean of the College of Science.

The two realized there was opportunity to create this degree based on need. For many years, Nevada and Alaska were the only two states in the country that didn't offer an undergraduate microbiology degree. And medical students who matriculated from the University didn't have the opportunity to be exposed to microbiology and a disease-based curriculum during their undergraduate education.

"It makes sense that if you were interested in the medical field, or science within the medical field, you would want exposure to a disease-based program," Pari said.

"And we knew we would not only benefit our medical students with this degree, but we would also benefit other professional degrees-like dental, veterinary, nursing-that are interested in research."

Pari said that although the curriculum will greatly appeal to pre-health professional students, the microbiology and immunology degree offers ample training for students wishing to pursue careers in microbiology research and clinical laboratory work.

"To offer all aspects of microbiology, the degree encompasses other areas of microbiology that aren't slanted in the medical area," Pari said. "In the curriculum, we offer courses not only in general microbiology, but medical microbiology, virology, immunobiology, genetics and genomics, mining and some environmental biology."

According to the College of Science website, the major in molecular microbiology and immunology: "Provides in-depth studies at the molecular and cellular levels on the bacterial, viral, fungal and protozoan pathogens of humans, including their molecular structures, life cycles and mechanisms of pathogenesis. The student also receives an in-depth understanding of the mammalian immune system and its role in fighting infections and cancer, as well as its role in autoimmune diseases."

The website goes on to inform potential students of possible career prospects as the number of professional microbiology positions increases nationally at universities, in the private industry and in government service: "Molecular Microbiology and Immunology is the portal to careers in research, biotechnology, waste and wastewater management, the food industry and the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture, sectors of the patent industry, nursing, dental, veterinary, and human medicine and other clinically related fields."

Christina Cho, director of advising, recruitment and retention for the College of Science, said that the first two years of the new degree look very similar to other programs offered by the College of Science. It's during the junior year that students will take more microbiology courses primarily taught by School of Medicine faculty and have the opportunity to conduct research in laboratories alongside those faculty members.

"Undergraduate majors are intended to have a broad focus," Cho said. "This degree is appealing to students because it's more specific and disease-based."

The molecular microbiology and immunology degree is popular at many other universities-for instance, the University of California, Davis has more than 1,000 students in their molecular microbiology and immunology program. Pari and Thompson consulted with Davis faculty on the design of the Nevada degree during its creation.

Once the design was complete, the proposal moved through the College of Science courses and curriculum committee and then to the University courses and curriculum committee. Once approved there, it went to the Provost's Office, then the Board of Regents for approval this past June.

According to Cho, enrollment is projected to grow quickly.

"Before this degree, neuroscience was one of the newest programs offered by the College of Science in partnership with the College of Liberal Arts," Cho said.

"We started neuroscience in 2008, and it has grown. We probably now have 250 to 300 neuroscience majors and based off of that, I anticipate this program to be very popular."

Cho added that because a microbiology and immunology program is now offered in Nevada, students who would have had to go out-of-state to earn a molecular microbiology and immunology degree are able to stay at Nevada. She also added that the degree will soon be offered to BS-MD accelerated degree students, giving them an additional undergraduate major in a specialized area to choose from before they continue on to the School of Medicine.

Although the new degree has already created a buzz, prospective students are finding out about it through College of Science recruitment sessions where they may speak with faculty and ask questions about the curriculum, career opportunities for the degree and what makes this degree different from similar degrees. Other marketing initiatives from the College of Science include college fairs, University-directed preview events and word-of-mouth.

"It would have never happened if we didn't meet with Jeff Thompson to discuss how we could do this as a joint program," Pari said, adding that credit equally is due to School of Medicine Dean Thomas L. Schwenk, M.D., who supported the initiative.

"They had the will, the need and the ability to market and house the degree in the College of Science. We had the expertise- microbiologists-and the ability to teach the students, so we just had to bring the two pieces together."

Enrollment for the degree is anticipated to be high based on capacity enrollment in, and positive response to, three beta courses offered in 2012 to test the waters: general microbiology, medical microbiology and virology.