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Cheryl WatsonDr. Cheryl Watson:
Probing the Whys and Hows of Physiology

 The question posed nonchalantly to the human physiology class is deceptively simple: What happens when you run up a flight of stairs? “Your heart beats faster!” Dr. Cheryl Watson, associate professor of biomolecular sciences, replies, “OK. But why does that happen?” Someone else volunteers, “Because there’s an adrenaline release.” Watson, intent on leading her students down a long corridor of question-mark mirrors, declares, “Yes, that’s so. But how does that happen?” After a thoughtful silence, a student whispers to her friend, “That’s Dr. Watson for you, always, wanting to know how things work.”

Watson admits, cheerfully and with a certain pride, “Students often say my motto could be: ‘How does that happen?’ followed by ‘How do things go together?’” She muses, “I like that motto actually, because I’m happiest when I’m able to help students formulate a question clearly, then, through a series of questions, come to discrete answers. The learning process requires time and effort until all the pieces—for example, connections between labored breathing and how that affects metabolism and in turn impacts heart rate—come together. Integrated knowledge, rather than disjointed bits of information about physiology, is more useful and better retained.”

As recipient of the 2004 CCSU Excellence in Teaching Award, Watson, who joined CCSU in 1997, declares her teaching philosophy “is to create an atmosphere in the classroom that fosters inquiry, allows mistakes to be corrected without penalty, and encourages application of physiological knowledge to the everyday activities of the students.”

Whether teaching non-majors in introductory biology or graduate-level physiology, Watson has found that separating learning from evaluation accommodates a variety of backgrounds and comprehension levels. “I achieve the separation through correctable assignments, meaning work can be rewritten after the information is learned properly. These assignments are 40% of the course grade, and students cannot fail the exams and pass, but they get a considerable boost as they prepare for exams.”

With twin goals of having her students learn the material and be evaluated fairly, Watson has devised an innovative tool in the human physiology course: a concept map. Students prepare a detailed map of a particular body system, including relevant information. The exercise requires “advanced synthetic comprehension,” says Watson. Her colleague Assistant Professor James Mulrooney wondered at first if the assignment was “tedious,” but relates, “In speaking with her students, all of them said they really enjoyed the concept maps. Although they are a tremendous amount of work, they force the student to learn the material, not just memorize. As the course progresses, students, on their own, make the connections between the different body systems and truly learn that the body is a highly ordered system of systems.” Watson points out, “because these maps could be rewritten, even students unfamiliar with making a flow diagram were willing participants. Final exam grades were on average eight points higher using this technique.”

An Easygoing Style

Both in her classroom and in laboratory settings, Watson is known for establishing a warm, inviting environment where questions and discussions flow freely. Says junior biology major Teresa Johnson, “Her style is easygoing. She makes you want to learn, and you never feel intimidated, so we’re relaxed and can talk back and forth.”

The Department of Biomolecular Sciences requires a year-long research experience of all majors, and Watson, with her nurturing manner, introduces undergraduates to laboratory techniques and mentors them on their projects. She relates having met a legend in the field of ion channel physiology, Sir Andrew Huxley, who stated that what made an Oxford education unique was “the time we spend with our students, correcting their essays and guiding them towards sound critical thinking.” Watson smiles, “I’m not Dr. Huxley, but I can utilize all my knowledge and critical thinking capability to help guide students at CCSU to the best education we can give them. It is during the independent research projects that this educational model can be used.”

Priscilla Paiva is doing independent research exploring calcium flux in response to tyrosine kinase—a piece of Watson’s own research on regulating calcium and sodium channels. Paiva comments, “I’ve learned how to find up-to-date journal articles with pertinent information. I’ve discovered that constant revision is necessary for improvement, and I’ll always remember Dr. Watson’s positive attitude and love for physiology.” To date, more than 40 undergraduate students and 12 master’s students have completed one or more research projects in Watson’s laboratory. The results of their projects are often presented at national conferences. Watson reflects, “They start to see themselves as scientists, not as students.”

Burnt Tuna and Channel Blockers

While working on her Ph.D. at the University of Hawaii, Watson studied intracellar protein breakdown by looking at the so-called burnt tuna problem. Fishermen were catching tuna, which when cut open, looked burned inside. Watson discovered the phenomenon was due to calcium proteolysis, i.e., protein breakdown. “The tuna are safe to consume, but don’t taste good and don’t look nice either, and there’s not a solution,” concluded Watson, who published her results in a biomolecular journal. She observes that the significance of the study, which she hopes to extend through further research into calcium dependent proteolysis, is that it reveals a way “our physiological processes are regulated.”

Watson’s research on potassium channel blockers is supported by the pharmaceutical company Boehringer-Ingelheim. Watson explains, “The heart is made up of millions of cells with membranes on their outside. Potassium moves on the outside of cells. Your heart doesn’t beat if potassium channels don’t work.” Some drugs block potassium channels and cause cardiac problems, which is one of the reasons that some antihistamines were taken off the market, she says. “If we can understand potassium channels better, pharmaceutical companies could conceivable come up with a drug without detrimental effects.”

With her perennial curiosity and good-natured persistence, Watson achieves extraordinary results in both her students’ learning and her own research findings. It’s a simple process of asking those enduring questions of Why? and How? that open bright horizons of scientific discovery.

— Geri Radacsi

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