BIOEN 290:  Guided Independent Studies on Doing Transformative Science
Gerald H. Pollack, PhD
Dept. of Bioengineering
University of Washington
Winter 2012

Didactic component: Wednesdays 4:30 to 5:50, Physics/Astronomy A212

This course will be a mixture of lectures/seminars, readings, reports, presentations, lab-group discussions, as well as an intensive laboratory experience tackling a fundamental scientific issue.  The goal is to achieve a deep understanding of the methods of discovery through hands-on work and intensive discussion.

Course Catalog Description: Intensive laboratory experience on fundamental scientific issue, mixed with lectures, readings, discussions, aimed at achieving deep understanding of scientific approach, particularly the nature of paradigm shifts, role of governmental support and management of science, power of orthodoxy, role of challenger, and fate of unpopular scientific views.

Didactic topics: The nature of paradigm shifts; governmental support/management of science; the role of the challenger; the power of the orthodoxy; the fate of unpopular views in science.

Credits: This is a four-credit class, comprising 1.5 hours of lecture/discussion once per week, plus a minimum of eight hours of laboratory work.  Laboratory times are flexible, but they must be consistent from week to week and be agreed upon between students and instructor by the end of the first week of class.

Prerequisites: Genuine interest in science and permission of instructor.

Capacity: 12 students.


  • 60%: Quality of research as judged by final written report. The final report should consist of a description of the work performed in the lab, together with a comprehensive literature review of the research topic chosen. The report should be in journal format (Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion/Conclusions). Although projects may be done in teams, each student is expected to turn in an independently written report.
  • 20%: Class presentation. During the fifth and sixth week of class, the student will be expected to present work in progress to the class and will receive feedback from the instructor. During the last week of class, student will deliver an updated presentation. Presentation times need to be divided adequately among team members, and each team member will be graded individually on his/her presentation, including quality of the slides, understanding of the subject material and answers to questions from the audience.
  • 20%: Class participation, measured by engagement in class discussions. Grade is independent of philosophical viewpoint, but focused instead on contribution.

Classroom-component schedule:

  1. Nature of scientific inquiry.  Discussion/distribution of projects
  2. The nature of scientific revolutions (Kuhn); the funding/support/nurturing of science (Pollack paper)
  3. Impediments to the progress of science (1): NIH Fostering Innovation workshop video presentation and discussion. Chapters from “Against the Tide”
  4. Example of minority view in science: Pollack’s presentation on water structure
  5. Mid-course student presentations/discussion of research progress (1)
  6. Mid-course student presentations/discussion of research progress (2)
  7. Example of minority view in science: muscle contraction
  8. Examples of minority views in science: water memory (Schiff), HIV/AIDS (Duesberg), cell biology (Ling). Student readings/presentations on these topics.
  9. Impediments to the progress of science (2): group discussion on possible solutions
  10. Final project presentations/discussion/review: Emphasis on approaching fundamentals

Laboratory Component:

The research component for this course will be carried out in groups of two to four, with one lab professional assigned as immediate liaison.  Each research project will involve hands-on work on a real project, plus extensive literature review.  Students in each group are expected to meet weekly with one another to discuss progress and strategies, and to communicate regularly with lab personnel, including the instructor.

Examples of possible research-topic areas:

  • Can life be recreated in the laboratory?
  • Is the molecular basis of osmosis different from the textbook explanation?
  • Is Brownian motion an experimental artifact?
  • How do birds fly (alternative view)?
  • How do fish swim (alternative view)?
  • Do electrostatic forces contribute to gravity?
  • Is radiant energy stored in a manner other than as heat?
  • Could water clusters contain information?
  • Can almost-zero friction be achieved with water?
  • Can humans photosynthesize?
  • Can water store electrical energy?
  • Can the basis of lightning be understood through laboratory experiments?

Learning Objectives

At the end of this course, the student should have a deep understanding of the nature of the scientific pursuit, as well as the obstacles such as sociological and political forces that can stand in the way of genuine scientific progress.

Back to Course Syllabi