Education Corner

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The American Crystallographic Association (ACA) is a non-profit, scientific organization of over a thousand members in more than thirty-five countries. The ACA was founded in 1949 through a merger of the American Society for X-Ray and Electron Diffraction (ASXRED) and the Crystallographic Society of America (CSA). The objective of the ACA is to promote interactions among scientists who study the structure of matter at atomic (or near atomic) resolution.

Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, the ACA Council decided the 2020 meeting should have an increased focus on skill building for attendees (particularly students) and on education. The timing could not have been better; with so many working remotely, there has been an increased need for thinking about teaching structural science inside and outside the classroom.

The 2020 ACA Transactions Symposium on Structural Science: New Ways to Teach the Next Generation took place over two days, and included speakers from across all aspects of the crystallographic education space. These presentations will be expanded upon in an upcoming special issue of Structural Dynamics. The session was organized by Cassandra (Sandy) Eagle (East Tennessee State University), Joe Tanski (Vassar College), Andrey Yakovenko (Argonne National Laboratory), and Christine Zardecki (RCSB PDB).

Transactions symposium participants

This article has been reprinted from the Fall 2020 ACA Newsletter RefleXions with permission.

ACA President Brian Toby introduced the first Transactions session by stressing the importance of education to the future of crystallography and the ACA.  Positive outcomes from crystallographic courses and materials were demonstrated throughout the presentations.

Krystle McLaughlin (Vassar College; @biophyskrys on Twitter) kicked off the Transactions symposium by offering strategies for integrating macromolecular X-ray crystallography into undergraduate research, as well as the teaching curriculum. She described using freely available resources such as the RCSB Protein Data Bank and COOT and offered a “CURE” (Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience) where protein structure serves as the theme of the semester-long biochemistry teaching lab.
Many ACA members are interested in getting younger audiences interested in X-ray crystallography. 

Biology Teacher Dan Williams (Shelter Island High School, @willida25), in collaboration with the SPARK (Students Partnerships for Advance Research and Knowledge) program at Brookhaven National Laboratory, mentored high school students into becoming PDB depositors.  In his presentation, he stressed the importance of student “ownership” of their research and how that leads to student success.  He also drew parallels between the activities involved in structure determination and the standards teachers need to follow in the classroom. Based on discussions during the Q and A, this partnership between synchrotrons and schools was viewed as very desirable and perhaps an inspirational model for making connections between students and higher education laboratories. 

Carla Slebodnick (Virginia Tech) described her crystallography course titled X-ray Lite: A 1-Credit Pass/Fail Crystallography Course that is designed to target students who will need crystallographic analyses conducted in the course of their research but who rely on the X-ray facility to conduct the analyses.  She argued that without some exposure to the theory and practical methodology of crystallography, students in the chemical sciences are at a disadvantage in understanding the results of not only their own, but others’ crystallographic results.

Efrain Rodriguez ( the University of Maryland, @RodriguezLabUMD) talked about methods of teaching magnetic diffraction topics during summer schools for magnetic crystallography and neutron diffraction. In the US there are two schools of magnetic structure determination: Magnetic Structure Determination at ORNL and Representation Analysis of magnetic structures. Both schools have similar curriculums and include a 4 days workshop on campus. In the beginning students usually have several lectures on the theory, then they move on to hands on exercises and examples. Dr. Rodriguez highlighted that one of the keys to teach such complex topic as magnetic structures was the introduction of magnetic space groups into programs of the workshop.

For more than 20 years, David S. Goodsell (@dsgoodsell) has delighted audiences with his Molecule of the Month column hosted by the RCSB PDB.  In highlighting macromolecules from Actin to Zika, David has used his distinctive style to tell an interesting story rather than bulleted facts. This approach is very popular; his readers from around the world accessed Molecule of the Month content nearly a million times in 2019. David described his approach to molecular storytelling, which he connects to the nature guides that he was inspired by in his youth.  His formula for storytelling is to reduce jargon, provide context; and show process.

Brian Toby started the second day of presentations by putting out a call for anyone with a good plan for an instructional course or topic to get in touch with the ACA Education Committee.  ACA would be interested in hosting a workshop–virtually or in person–to promote crystallography and crystallographic education

Cora Lind-Kovacs (University of Toledo) citing the problem of the decline in formal crystallography teaching in the age of modern instrumentation and computing which contributes to errors in data processing and interpretation, discussed strategies for attracting newcomers to crystallography; in her words, inviting “newcomers to a successful life in reciprocal space.” Dr. Lind-Kovacs gave an overview of their in-house small molecule, macromolecular and powder crystallography courses, included examples of hands-on projects, and ended by offering that practitioners should be willing to make themselves available in their communities for informal crystallography teaching.

Uta Ruett (Argonne National Laboratory), described her  experience in organizing the National School on Neutron and X-ray scattering (NX school) at Argonne and Oak Ridge National Laboratories. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic such school was held on line. Dr. Ruett described challenges of online  workshops which have been attended by more than 300 participants. One major one is the absence of face to face interaction. However, some positive moments were also highlighted. First is the dramatic increase in the number of questions which were asked during the lectures. Second, is breakout rooms which allowed prolonged interactions and discussions between beamline scientist and school participants. In addition diversity and inclusion sections were introduced at NX school. 

Louise Dawe (Wilfrid Laurier University, @LouiseDawe) described her development and delivery of “High Impact Small Molecule Crystallography Skills Development Through Local Undergraduate Curriculum and Regional Workshops and Schools”.  Dr. Dawe utilized her experiences from organizing the Canadian National Committee for Crystallography Chemical Crystallography Workshop (CCCW2020) and teaching at the American Crystallographic Association Summer Course in Chemical Crystallography to develop a curriculum to teach Crystallography via a virtual platform.  These relatively small learning environments allowed for a variety of interactions between students and facilitators. Dr. Dawe’s presentation highlighted: 1. The diversity of experiences that trainees have; 2. The logistical aspects of organizing and teaching in the various ventures, with a goal of transition to remote delivery for CCCW2020 due to the current pandemic; and 3. The insights and results from past trainees whose research practices were transformed as a result of participation in the educational opportunities provided by Louise Dawe.

Joseph Ferrara (Rigaku Americas Corporation) shared his experiences from “Teaching a Large Scale Crystallography School with Zoom Webinar” The both of the editions of the course over the summer each had over 1100 students registered.  Due to the course delivery, students from all over the world with a variety of abilities, backgrounds and challenges were able to participate. The practical applications based course covered topics from Crystallization to Reporting and Cif checking.  The success of this course was attributed to a dedicated team of facilitators who collectively spent over 550 hours preparing for course delivery and associated aspects.

The final presentation by William Bauer described An X-ray Free Electron Laser (XFEL) Science Education Model Designed for Large Centers and Its Application To Individual Laboratories. In addition to scientific contributions, the BioXFEL Science and Technology Center provides customized educational programming for scientists, students, and the general public. These include undergraduate (and recent graduate)  summer internships, cross-training scholarship, and customized scientific workshops hosted at BioXFEL partner facilities.  The presentation touched on many of the themes of both parts of the symposium, including the long-term benefits of making crystallographic education accessible and available to future generations.

A possible charge to the ACA that developed during the discussions was the development of a website to collect and distribute all of the lectures, presentations, and training materials that were generated during the pandemic.

Many thanks to the Symposium sponsors IUCr Journals, Rigaku, Structural Dynamics, and to our Zoom hosts and facilitators: Madeline Deck, Carla Slebodnick, and Christina Zimanyi.