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Episode 14: LabXchange with Marty Samuels

An update from our podcast guest, Martin Samuels. He has recently accepted a position at Brandeis University serving as Program Director for the Center for Teaching and Learning. Congratulations Marty!  

Martin “Marty” Samuels was the former Head of Content at LabXchange. He led a team that designs free online virtual labs, animations, and other interactive educational science materials. The LabXchange mission is to make interactive, high-quality science materials widely and freely available. LabXchange resources invite learners to see themselves as scientists and make science fun, inspiring, and accessible, with the ultimate goal of making science more inclusive and diverse. Before joining LabXchange, Marty served as the Associate Director for Science at Harvard University’s Derek Box Center for Teaching and Learning, where he supported STEM courses across Harvard to incorporate active learning, inclusive teaching strategies, and other evidence-based pedagogies. Prior to joining the Box Center, Marty served as Assistant Director for Undergraduate Studies for Harvard’s Molecular and Cellular Biology and Chemical and Physical Biology concentrations, where he taught over a dozen courses and advised hundreds of undergraduates. Marty earned his Ph.D. in Biochemistry at Harvard University and his BA in Biochemical Sciences from the University of Chicago.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Nati Rodriguez [02:20] 
I’m also excited to announce that the Learner series The Habitable Planet is now available on LabXchange. The Habitable Planet is a video course for high school teachers and undergraduate students in environmental science, and additional series will be added in the coming months, so stay tuned by subscribing to this podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. All right Marty, can you tell us about what LabXchange is and who it’s for? 

Marty Samuels [02:46] 
LabXchange is for everyone. I think that’s the most important thing to speak to. Our mission is to provide materials that allow people to be inspired by science, be empowered by science, fall in love with science, and start thinking about how science is fun, doable, and something that they might want to pursue a career in. We’re primarily designing interactive science content aimed at secondary school or high school student classes. In that vein, we are thinking about what are the kinds of lab techniques or science concepts that a student might need to know before they walk into their first lab in high school or before they walk into their first lab in college. What kind of lab skills might they want to practice or think about before they look up a scientist at a research university or at an institute, and think about reaching out to them to do research with them and ask them if they’d like to join their lab. So really our mission is to support high school teachers, high school students, and lifelong learners who are interested or passionate about science and science education. 

Nati Rodriguez [04:00] 
Thank you. It sounds like a really good experience. When I think of labs, I think of a physical space so I’m curious if you could walk me through a user’s experience. I know you mentioned a high school student. How do they get started, and how does LabXchange fit into different teaching models? 

Marty Samuels [04:21] 
Let me start at the beginning with where a high school student might begin on LabXchange. LabXchange is free and we are dedicated to being a free resource that’s available for everyone. We are based at Harvard University, and our mission is to make some of the beautiful cutting-edge, interactive science educational materials that we’ve developed at Harvard, accessible and available to everyone so everyone can engage with them and benefit from them, and give us feedback and know how we can improve them. We’re in this mission with everyone together. 

If you first come to, our home page, one way to engage with it is that we are like a library of content, and so that is similar to YouTube or Spotify or any other platform where you can search through a library and find what you’re interested in. One place to start is by searching for whatever topic you might be interested in. Do you want to learn more about breast cancer? Do you want to learn more about the coronavirus or something like that?  

Another way to walk into LabXchange, is by engaging with some contextualized clusters or learning experiences that we’ve designed. LabXchange can offer the ability for anyone to build any learning experience they want, and that’s really designed primarily for mentors and educators to be able to design learning opportunities for their students. We also build a lot of contextualized learning opportunities that we call pathways or clusters. We built a lot of them already for people – one, so that they can hit the ground running with a pathway or a cluster that we built, but two, so that they can edit or modify any of our pathways or clusters and use them for their own ends.   

One of the first clusters that we built and one of the clusters that we are most proud of is the Foundations of Biotechnology; this was an adaptation of an Amgen Biotechnology Experience curriculum that introduces high school students to foundational techniques and biotechnology. That involves how to cut pieces of DNA, stick them together, and to insert them into a bacterium, so that bacterium starts making a particular protein that you’re interested in and then how you can purify that protein and potentially use that protein as a therapeutic or drug – like what we do for insulin or like what we do for some recombinant antibodies that could be used as treatments for the coronavirus or something like that. What we’ve built is a lot of virtual lab experiences in that cluster; that cluster includes something like ten plus virtual lab experiences in which someone can virtually pick up a pipette and start doing all these experiments in a virtual lab simulation, right off the bat.   

The intent is not that it is designed to replace doing any lab work, but instead, it is to motivate or inspire people to feel like they can do lab work, to show that lab work is easy, that you can make mistakes in a low-stakes environment. It’s just a video game on LabXchange. If you ever want to hit the reset button, hit the reset button. If you ever want to repeat a different experiment or try a different variable, try a different variable. Time is infinite and materials are infinite in virtual spaces.    

In that vein, for hybrid use, our virtual lab simulations allow for both warm-ups and extensions from what you might do in a physical classroom. Of course, during the pandemic, a lot of people have ended up using our virtual lab simulations instead of lab opportunities. They don’t have the opportunity to do the lab in real life. While we didn’t really plan on that being the role of these labs, I think initially when we first developed them, I think it worked really well. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from people being able to conduct their senior thesis research projects while they were using LabXchange or publish a paper using LabXchange. We’re really excited about the opportunity that we were able to make it a little bit easier for people who were trying to do science remotely while they didn’t have access to a lab or didn’t have access to their school resources or something like that.   

Of course, we’re still thrilled to provide those opportunities for people and want to continue to figure out how we can expand and continue to bolster those resources so we can continue to inspire and push those boundaries about what people can do as a scientist in their own living room.    

Nati Rodriguez [08:57] 
Yes, well, that’s exciting. Now I’m curious what the virtual simulations look like. A couple of questions about the pathways and the clusters. If a student is working through this in a classroom setting, assigned by a teacher, or even independently, is there a way for them to get recognized for the work? Like, do they get credit? Is there a certification? The other is, given the pandemic and the possibility of using virtual spaces more for this lab experience, have you seen any changes in the requirement about physically going to a lab? You mentioned that most of them you have to go in for three hours – is that changing in any way?  

Marty Samuels [09:40] 
The latter question, I don’t know that I have a lot of purvey into. I’ll say this – for the handful of senior theses that I was reading for undergraduates at Harvard, a lot of the research recently has been what you’d call, in silico research, as opposed to in vitro or in vivo. Rather than studying an organism or studying cells in a petri dish, people have been doing experiments on their computer using bioinformatics tools, by doing things like sequence alignments, or protein alignments, or the kinds of discoveries that you can make given all of the tremendous resources that currently exist online based on like the bioinformatics explosion. That’s something that we want to get more into at LabXchange – to prepare people, not just for how to do the wet lab work that scientists do now, but also for what is it that scientists are doing when they’re just sitting at their bench looking at a computer? What kind of databases are they looking through? How are they asking hypotheses using a database like BLAST or the NCBI sequence servers or things like that?   

I’ve noticed that many people have been doing amazing research because they’ve been driven to, from a bioinformatics perspective, the last couple of years because they haven’t had access to their lab spaces as they traditionally would. I should say another thing that we offer, we have virtual simulations for, are not just virtual simulations that allow you to manipulate pipettes and pieces of experimental equipment to kind of perform a lab, with a step-by-step protocol telling you what you should be doing along the way, but we also have virtual activities that allow students to put together their own lab so that if we give you the starting point, like imagine that you have the genome sequence for the coronavirus, and your mission was to create a protein that can act as a potential vaccine for the coronavirus. How would you do that? What experimental steps would you want to go through? Not just which ones would you want to go through, but how would you sequence them in the appropriate order to create that potential vaccine by the end? We’ve developed a couple of simulations where a student can actually build their own experiment, like what kind of protocol steps do they want to do as opposed to just executing a protocol step that someone delivers to them, and that we’re super excited about because that’s really what you only get to do when you become like a professor or like a faculty member.   

You asked another question a long time ago that I totally rambled off on. 

Nati Rodriguez [12:12] 
It was about certification, but all these questions came up as I’m hearing you. One is like, I feel like it expands what we thought of as a scientist, at least for me, and I haven’t done a lot of that science or lab since maybe college. I also thought about access. How many people have access to a lab to begin with, let alone during the coronavirus? And that is amazing. I’m curious, what are your thoughts on the field of science and what this opens up? Is there more validity to one or the other? Are we always going to need to go into a lab otherwise, you’re not really a scientist? 

Marty Samuels [12:58] 
These are great questions and profound and deep questions, and let me not pretend I am an authority on answering them. In fact, my favorite thing about science is that science is a toolbox for investigation. It is the ultimate democratizing force. The best arguments that are supported by the best data win, that’s it. That’s all science is. We know that we’re often wrong, and that some smart person is going to come up with a clever experiment that’s going to provide more data five to ten years from now. We’re all going to have updated ideas in five to ten years from now based on that new data. Science is an ever-evolving field because we’re always accumulating a better understanding of how the natural world works. That allows us to update our understanding and our theories about how nature operates and how we can make use of it.   

The truly empowering thing about science is not just that it allows us to understand something about how nature works, but by understanding how nature works, we can design things to alleviate human suffering, to make our lives better. For example, we can develop clean energies, or we can develop therapies for diseases. Once you understand how a cell grows in a normal way, and you understand what parts of a cell are broken when it’s cancerous and the cell starts dividing too rapidly, then you can actually start rationally designing drugs to say, “Okay, well, how do I repair those broken parts of a cell so the cell returns to its normal state of health?” 

Or that the immune system can clear out all of those bad cells that are cancerous, and the person can go on living a happy, productive life. The truly beautiful thing about science is that it’s just a toolkit to tinker around and try to understand questions that may seem small but often by answering them, you understand deep and profound things that will affect the way that we think about the world forever.   

Most recently, a group of discoveries in biology called CRISPR-Cas9 – these were enzymes or genes that were discovered in the 80s – and for a long time, people didn’t realize how powerful or brilliant these tools were. Very recently, people began to understand that there’s incredible power in these tools to do specific gene editing that seems to motivate a lot of potential future therapies and certainly recent Nobel Prizes, about how, if we can identify genetic causes of disease, how we could begin to alleviate some of those.   

When you ask, where does science go in the future? Really, I think where science and science education are going in the future is to empower users to think about questions they are interested in asking, and help empower people to think about ways they can ask those questions. Often thinking about a question in a subtle way of asking that question is the hardest thing about science. How am I going to ask this question in a way that when I get the data from it, I’ll be able to figure out what the answer is because that’s not always super easy. As a student, you are often told that having questions means you’re not smart enough like a smart kid knows all the answers or something. That is just so far from the truth. Smart people are the people who have billions of questions. Science is all about having questions. The pursuit of trying to answer those questions and trying to understand something about our natural world allows us to develop tools to make more nutritious food to treat malnutrition or any other maladies that you can see in our world today. Some of those scientific discoveries are going to happen in a wet lab, with someone doing experiments or someone in the field, someone discovering something in a cave, in the savannah, or any other biological space. Some of those discoveries are going to be done by people looking up databases and really clever ways of trying to analyze the data that other people have collected and put on the Internet.   

There’s no valid or invalid way of doing this, really. There’s no valid or invalid way of being a scientist. It’s just being curious and having questions and wanting to find out more. There’s no right or wrong place to do that. 

Nati Rodriguez [17:56] 
Is there collaboration around labs? Again, thinking about a physical lab, when I went in there, I was working with somebody, either a partner, or four of us – Is there a way to do that on LabXchange, and is it done across the world? What does that look like? Do you have any data on how many of those collaborations are taking place?   

Marty Samuels [18:17] 
That is a brilliant question because the best learning and the best science is collaborative. There’s no way around that. Right now, we don’t have a great way to understand how people are using LabXchange collaboratively versus independently. I mean, what’s hard is that we’re so young in a way. We launched in the beginning of 2020. We have something like 20 million unique viewers at this point. A lot of them are happening in the context of school, and so what our anecdotal understanding of a lot of that learning journey is, similar to how they would have buddies and do a lab in groups of two or three students, is that they’d be doing the virtual lab together or activities like that in class together. If someone gets stuck in a protocol step or someone doesn’t know how to answer a question, they have a lab mate to help them through that. That is often how we would recommend how to use this, to do it collaboratively. We don’t know yet to the extent that people are doing it collaboratively versus people are doing it at home independently by themselves. 

Nati Rodriguez [19:28] 
Thank you for sharing about that and then just switching gears. Given your deep knowledge and experience in the sciences and in teaching, what is your vision for science education in K-12 and at the college level? 

Marty Samuels [19:42] 
Okay. Maybe if I take a step back and I acknowledge a concept called Bloom’s Taxonomy, in which the first couple of levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy are like knowing facts, and the next couple of levels in the middle of Blooms Taxonomy are applying those facts to new situations. The top of Bloom’s Taxonomy, the highest “cognitive levels,” are being able to evaluate or vet facts, or create experiments, or create arguments given data. Where I see education going, it doesn’t take a genius to see this, is that there’s so much I mean, we live in the information age now. The human genome was again just successfully sequenced. We just had the 20-year rerelease of the now complete human genome. Of course, if you look up almost anything on Google, it’s going to give you an answer, or on Wikipedia.  

My little niche of biology is called structural biology, which means that for DNA made out of little subparts called nucleotides, I care about where all of those atoms are positioned in the nucleotide. An A-T-A-G or C. Proteins are made out of components, subunits called amino acids. I care a lot about what the 20 amino acids look like and where exactly the atoms are in each of those 20 amino acids. When I was a kid, I had to memorize those in tests. I had to take a test, and we had to draw the structure of the 20 amino acids or draw the structure of the four DNA bases or things like that. Now, it’s hard for me. I just give students cheat sheets in every single class they could draw whatever structure they want when they come to class to take a test. Why would anyone ever have to memorize any of this information ever again because literally, it will be in front of them. 

The question is not so much memorizing information or memorizing facts, right? There was a time before the Gutenberg Bible when no one had any of the information in front of them. You had to memorize everything. Now, we all have that book. It’s in our phone, it’s in our pocket. We can look up any information all the time. The question is how to use it. The question is not just knowing those foundational Blooms level facts, but how do you apply them to new phenomenon? How do you interpret data in light of those facts? How do you evaluate facts? How do you evaluate papers or claims in a research paper or try to understand them?  

Given the information age and given the amount of data that’s at our fingertips all the time, where education is going is not necessarily requiring students to memorize or learn facts, but it’s really in helping students to evaluate or vet facts. If you read a news article, how do know it’s true? When you look up a Google search, you are lucky if you only get one result back.  That means that you only have one thing to look up. Normally, you get 100,000 results back. Which one do you click on? Which one do you trust? How do you learn how to evaluate or vet knowledge, or figure out what is the knowledge that’s trustworthy that I know I can believe in?  

As scientists, we believe a lot in having a claim that’s supported by reasoning, supported by evidence. So that’s always what we’re looking for. It’s not about the big name who’s saying something. It doesn’t matter who says something. It doesn’t matter what the accreditation is. All that matters is whether or not you can prove it or not, and that’s what science is.  

This is a long way of saying that I see science education as going in the direction of training people how to critique arguments, how to make arguments, how to use data to support claims, and how to critique other people’s claims. If you read a paper, you can say, “Wow, half of this paper was brilliant, and the other half of the paper, I don’t know if I buy it.”  

If we can go in that direction, I think that we all have done a huge service for the next generation. 

Nati Rodriguez [24:00] 
I’m curious what your own K-12 educational journey was like? 

Marty Samuels [24:04] 
I was a humongous nerd, and I loved my science classes, but I also loved my humanities classes. I loved English and Literature, and I did okay in drawing and did terrible at music, but I was super lucky. I grew up in Maryland, and I grew up just outside Washington, DC. I grew up next to the National Institute of Health (NIH), a laboratory in Bethesda, Maryland, because of that, I got super lucky and had amazing people who were there to support me. I got an opportunity to work in labs at NIH as a high school student.   

My first one was with this amazing mentor, Dr. Frederick K at the National Cancer Institute. My grandfather, I had never met him. He passed away when my mom was five of leukemia. There was always a mission and never spoken out loud really, but, I mean, a burning inner flame to figure out how to cure cancer. That was just always a deep-seated thing that I still feel to this day. That’s just such a central motivation for me. It was a central motivation for me going to grad school and everything else. My mom, of course, wanted me to become a real doctor, like a medical doctor. We watched ER together all the time, and she was always wanting me to become one of these people. Well, I don’t know that I can stick my hand into someone’s abdomen, but I do like the science. I got to do some very basic research, make a ton of mistakes, and had really incredible mentors who were just there to support me all the time. I actually had a couple of amazing opportunities to work at labs while I was a high school student.  

These are stories I would share with my undergrads at Harvard. I had a ridiculously privileged opportunity to work in a bunch of science labs in high school. I went to college, and I joined another lab in college, and they fired me almost immediately. I just couldn’t get an experiment to work, and it wasn’t clicking. In hindsight, I was young, and I was stupid, and I wasn’t probably mature enough, and going to my mentors and asking them for advice and thinking about different ways I could try it, but it was demoralizing. I took a year out of lab or something like that. It took me a while to build up the gumption to go email another professor and ask if I could work in the lab. After a while, I did and I felt completely at home again.   

I think it’s just important to know that adversity is a thing. No one makes it through scot-free. Everyone’s going to struggle, and the most important thing you can do is believe in yourself and know that you can do anything you want to do. Don’t let setbacks derail you. If you want to try something, try again. Get back up, dust yourself off. It’s having a growth mindset or perspective that having one or two failures, or three or four or five or six failures, is nothing to deter you from trying things that you’re really passionate about or continue to try things you’re really passionate about. Learn from mistakes, learn from setbacks and try again. Rely on your support network, rely on your friends, and rely on your loved ones. They’re going to help you through all of this. 

I think that those were the most important things that I got out of high school and college, which were – one, amazing opportunities, but two, amazing opportunities to fail and to grow from it in safe spaces and where people were there to protect and support me.   

Nati Rodriguez [27:37] 
Thanks for sharing that. Just looking at all of your incredible awards for teaching, advising, and acknowledgments, I just think that it was shaped by all of these rich experiences that you had. I hope that more people do not get derailed when they have a passion.    

Marty Samuels [28:01] 
Well, that’s kind of you to say. Honestly, I think everything in education is just trying to empower the next generation to be amazing and to be future leaders. Not just be able to do the things that we’re thinking about today, but to be prepared to think about questions or challenges that we haven’t even thought about that are going to appear 20 years from now, and they’re going to be responsible for solving. As I’m sure every educator you speak to says, watching a student fall in love with the topic or realize that they are capable of confidence and they feel empowered by any discipline or way of asking questions, it’s the biggest possible reward you could ever have as a teacher. 

Nati Rodriguez [28:43] 
I know that you’re Head of Content at LabXchange. Are you still teaching?  

Marty Samuels [28:48] 
Not at the moment, no. I have to say I miss it. I haven’t been in a classroom, I’ve guest lectured here and there. In all honesty, I haven’t been in a classroom for a few years now, and I miss it. I’m sure very few students appreciate that comment, but I kind of miss it, I do. 

Nati Rodriguez [29:10] 
The reason I ask is because I can feel your enthusiasm around helping the next generation of learners, just curious if you were still practicing. 

Marty Samuels [29:20] 
We do our best to try to pour it into the online stuff — one thing that we try to do, which is hard. If you imagine the most rewarding educational experiences, it’s usually a one-to-one experience with someone, where you are asking them questions, and they’re responding to you. It feels like that should be doable in online spaces, that we should be able to create systems that give you very meaningful and personalized and detailed feedback, that coaches you along the way, that says, “Oh, I see what you did there. That’s tricky, don’t worry about it. Why don’t you think about it from this perspective and try it again?” 

Trying to think about ways in which we can build more coaching and positive feedback and inspiration and motivation into the online spaces, is something we’re thinking about all the time.  

Nati Rodriguez [30:08] 
Would that be through AI or would there be a person actually evaluating and coaching?  

Marty Samuels [30:15] 
I would say somewhere in between, probably because I don’t think I really know what the word AI means. I have no idea what that means other than Will Smith movies. Can we imagine a lot of possible incorrect answers? I think this is a lot of data we want to collect in the future. What are the misconceptions that people have about a particular topic? If we can figure out what are the top ten most common misconceptions someone has about a particular topic, then we can come up with nested feedback for each of those misconceptions. Maybe that might not be perfect, but maybe if that relates to the next question that they also get, that feedback can be combined in an iterative way that can become individualized for the user, and maybe that does become AI machine learning at some point. I just don’t know what those words mean.  

Nati Rodriguez [31:02] 
As a teacher and teachers that have been in the field for years, they’re very familiar with all the hiccups students experience on particular concepts or in a problem. They see it over and over again and they know how to respond and they get really good at guiding. Yeah, I can imagine that with enough data you can do that in an online space.  

Marty Samuels [31:22] 
I should say that, frankly, we are so reliant on experienced teachers as we build this content. There’s so much expertise that we are so privileged to get to apply and make use of, but we’re always looking for more. Let me just say that. We are young and our website is young. All the things we’re making are prototypes. If we’re going to be around for 20 years from now, the things we’ve made in the first couple of years will be just the first examples of things we can make. We want all of our things to get better. We’re excited to hear from people about how we can make things better for their students, for themselves as teachers, and for people as lifelong learners. We are thrilled to get any and all feedback from anyone at any point along the way or any guidance from people. We are in the space with a great deal of humility. We know what amazing teachers are out there who have taught this content to many amazing students before, and we are also in a position of wanting to learn from them, as well.   

Nati Rodriguez [32:24] 
Great. That’s a great point that you made. Our Learner audience is several thousand, not quite 20 million, but they’re veteran educators who’ve been in the field and are experts in their content areas. I think they would appreciate trying LabXchange and providing any feedback if they have some insight into the sciences and education in general, which they do. Is there anything else that you would like to add or share with our audience?  

Marty Samuels [32:52] 
I don’t know that I do, other than just to share my appreciation to you for this amazing podcast and also for the amazing content and the classroom resources that are already up on your website. We’re so excited for LabXchange to have a collaboration with you. There are just so many directions, just thinking about the STEAM projects and the writing and the science from different disciplines and lenses perspectives, so much of this is just so exciting.  We can’t wait. Honestly, we feel like, in so many things, we feel like this collaboration is just the beginning as well and we’re really pumped about everything. 

Nati Rodriguez [33:59] 
What are you reading, watching or listening to these days?  

Marty Samuels [34:04] 
Okay, that’s probably the most important thing. I originally grew up in Maryland, so I’m hooked on The Wire if anyone watched that. HBO had another rerelease of the show, We Own the City, which I could probably just keep re-watching 24 hours a day and be happy with my life. Now I get to interrupt that with Ms. Marvel, and Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the other shows on Disney Plus.   

In terms of what I’ve been reading recently, one amazing project that LabXchange has had the honor to work on, is an anti-racism and science education project, another project funded generously through the Amgen Foundation. Over the next year, we plan on releasing a lot of content about how health inequities in the US don’t have any biological basis, teaching about the genetics and the biology of human variation, and also how to be a teacher who’s more inclusive and antiracist teacher, someone who can support all the students to succeed.   

There’s a book that I’ve been reading, Racism, Not Race, by Professor Joseph Graves and Dr. Allen Goodman and that’s a completely stunning book. I was also reading another chapter by Dr. Robert Palmer on persistence frameworks and how to support all students to succeed. He’s a professor at Howard University. It’s just been an amazing project to get to surround myself with such amazing scholars and scholarship.   

Nati Rodriguez [35:35] 
Marty, it was a pleasure to speak with you today, and we look forward to continuing to work with LabXchange.