Dr. Christine Broussard raises more than $1 million in grants for the University of La Verne.
by Jamie Ondatje
photography by Michael D. Martinez
Don Sortillon sits in the laboratory and carefully places test tubes into a large flow cytometer machine. It is Friday afternoon, and he’s wearing a white lab coat and rubber gloves. He waits patiently for the machine to obtain a sufficient sample from the test tube and observes the florescent images of T-cell samples projected on the adjoining computer screen. Don is not a scientist at the National Institute of Health; he is a senior biology student at the University of La Verne. Because of modern equipment, such as the flow cytometer that biology professor Christine Broussard has brought to the University of La Verne, students like Don can gain hands-on experience and perform high quality research that will aid them in their careers. “The ability to go into the lab and be hands-on and relate what you learned in class to actual practical uses helps you build upon that [knowledge] for the future,” says Don. “It will help me be a better all-around scientist.”
Professor Broussard obtained the flow cytometer in 2003 from the California Technical Institute of Technology. “This flow cytometer was one that was replaced by a newer model, so it was sitting around doing nothing, although it was in perfectly good shape,” says Christine. A brand new flow cytometer would have cost the biology department approximately $150,000, but this lightly used machine only cost the department $25,000.
Christine’s dedication has also led her to secure more than $1,250,000 in grants for research and supplies in the biology department. “Her grant writing has allowed us to purchase a great deal of high quality equipment,” says Dr. Jeffery Burkhart, former chair of the biology department. “She’s made a mark in the time that she’s been here.”
A creative approach to learning
When she was first hired in 2001, Christine began implementing her philosophy on active learning. In one of her first La Verne molecular biology classes, her students cloned a gene from one organism and placed it into another. Pleased with the positive response, she continued to develop hands-on activities for students to learn new material. “I wanted to come up with ways that would be more effective for students to make sure that they were learning; that they were moving on to the next step,” Christine says. “That experience really heavily influenced my attitude about learning.”
To continue to provide hands-on experiments for students, she began applying for grants to fund more effective lab activities. One such grant she obtained in 2003 for the department is the National Science Foundation Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement Grant. With this funding, Christine has promoted curriculum development in La Verne lab courses to allow them to be more experimentally based. “I’ve had two or three students who I know for certain wouldn’t have finished their degrees if it hadn’t been for their experience in the classes that we developed as a result of the grant,” she says.
Christine’s passion radiates as she recalls classroom experiences with specific students and how much they grew over the course of a semester. “I love teaching these classes [cell biology and developmental biology] the way that we teach them because I can watch the students really develop their skills and develop their confidence,” she says. “It’s really rewarding to see students who might have struggled actually succeed and go on and do things that they’d like to do.”
In her mission to develop a successful learning environment, she has led seminars at several national conferences on science education and is a core part of a nation-wide movement to change the way that science is taught in the United States. These conferences allow for dialogue between undergraduate science and biology professors who are trying to gather resources and provide support for each other. “We are trying to move away from what we call ‘cookbook labs’ to students actually having research experiences in their labs,” Christine says. “I found that students seemed to be more engaged in their learning if there was a reason for them to be learning about it, instead of just doing something in lab because the book says so.”
“She has high standards; her classes are rigorous,” Professor Burkhart says. “She teaches a great deal of laboratory and hands-on techniques, and her students are involved in high-quality research.”
The effects of Christine’s teaching techniques are proving to have a positive impact on students. She shares that the on-time graduation rate for biology students has dramatically improved. In the past, about 30 percent of La Verne biology students finished their degrees in four years; now more than 70 percent finish in four years. “It’s helped to raise our status on campus. We’ve had considerable success over the past five years,” Jeffery says. “The momentum that is built toward the success we’ve had recently has been largely from her.”
Her students agree that although Professor Broussard’s classes may not be easy, they encourage students to challenge themselves to reach their fullest potential. “She has set the bar for other professors and pushed people to do things that I don’t think they would have done otherwise,” says Lab Manager Teddy Schanes, a junior. “She’s insured that we have the latest technology, and she has made sure that everyone is performing to their fullest abilities.”
“She’s one of the most productive of our faculty members,” Jeffery says, as he struggles to lift two bulging files from his file cabinet, which contain all of Christine’s grants and other projects.
Funding a dream
Aside from her work with grant proposals and curriculum development, Christine has also made it her mission to bring the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program to ULV students. Students who receive this scholarship gain up to $15,000 during their junior and senior years and during their one year in the credential program. Due to the dedication of Christine and her work in applying for the scholarship, ULV was awarded a five-year grant for the program in June 2009. With this funding, the biology department is able to support four students—usually two undergraduates and two graduates—each year. “It’s really helped students financially who might not have been able to continue,” Christine says.
Her research passions
In addition to her time spent on applying for grants, Christine conducts research in the area of developmental immunotoxicology, which examines the impact of environmental toxicants on the development of the immune system in embryos.
The research she does with undergraduate students focuses on the class of molecules termed endocrine-disruptors. EDCs are present in many products that are used daily, such as personal care products, pharmaceuticals, plastic and pesticides. Recent studies suggest that EDCs negatively influence the immune system, potentially leading to immune diseases like asthma, allergies, autoimmune disease, ear infections and poor vaccine responses. The environmental exposure, especially during fetal development, may be a significant factor in the development of immune disease. “This is research that has important significance to us in understanding how these chemicals influence life forms of various sorts,” Jeffery says.
She has been working on this research project since 2004 and recently received a $200,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which allows Christine to conduct more in-depth research. The proposal for the grant included research from undergraduate students who have worked with her on the project during the last five years. “She can look at a profile and see research being conducted 50 years from now, ensuring that other countries, not just our own, understand what’s actually going on at a molecular level; she sees the future,” Teddy says of Christine’s research.
Her research examines diethylstilbestrol, a model estrogen once used for medicinal purposes, now linked to autoimmune disease, as well as methoxychlor, a recently banned pesticide that is manufactured in the United States yet still shipped to other countries. “We’re doing this because it’s not just affecting our generation or her generation; it’s affecting future generations,” Teddy says.
Christine and her students hope to publish the results of their research to aid the federal government in policy-making. Ultimately, they would like the Environmental Protection Agency to adopt “immune endpoints” to investigate before licensing a chemical, thereby ensuring that it is not harmful.
Bringing life into the lab
Aside from all of her projects on the La Verne campus, Christine takes the time to get to know her students on a personal level and ensures that they are doing everything they can to succeed. “She sees the potential in everybody, and she expects the best,” Teddy says. “Through seeing her view of you, it makes you do everything you can to become that person she sees.”
What is so distinct about Christine is that in a field where professors can easily get caught up in research, statistics and by-the-book teaching methods, she glows with enthusiasm for creative teaching and excitement for her students. “She brings life to people,” says student Don Sortillon. “Her excitement and her passion for what she does inspires me to do better.”
It is apparent by her curriculum improvements in the biology department and all of the hard work she has put into obtaining grants for student research how much Christine Broussard cares about students learning and succeeding. “I really love my job,” she says. “When you’re doing something you love, it doesn’t feel like work; it feels like fun. So, it’s not hard to find time for it.”
Robert Noyce Scholarship
The Robert Noyce scholarship attempts to remedy a problem in United States education: not having a sufficient number of math and science teachers. The purpose of the program is to prompt students to actively consider teaching and to provide them with the education they need to teach.
The scholarship provides monetary support for students who are math or science majors and who are interested in a teaching career. To qualify, students need a minimum 3.0 GPA and must be eligible for the teaching credential program. The scholarship is not need-based and is open to all students. It serves as an additional support to financial aid.
Scholarship recipients must also complete a “payback” period, which requires that for every year they received the scholarship, they teach at an underserved school.