ClassAction: Learning the science of everything else 

By Russ Cooper

How does DNA cloning affect a student in the JMSB? Why would a ceramics student bother to learn about cell functions? Sign up for Associate Professor in Chemistry and Biochemistry Paul Joyce's class and you'll find out why.

Professor Paul Joyce was recently recognized for exemplary teaching with an Arts and Science Dean’s Award. Magnifying glass

Professor Paul Joyce was recently recognized for exemplary teaching with an Arts and Science Dean’s Award.

CHEM 209: Discovering Biotechnology provides students in non-scientific programs the opportunity to learn about biotechnology and see the real-life relevance of sound scientific knowledge.

"It's sometimes worrying how little people actually know about science, about the truth," he says. "It's now about the quality of information one gets. I want my students to think critically about the scientific information.

"An informed public is a good idea."

About 10 years ago, Joyce was part of the team helping establish the graduate diploma in biotechnology and genomics. Noticing there weren't any elective classes about biotechnology for those outside the biology and biochemistry departments, Joyce proposed a class to educate students looking for a greater understanding of science in our world.

"I don't want students just memorizing facts," he says. "I want them to be able to have reliable information and understand how things work."

Every year since establishing its place in Concordia's curriculum, the class has filled to capacity, averaging around 50 students per session. Over its history, the class has seen students from engineering, fine arts, the JMSB, journalism and all points in between. Usually a one-term offering, overwhelming interest has led the course to be offered twice in an academic year.

To help make often complicated information understandable to students from all disciplines, the class takes a three-pronged approach:

One, Joyce grounds his students in basic information to ensure all students are on the same page; subjects such as DNA structure, cell biology and genetics are all covered right from the get-go. ("I give them a 13-week crash course in biology and chemistry in one class," he says.)

Two, Joyce tells students how the understanding is applied to everyday life. For example, how genes are cloned, or how biotechnology is used to clean up the environment.

Three, Joyce invites experts from different areas to talk about their work and how it relates to basic science. He's welcomed legal professionals speaking on patenting life forms, bioethicists such as former-Concordia president and bioethicist Frederick Lowy, and genetic counsellors (professionals who help guide those affected by genetic conditions) such as Concordia grad and counsellor at the Montreal Children’s Hospital Sui Mei Chiu.

Joyce has also called on colleagues from within Concordia to speak on their areas of expertise including speakers from biology, chemistry, journalism, sociology and anthropology.

While not formally his class, Joyce has been the instructor for the majority of its history. In those years he was unable to instruct, Joyce credits his colleagues in Chemistry and Biochemistry Assistant Professor Peter Pawelek and Associate Professor Justin Powlowski (also the current Associate Dean, Facilities, for Arts and Science) with sharing the teaching responsibilities. "The good thing is that different professors have different perspectives," he says.

At Concordia since 1991, the current research of this Truro, N.S.-native revolves around examining how proteins move to specific destinations in the cell. 'Protein targeting,' Joyce explains, is investigating how – not necessarily ‘why’ – proteins follow specific pathways to fulfill their function. Much of his research deals with tRNA nucleotidyltransferase, an enzyme which he isn't shy in exclaiming his fondness for.

"It's my favourite protein," he says. "Twenty years ago, it was among the first proteins shown to have multiple destinations throughout the cell. Since then, many more have been identified, but I've always had a special bond with tRNA nucleotidyltransferase."

Holistically, Joyce is extremely proud of his fundamental research to further understand how cells work. As well, he's biding his time in hopes to one day produce a practical application.

"Next year, they probably won't have a cure for any disease as a result of my work, but maybe someday."


Concordia University