Post-Defense Interview: Jacqueline Mason

A research project or thesis exploring a question related to the field of biomedical visualization is one aspect of completing a Masters in Biomedical Visualization here at UIC. This original investigation enables greater insight into scholarship, understanding of the research process, and emphasizes original and critical thinking. Graduate students complete a written proposal, final research or thesis paper, give a final oral presentation and defense which all enable a student to develop advanced communication skills. This year, we are sitting down with our graduate students after their final defense for a quick chat about them and their research.

Recently, Jacqueline Mason defended her project: “Developing an Interactive 3D Learning Experience to Help Students Understand Key Regulatory Processes Associated with Glycolysis”



Jacqueline Mason, how would you describe your research in one sentence?

Jacqueline: I designed an esoteric application about enzymes that kind of, sort of works.

How did you decide on your research topic?

I have a strong interest in designing solutions for problems in science education. I spent some time interviewing biology professors at UIC, asking what their students struggle with the most. Cellular respiration was nearly unanimously reported, and so I decided to design a solution for teaching certain concepts within cellular respiration. After further discussion with my committee, I narrowed the scope of my project to address allosteric regulation within the context of glycolysis.

Why do undergraduates struggle with learning glycolysis? What was your experience when you first learned about this topic?

Glycolysis, and the rest of the pathways involved in cellular respiration, are highly complex and multifaceted. Undergraduates (including me when I took undergrad biology) see their textbook illustrations with names of enzymes, compounds, molecules, and arrows all over place and it becomes a daunting memorization task. Often, students are not taught the foundational biological principles that underlie these pathways, which could help them make sense of the chaos. In addition, students typically only learn these pathways by looking at static figures– there’s no interactivity and few animations to facilitate the learning. All of these factors not only make glycolysis difficult to learn, but there is very little knowledge retention.

Can you tell us what theoretical framework you based your project?

I used a number of design and educational frameworks to guide my project. The two main educational frameworks I used were cognitivism and constructivism. Cognitivism emphasizes the need to help scaffold student learning– so helping students slowly build understanding based on prior understanding. For my project, I introduced students to the topics of enzymes and allosteric regulation is a 2D animation. I then allowed students to build on this foundational knowledge by having them explore these same principles in a 3D space with a specific pathway (Glycolysis). Constructivism places the learner at the center of the experience. For my project, I wanted students to not just learn about allosteric regulation in an abstract way. I contextualized the experience by allowing them to explore allosteric regulation in glycolysis, and then in a specific enzyme: phosphofructokinase.

What’s your typical workflow look like for a project?

For this research project, I really dove deep into the education literature to make sure I was designing an application that incorporated effective instruction strategies. I also thoroughly researched and made sure I understood the scientific topic of my research which involved the regulatory mechanisms of glycolysis. Since I was developing a learning module that involved the use of both a 2D animation and a 3D interactive application, I then developed a storyboard and wireframes to help me plan out the learning module. Asset creation was next, developing 2D vector graphics for the animation, and 3D models and animations for the application. Finally, the animation was composited, and the models and 3D animations were imported into the gaming software Unity and scripted for interactivity. The final deliverable was an online learning module incorporating the animation and application.

What was the most challenging aspect of your project research?

The most challenging aspect of my research was determining the best way to visually represent my topic in an interactive 3D space. Glycolysis alone is a big topic, so I had to make sure I was only representing the concepts that aligned with the learning objectives of the research. Secondary to that was learning enough programming to represent this molecular space accurately and effectively. I’ve learned quite a bit from this research project and hope to make improvements on future versions of the learning module.

How did the scope/implementation of your research change over time?

Originally, I had planned to develop an application that would allow students to track energy transfer throughout all of cellular respiration. This would have been a very large and daunting project. After some research, I scaled my project way back to focus on the regulatory mechanisms of glycolysis. This allowed me to develop a very focused learning module with targeted and clear learning objectives.

What was your favorite part in that workflow?

This project was my first real experience coding using the C# programming language. Writing successful scripts and seeing my project transform into a responsive, interactive experience was very gratifying.

You have previous experience as a graduate student, what motivated you to pursue graduate school again? could you talk to us a bit more about your previous experiences and how it’s  impact on  your work here at UIC BVIS?

My previous master’s program in educational technology taught me the powerful ways we can leverage emerging technologies  to create meaningful learning experiences. I learned how important it is to use research-backed approaches when designing new tools for education. After graduating and working as an instructional designer, I realized how much I wished I could apply my knowledge specifically toward developing visualization tools for science education. I knew that the BVIS program would give me the final set of skills I would need. Throughout my time at BVIS, I have tried to be very intentional with every project I have developed, ensuring there is always a clear learning objective. Inspired by new fields like serious game design, I have focused my studies at BVIS around interactive media development. The interactivity classes at BVIS have been amazing, and have really allowed me to integrate everything I have learned from both graduate school experiences.

What excites you about a new project? Any new projects coming up on the horizon?

I love projects that attack a problem in a strategic and novel way. This past semester, some fellow classmates and I had the opportunity to develop educational experiences using augmented and virtual reality. I think there are many ways these technologies can impact health and science education, and I am excited to explore new projects using these technologies.  



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