Underneath the Microscope

Tenley Rooney
Exploring Embryology with Dr. Chan

For six years, Dr. Xin Chan studied marine snail embryos as she worked towards her Ph.D. in biology from the University of Rochester. Despite the hours spent at the microscope studying genes and snail development, Chan says the exploration of embryology never ceases to amaze her.
“Science – it's just fascinating, and it never stops fascinating me,” says Chan. As a member of the SPS Science Department, Chan shares that enthusiasm with students in her new Embryology class. “It's just a process of how life happens in a sense,” she says of the course material. “I am still fascinated by it because there's just so much we don't know.”
There’s rarely a dull moment in Chan’s classroom. The course debuted this term, and its first eight students are exploring the similarities and differences between human development and embryos from organisms such as rats, zebrafish, worms, and chickens. “There are a lot of other organisms out there that we use to help us understand the whole beauty of embryology and development,” says Chan. “So how does it happen? We'll learn all about it, and then we actually will see it.”
BioEYES, a nonprofit, educational organization, will visit the class and allow students to observe adult fish and the egg-laying process. From there, the students will study the embryos. By the end of the course, Chan will challenge students to take their outstanding questions and create the basis for a study.
“It’s been a very engaging course,” says Kaylynn Wilson ’21. “We all put in a certain amount of energy, and the teacher gives it back."
Classmate Sigrid Montagano ’20 adds, “I’ve loved the discussions we’ve had in class. There’s only eight of us, and we all sit at a table with Dr. Chan. She encourages us to ask questions, so it feels like she’s invested in our learning. Having that flexibility makes the class fun and engaging."  

The embryology elective is available to students during their junior year while they are taking biology, thus opening this specialized area of study to students earlier in their SPS careers. “For all of our other life science electives, students need to have completed biology, and since they do not take biology until the junior year, it means that they only have a year to explore some of these upper-level electives," says Science Department Head Julie Cepiel. “The topic of embryology is not one that is contained within our other offerings and allows students to explore many biological concepts through this lens.”
For Chan, introducing this class to SPS students has been a treat. “They are really bright students, and they are very thoughtful,” Chan says of her pupils. “They ask excellent questions, and it makes you feel excited. I think that in science we need a lot of curiosity. We need that, and our students have that here.”