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The Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department welcomes its newest faculty member Dr. Shawn Xiong

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Dr. Shawn Xiong

8/31/2018 - This fall there will be a new face in the halls of South Frear Laboratory as the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department welcomes new faculty member Dr. Shawn Xiong. Dr. Xiong joins Penn State from the University of Toronto, where he received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Structural Biology, and will be joining the instructional faculty, teaching BMB 211, BMB 212 and BiSc 004.

Dr. Xiong is originally from Manitoba, Canada, where his early interest as a child was not in science, rather in geopolitics and he even received a scholarship to study that subject at the University of Manitoba. While at Manitoba, a unique chain of events completely changed his study focus.

Dr. Xiong’s scholarship at the University of Manitoba was not eligible to fund him through the summer months, forcing him to search for other opportunities. Since it was late in the summer job search, he turned to the faculty in his own department for help, asking them if they knew of any available opportunities. They directed him to a scholarship that was specific to the summer months, exactly what Dr. Xiong needed. However after being awarded the scholarship, he realized that the scholarship was for science and not liberal arts where his department was housed.

Concerned, Dr. Xiong spoke with the faculty member whose lab he would be working and explained that he was a liberal arts student, not a science student. The head of the lab, a relatively new faculty member from Stanford, encouraged Dr. Xiong to take advantage of a new learning experience, and if he found it was not for him, then he would know to not apply for future science opportunities. Over those summer months, through helping to build the lab and by working on research projects, Dr. Xiong realized that he wanted to pursue science and transferred to the University of Toronto to begin working toward his Ph.D.

After earning his Ph.D., Dr. Xiong wanted to start teaching and found that Penn State mirrored his teaching beliefs and hopes during the interview process. Other institutions with which he interviewed lacked a teaching emphasis while the BMB Department with Penn State showed that they provide a significant level of support from the department head down to the instructional faculty. As a young faculty, he thought that this support would be crucial to growing and developing his teaching skills. In addition, his attraction to University Park was also based on the size of the university and the BMB department, as well as the diverse volume of offered courses.

When it comes to teaching, the hot button topic of the day is “active learning”, which means that faculty are trying to move away from the traditional approach of lecturing to students in large lecture halls. Professors are now trying to engage students in the process of learning and Dr. Xiong’s approach to engagement is through storytelling. At the beginning of each class he gives his students a mystery rooted in science, that may or may not have a solution, and that is directly attached to the topic of the day. Once the class has heard the mystery, he asks the students to list what facts they know having heard the story.  This is done so that students can build an understanding of what they have heard by incorporating knowledge learned from both this class and other related classes. Dr. Xiong intentionally withholds the answer or solution from his students, but lets them know that the material being covered that day might help reveal a solution. Throughout the class he makes many references back to the mystery and at the end of the class another discussion is held to discover what solutions are plausible or what hypothesis’s can be inferred.

Dr. Xiong also hopes to spend time furthering some teaching initiatives within the department.  Currently the department provides a Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) in microbiology for first year students but lacks a corresponding course in biochemistry. Dr. Xiong would like to work to expand CURE to encompass biochemistry as he believes that getting a student into a lab environment as early in their career as possible is very important so that the student can truly get a sense as to whether they like or dislike it. A second initiative that he would like to pursue within the department is to use his background as a structural biologist to work with the department’s structural biology faculty to create a new option within the “Communities of Practice” course (BMB 488). He believes an option where he can work with students in the classroom and then team up with research faculty to have these students enter the laboratory would be a win-win for the department.

In his off-time, Dr. Xiong enjoys reading and writing and is a movie buff, specifically in the genres of horror and action movies. You may also see Dr. Xiong around campus and town as he is an avid runner, even though he says he only goes for short runs of 20-30 minutes. The Biochemistry Department would like to welcome Dr. Shawn Xiong to the team and wish him a happy and successful first semester here at Penn State.