Cory J. Evans brings “discovery-based” learning to LMU biology classes

Providing students with the opportunity to conduct research is one of the goals of Cory J. Evans, Ph.D., a newly appointed assistant professor of biology at Loyola Marymount University Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering.

Evans began teaching developmental biology lecture and lab in August, which coincided with the publication of a paper he co-authored underscoring the benefits of involving undergraduate students in research as part of their classwork. The ability to offer what he calls “discovery-based research” questions to students is part of what drew him to LMU from his previous post at UCLA.

“There is a high level of commitment from the dean toward research,” said Evans. “I knew this was a place I could start doing research with students immediately.”

Evans, a native Angelino who grew up in South Gate, spent many hours on or around the ocean when he was a kid. Exposure to marine life sparked his interest in biology. He earned a bachelor’s degree in cell and molecular biology followed by a Ph.D. at UCLA in 2002.

“I wanted to stay in academia. I loved the idea of having my own lab and teaching this kind of material,” said Evans.

He conducted his post-doctoral work in developmental biology at UCLA before becoming an instructor. His research centers on genes important to blood cell development in Drosophila, a small fruit fly that has long served as a valuable model in molecular biology research because it develops quickly and is ideal for genetic studies. In 2014, he taught a discovery-based laboratory course at UCLA that was a turning point in his career.

The concept centers on providing students in science lab classes with novel experiments that probe real problems. Evans’ recent paper, published online in September in the journal G3: Genes Genomes Genetics, details gene expression patterns in Drosophila during development, but also describes the benefits of discovery-based learning for students. The paper is co-authored by 271 undergraduate students and high school-aged summer scholars who, collectively, completed all of the experimental work and gathered greater than 50,000 microscopic images.

“We report on the impact of students in that particular program on learning gains and STEM retention,” said Evans. “I think there is a lot to be said for asking: What is the research lab like? What is it like to ask a question that you don’t know the answer to? From an educational standpoint, we know it has a huge impact on retention. It’s getting students interested in a way that they stay in science.”

At LMU, Evans is continuing his research on blood cell development in Drosophila and will bring his undergrad students along for the ride.

“I think students buy into it. They get very motivated when they realize they’re doing something unique,” said Evans. “They may be discovering something that wasn’t known before.”