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LBC alum earns prestigious postdoctoral research fellowship and returns to MSU

January 24, 2024 - Tiffany Werner

LBC alum Keenan Noyes is a Spartan through and through. He graduated from MSU in 2022 with a Ph.D. in chemistry and in 2016, with a Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry and biotechnology from Lyman Briggs College.

Keenan NoyesNoyes became interested in research at a young age by assisting his mother in her research on endangered reptiles. As an incoming college student, Noyes took part in a professorial assistant program with Dr. Melanie Cooper and Dr. Nicole Becker in the Department of Chemistry. Cooper and Becker helped Noyes understand the importance of mechanical reasoning during his undergraduate research, where he was first exposed to discipline-based education research. 

The experience piqued his interest in mechanistic reasoning and led him to further research in this area. “This type of reasoning is all about connecting the properties and behaviors of the underlying components of a system to the overall behavior of that system,” Noyes says, “that is, how and why things work in the way that they do.” For example, a car mechanic understands the logistics of an engine and what makes it work. This deep understanding allows the mechanic to diagnose problems and make necessary repairs.

Outside of his undergraduate research, the history, philosophy and sociology of science courses that Noyes took at Lyman Briggs had a significant influence on his interest in pursuing research. “We discussed the nature of science and how science is not just a collection of facts, but a process by which we understand the world,” Noyes says. “These lessons have helped me think about how we can best structure our science classrooms to give students the opportunities to engage in the process of science.”

Noyes pursued his doctorate in the MSU Department of Chemistry, once again working with Dr. Melanie Cooper. His graduate research focused on methods for teaching chemistry to undergraduate students  in a way that produces better learning outcomes. He also received the 2020 Undergraduate Research Supervisor Mentor of the Year Award, the first graduate student to receive this award and the first awardee from Department of Chemistry..

I focused on how mechanistic reasoning may be able to help students develop a deeper knowledge of forces and energy,” Noyes says. “The rationale for this focus is that mechanistic reasoning may be particularly well suited to linking chemistry and biology together because chemistry addresses the underlying components of biological systems.”

Recently, Noyes was awarded a NSF STEMEd Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. The STEM Ed PRF Program funds projects that aim to improve STEM education research and learning environments. Noyes will be joining Dr. Jennifer Doherty’s physiology research lab here at MSU which investigates how undergraduate students develop principle-based mechanistic reasoning, a core competency in science. The research is set to start in May 2024.

It is vital that undergraduate physiology students, our future physicians and nurses and allied health professionals, develop the ability to reason mechanistically so they can successfully diagnose and treat novel illnesses,” says Doherty. “Focusing instruction on a deeper form of learning like mechanistic reasoning shifts the emphasis of these courses away from memorization which has been identified as a critical factor leading many undergraduates, especially those from historically excluded groups, to leave science.”

Doherty’s previous work on undergraduates’ understanding of mechanistic reasoning has focused on simplified scenarios; Keenan’s project will expand into more complex physiological phenomena involved in mechanistic reasoning.

Keenan will interview individuals with different levels of physiology expertise, including undergraduate physiology students, medical and nursing students, and physiology and nursing faculty,” said Dr. Doherty. “From these data, we will identify patterns in the ways undergraduate students use mechanistic reasoning and compare it to the reasoning of those more expert.”

Noyes is particularly excited to take more ownership in this new position and apply all of the knowledge and skills he has acquired through his undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral training. He hopes to acquire crucial skills from this fellowship that will prepare him for future positions while also providing undergraduate researchers in the types of research experiences he knows they value, like those that started his MSU academic career.