Plagues and Pandemics - Emerson SC-214

For the past 3 years, I've had the opportunity to spend a week in a house on a beautiful lake in Vermont. Usually, this week is a chance to completely unplug. I take some photos, buy a bunch of books from Northshire and read them, and lounge around. On this past trip however, I received and e-mail that was equal parts wonderful, exciting and terrifying, offering me an opportunity to teach a course at Emerson College.

The course is SC-214 - Plagues and Pandemics. From the catalogue:

Infectious diseases are a leading worldwide cause of human death. This course will describe and discuss the role, origins, spread, and impact of infectious diseases. By examining how the human immune system guards against infectious disease students will gain an understanding of the complex interaction between host and pathogen. This foundation will be a launching point or discussion of topics such as the rise of drug resistant microbes, advances in diagnostic and vaccine development, the socio-economic and political factors involved in disease progression, food preservation and safety, and the use of microbes and microbial products in bioterrorism.

Sounds right up my alley right?

Emerson College is focused on performing arts and communication, so for many of the students, this course will be the only science course they take in college. I'm afraid that many of them view science as too hard or too inaccessible, and I want to use this course to try to change their minds. I'm under no illusions that I'm going to make any of them actually want to be scientists, but I'm hoping to at least make them science-literate (and interested enough to maybe read some science blogs).

This course is also going to be an incredible amount of work - I'm designing the syllabus from the ground up  and creating my own lectures, exams, quizes etc. Rather than use this as an excuse to neglect my blogging, however, I'm going to try something a bit new - I'm going to do a write-up of each class, including my power-points, insights from class discussions and links to the readings and additional information. I'll even post the quizes and exams if anyone is interested. The downside is that I probably won't be doing any regular blogging for the next 3 months, but the upside is that I'll be posting twice a week, which is far more than I've been blogging lately anyway.

I'd also be grateful for your suggestions and critiques. This will be my first time running a class, and I want to make it awesome.

The syllabus is still a work in progress, but the most recent incarnation is here. The tentative course schedule with topics is below. The first class is September 6th.

Class Date Topics
1 Thurs 9/6 Course Intro
Why is Science Awesome?
What is a Pandemic?
2 Tues 9/11 Intro to Evolution
Basic Biology
Bacteria and Parasites
3 Thurs 9/13 More Evolution
Cell Biology
Biology of Viruses
4 Tues 9/18 Why Pathogens Love Cities
Living with Livestock
Understanding Data #1 (Myxo in Australia)
5 Thurs 9/20 The Red Queen
Evolution of Sex
6 Tues 9/25 A Pox on Everyone
The Immune System
Vaccination: Why it Works
7 Thurs 9/27 More on the Immune System
Vaccination: Why it Doesn’t Work
Understanding Data #2 (Wakefield et. al.)
8 Tues 10/2 Influenza: Biology and History
1918 Spanish Flu
Yearly Epidemics
9 Thurs 10/4 Swine Flu and Bird Flu
Reviewing the Headlines #1 (2012 Flu controversy)
-- Tues 10/9 **No Class**
(Columbus Day)
10 Thurs 10/11 Exam 1 (Midterm)
11 Tues 10/16 HIV: History and Biology
12 Thurs 10/18 **Guest Lecturer: Abbie Smith**
13 Tues 10/23 Bacterial infections in the Western World
Cholera is Shitty
Toxin Vaccinology
14 Thurs 10/25 Antibiotics and resistance
Reviewing the Headlines #2 (E. coli O104:H4)
15 Tues 10/30 Of Pests and Pestis
Animal Vectors
The Black Plague
Understanding data #3 (??)
16 Thurs 11/1 Guest Lecturer: Abbie Newby-Kew
17 Tues 11/6 The Curious Biology of Malaria
and Other Ways Mosquitoes Suck
Reviewing the Headlines #2 (West Nile)
18 Thurs 11/8 Guest Lecturer: Matt Woodruff
Why is it so hard to make a Malaria Vaccine?
19 Tues 11/13 From Anthrax...
Emerging Threats and Bioterrorism
Reviewing the Headlines #3
20 Thurs 11/15 … to Botox
Harnessing Pathogens to do Our Bidding
21 Tues 11/20 The Future of Disease
-- Thurs 11/22 **No Class** (Thanksgiving)
22 Tues 11/27 Review and Overview
23 Thurs 11/29 Exam 2 (Final)
24 Tues 12/4 Media Presentations
25 Thurs 12/6 Media Presentations
26 Tues 12/11 Media Presentations


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I had a course like this in High School, the teacher designed it and created the textbook himself because he was so passionate about the subject. Pestilence and Civilization was the best and most influential course I have ever taken, and determined my future studies and career goals. Best of luck with this, your students will LOVE it!

Thanks for the vote of confidence! Was there a particular story or theme that you recall as being particularly effective?

My niece is an Emerson alum, class of '05. I tend to think that my family is by no means a group of fools and I believe my niece is perhaps one of our brightest. I would also tell you, I'm pretty liberal in my leanings, but my niece is even more so. These view points tend to flavor my thoughts on Emerson and performing artists. Having said that, I would suggest that you probably won't deal with anti-evolution view points or anti-science view points, but could potentially hear criticisms of big pharma and suggestions of alternative treatments and cures. My niece is also a strong believer in her own intellect, meaning she tends to think she is right without all the evidence coming is not that she thinks science is too hard that kept her away from was more than likely a lack of interest and a lack of discipline. I'm suggesting you may not be facing an intimidated audience, but rather an audience with a different viewpoint of what knowledge is, how science works and how economics have influenced medical treatment. Good luck, I think it would be a alot of fun and a challenge to teach at the college level anywhere...

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 28 Aug 2012 #permalink

Thanks Mike, that's a very valuable insight. I was already planning on talking about the ways that our ability to perceive and remember is impaired, perhaps I should include a section on cognitive biases as well. I imagine that most teenagers are strong believers in their own intellect - if I do nothing but convince them that they're intellect is fundamentally flawed (as are all of our intellects), then I'll consider that a win.

What particular perceptions or impairments would be relevant to the subject matter at hand? I am curious. To be frank I frequently find myself in the company of those in the recovery movement. A movement based entirely upon faith healing. At any rate, I've noticed that with great frequency they tend to argue for a fantastically egocentric viewpoint of those they consider, "pigeons," and will also strongly argue for a selective memory even in those who have a very strong memory. I'm interested in genuine issues of perception as you've heard them...being closer to academia than I am you are surely exposed to more current trends in such thinking. Generally, the 12 steppers cherry pick trivia, science or even quotes to support their position, rather than truly relying on science. So, if possible, I'm curious how you see all of our intellects as being flawed and all of our perceptions as being flawed. I understand our senses can fool us, but recently, I'm hearing the phrase counter-intuitive with great frequency. The usage is odd, as I understand that pure logic isn't going to really carrying the day, frankly, I tend to think that many discoveries and insights come about not due to logic, but due to some inexplicable insight that can then be tested for....counter-intuitive seems to suggest that something simply can't be understood. Again, any links, comments would be appreciated.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 28 Aug 2012 #permalink

There are a lot of things to consider (wait until Sept 7th when I post my first lecture for more detail), but briefly - our senses are able to perceive under very strict limits, but our brains use a number of shortcuts and tricks to make it seem like we have a complete and unified picture of the world. For instance, even if you have perfect vision, most of the things in your field of view are out of focus. Try to keep your eyes on the word focus in this sentence, but read the word "eyes" before it. Chances are you can't, but your brain doesn't normally notice how little is in focus, because it's usually easy to move your eyes or your head to put the things you care about in the center of your vision. Another example: use the tip of your index finger to touch your nose. Can you feel the contact on your nose before the contact on your finger? Probably not, even though it takes a few milliseconds longer for the nerve impulse to get from your finger to your brain (and we know the brain is capable of distinguishing events separated by milliseconds). Your brain knows the two events are connected, so it puts them together in your conscious awareness.

Besides that, your memory is incredibly selective and maleable, so even if you observe something accurately, your recall can be distorted, deleted or even altered based on your own bias and that of those around you.

This is why science is the best way to know things. The methods of science attempt to remove biases in observation and memory, and to control for things that could distort your perception and interpretation. This is not to say that science is perfect - after all it has to be done by people - but it's better than anything else we have.

Good luck with the course; it sounds like it will be both rewarding and challenging! Have you thought about using some of the material available on different science blogs to supplement your teaching?

By Sedeer El-Showk (not verified) on 29 Aug 2012 #permalink

I have indeed - I think it's a great idea. In fact, Abbie Smith of ERV is even going to give a guest lecture on HIV for me :-D.

Sounds like so much fun!

Are you going over Lyme disease? That's an interesting topic-- and it's affecting more and more people nationwide. Or maybe suggest students watch Under My Skin documentary.

Keep us updated with content??

I'm not sure how much time I'll have to devote to lyme disease, though I definitely intend to mention it when I talk about vector-borne infectious diseases (like Malaria and west-nile). Actually, Massachusetts has been having a lot of trouble with lyme disease... maybe it would be a good topic to devote more time to.

For students who are not really interested in serious science you should start the course on a human story, such as the battle between Koch annd Pasteur on the origins of germ theory and infection. Then as you progress through the course, reflect back on how the latest theories compare with the work of both Koch and Pastuer and point out that the whole of the science world is still out on which is correct.

I like this idea - maybe if they invite me to teach the course again :-). Any reading you can suggest on that topic?

Hey I was thinking about adapting a class like this to a one tri science focus class in hs... do you have any documents or presentations you would like to share as a resource... thanks for you help...

By Sam Northey (not verified) on 19 Feb 2013 #permalink