One phenomenal undergraduate intro biology course and its lessons for a graduate student

This post is about an online course.  But it’s not about the world of online learning.  It’s about great learning, great teaching, and truly impactful classes.  It’s about science, passion, and human communication, and what I’ve learned from one outstanding online biology course.


I have recently downloaded iTunesU on my iPhone, as well as Coursera, and other online course platforms, and have begun dropping in on lectures online.  I haven’t taken any courses, or quizzes in any of the classes yet.  At the moment, I’m not able to devote enough time to actually sit down and watch full lectures either.  Instead, I just listen, as if I were listening to a radio show, or a TED talk.  Out of curiosity, one of the classes, whose lectures I started dropping in on, is the Introductory Biology course at MIT.  I shouldn’t really have been drawn to these classes.  At this stage in my academic career, I have taken many courses in biology, and should have no need for a biology class at the introductory college level.  But it didn’t matter: from virtually the first lecture, I was hooked, and have now completed listening to all of the thirty some-odd lectures online, usually while my hands and eyes are busy with one of the other tasks I have to accomplish in life.


One question I kept asking myself is: Why did I enjoy these lectures so much?  Most of the material I already know well – I had learned it a long time ago, and use it every day in my current research.  There are several reasons why I found the course so inspiring, which I will go into in this post.  But all of them boil down to one fundamental point: the utter passion of both class lecturers, Eric Lander and Bob Weinberg, for biology and their excitement at sharing this passion with other people.  That’s it.  If I could sum up this attitude in one sentence it is this, “Wow, check this out.  This stuff is awesome.  And I can’t wait to show you why.”

In being exposed to this class, and to the passion of its professors, I learned (or re-learned) several important lessons about how I, as a graduate student in the sciences, should approach science, my graduate career, and science communication.  I will go through each of these important lessons, and some examples from the lectures in this class that illustrate it.


The Importance of Passion

First, the course has reaffirmed in me the belief that passion for one’s field of study is absolutely essential for making someone a great scientist (maybe even a great ‘anything’, any career).  In science, as in all careers, one must sometimes make prudent practical decisions to advance one’s own career, and this can sometimes mean delaying gratification, and not working on the exact question you find most interesting at a given point in one’s career.  But I believe these detours shouldn’t be too long, and they should never be absolute.  So, if your graduate school project isn’t the exact question you find most interesting, that’s totally fine, and can even be a good decision (i.e. if the professor and people in the lab are great scientists, colleagues, and mentors).  But never stop thinking about and engaging the question and field that you are passionate about, whether through reading papers, attending lectures, taking courses, or writing down relevant ideas.

Both professors of this MIT introductory biology class exuded such visible passion for the material they were teaching.  And it was inspiring - it gave me a constant sense of wonder, awe, and a sense of possibility that felt like an invitation to join the professors in their quest, their hunt, to crack the secret of life.  You could see how excited Eric Lander got talking about genetics, as he excitedly informed students that they could make fundamental discoveries about how genomes are organized with nothing more than a computer and an internet connection.  He described how one former student used the genome sequences of closely related species of yeast to determine with pretty good certainty which of the putative candidate genes were indeed protein-encoding genes, just by comparing freely available sequences online.  Then, Lander described how, by doing similar computational work, scientists could begin to crack the mystery of the large stretches of DNA that are evolutionarily important enough to be well conserved across species but that do not directly code for proteins. 

Lander started out a mathematician, but told his students that he followed his interest and scientific intuition into biology, and just fell in love with genetics.  Gregor Mendel, he said, was one of his heroes.  In a later lecture, he reported on the different animal species whose sequences were just being finished, and you could hear the excitement and suspense as he went through each species, announcing them like they were states being called red or blue the day of a presidential election… the mouse, the rat, the dog, the aardvark.

I firmly believe that this passion is what has led to the incredible knowledge and achievement that both class professors have obtained in the field of biology.  For the edification of those outside the field: both Eric Lander and Bob Weinberg are total luminaries in biology.  Eric Lander helped lead the human genome project.  Bob Weinberg made fundamental discoveries about cell signaling pathways and genes involved in cancer.  Their work led to both being independently honored in 2013 with the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences:  Needless to say, the knowledge base of both professors was outstanding.  Nothing like hearing about how DNA sequencing works from the guy who helped set up the sequencing platforms at MIT that enabled the sequencing of the human genome.  And I think neither scientist would have achieved the level of knowledge, or status, that both currently have without their pure sense of passion and joy for what they do.  The best scientists all seem to exude this passion for their work.  Every time I speak with my advisor, when I see how his face lights up in thinking about different cell biological mechanisms that govern synapse formation and neural circuit assembly, I can see that same passion in him as well.


Eric Lander and Robert Weinberg



The Human Connection

The second big point that this class taught me is how important the human side of science is.  Science is always a technical enterprise, at least on some level.  But as humans, many of us are drawn to human stories, to emotions, and to how our lives play out.  For many of us, our attention span for technical details is just incredibly short compared to our attention span for human stories.  Therefore, much of the science communication that is most effective is that which is continually littered with anecdotes pertaining to the human beings engaged with the scientific research in question their motivations, personalities, politics, and life stories.  This was another facet of the class that made it so entertaining: the material was described in an incredibly personal, and human, manner. When Bob Weinberg spoke about cancer, he would ask who in the class knew someone with cancer, he would ask the class who smokes, and then during his explanation of the molecular mechanisms of cell division gone awry (i.e. cancer) he would continually bring the discussion back up from the molecules to the human disease, zooming in and out from the world of proteins to the world of cancer patients.

When Eric Lander would talk about the genome sequencing community, often he was really referring to himself and his colleagues – as they were the ones leading the charge to sequence the genome and interpret its findings.  This level of intimate knowledge of the genetic enterprise and the community conducting it allowed him to describe vividly how key scientists thought about biology as it was being discovered. He talked in detail about the debate about whether it was really worth it to sequence the human genome to begin with, what the grander aims of the project were, and the arguments for and against devoting large amounts of resources to the project.  In particular, he recalled how one very prominent scientist lamented that countless numbers of grad students would be lost to the mindless work of performing the then-tedious and ridiculously slow task of DNA sequencing, and that the task should instead be assigned to prisoners as punishment for committing crimes.  Students didn’t just learn about the discoveries, they learned about the history behind the discoveries, and the emotional reactions and frequent sense of bewilderment of the scientists who made them.

I will make sure to apply this lesson of being people-focused in my own professional activities.  In covering scientific articles for NeuWrite West, I have tried to write pieces that are captivating, that draw one in to interesting scientific findings and make them seem imminently relevant to you, the reader.  In the past, my focus in science writing has primarily been choosing a good piece of science news to write about, describing the findings accurately, and putting them in broader context.  I have also tried to describe the personalities doing the research and to portray a human story that is tied to the research, but I hadn’t really seen this last part about the human connection as an absolutely necessary part of science communication.

I will now.  The way Bob Weinberg and Eric Lander told stories about the scientists conducting the work added a sort of suspense and excitement to the material that one can only really find in human narrative.  And when that was combined with the sense of awe and wonder about learning about the natural world, it was a powerful combination.  This synthesis is something that all of us at NeuWrite-West strive for, I think.


Appreciating the Big Picture

Last but certainly not least, the third lesson I will take from this class is the importance of focusing on the big picture.  I think part of why I enjoyed this course is precisely because it was an introductory class.  Because it focused on the big picture of where biology as a whole is headed.  As graduate students, we focus intently on one small question for most of our graduate career, and we can sometimes lose ourselves in subfields, which can be whole worlds unto themselves.  Spending time thinking about the overall picture that is painted by the progress in diverse fields of biology is a wonderful reminder that we really are taking part in a genuine technological revolution.  Focused work in an area of expertise is necessary for a graduate student and can be truly enriching, but I believe, so is perspective, and engagement with the wider scientific field.

Both Eric Lander and Bob Weinberg continually emphasized the potential of the current revolution underway in biology to better our world, such as in helping us to diagnose and treat disease more effectively.  In one lecture, Eric Lander showed the class two representative samples of tumor cells, and asked that students attempt to identify differences between the cell samples – a task that real pathologists are charged with every day.  The task proved near impossible by visual examination.  But, he explained, by sequencing the DNA in the tumor cells, a doctor could potentially get a much clearer idea about the tissue of origin of these cells, and what genes and cellular pathways were mutated in the cells, all of which would potentially help treat the disease better.

In the final lecture, Bob Weinberg described how advances in biology would transform not just medicine but society in general.  In this lecture, he described the societal challenges posed by an increasing knowledge-base of the genetics of important human traits like intelligence and disease susceptibility.  Should insurance companies be allowed access to human genomes as they decide who to insure, and who not to? He talked about the eugenics movement of the early 20th century, and how modern genetics research has re-introduced the controversial subject.  His argument that eugenicists today would have more actual science upon which to act was very cogent. 

This lecture was not just an invitation to join the conversation of biology in the 20th century; it was a demand.  All of us, in some way will be affected by this science of life.  We all care deeply about our physical and mental health, our personalities/identities, and our relative standing in society.  And all of these concepts will be affected by this revolution in modern genetics and molecular biology.  In order to meet these challenges effectively, we all need to be grappling with them now, he argued.  It was a cliff-hanger ending to a wonderful ride of a class.


Conclusion: A Master Class

Watching these two scientists teach biology was sort of like watching Michael Jordan play the game of basketball.  There’s just something fun about watching a total master at something perform his/her craft.  This is especially true when it happens to be your craft too.  I have felt similarly watching the teaching of several professors here at Stanford, such as Robert Sapolsky and Sue McConnell.  And I also sometimes get this feeling while watching professors who are both great scientists and great speakers give talks in the weekly seminars I attend as a graduate student.  Not that scientists will ever be like athletes or rock-stars in our society, but I think you know you’ve found your passion when you give slight personal rock-star status to whoever the luminaries in your specific field are.  I confess that I can’t quite match this passion yet, myself, at least when I compare myself to such great professors. But having gotten through all these lectures, I feel I am one big step closer.