Harvard University - Department of Molecular & Cellular Biology

BREATHING NEW LIFE INTO THE LIFE SCIENCES

by Charlie Schmidt

February 6th, 2006


Robert Lue, Director of Undergraduate Studies
Anyone who’s ever taken a freshman biology course in college knows the ordinary routine: a big textbook, a big class, and lots of facts to memorize before exams. Now, a new undergraduate course offered by the Life Sciences Division aims for a more compelling approach. Dubbed Life Sciences 1a (LS-1a), and launched this past September, the course strives to captivate students by teaching basic principles in a problem-solving framework that targets challenging and exciting issues in the field.

The course is taught jointly by Professors Robert Lue, Andrew Murray, and Erin O’Shea from MCB, along with Professors Daniel Kahne and David Liu from the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.

Stemming a Brain Drain

Lue says faculty were motivated to reverse a worrisome trend: roughly half the incoming Harvard freshman who self-identify as future life scientists choose other fields before declaring a major. Why? Lue suggests it’s in part because they aren’t inspired by their introductory coursework. "The classes aren’t sufficiently different from what they got in high school," he explains. "It’s primarily memorization, which doesn’t trigger their excitement so they drop out and go do something else."

Hoping to grab and hold students’ attention, faculty with the Life Sciences Education Committee, cochaired last year by Lue and MCB Professor Doug Melton, set out to design a course that would trigger students’ imagination and creativity. What’s more, the course would stress interdisciplinary connections and their association with new directions in science, Lue says.

A Focus on HIV and Cancer

LS-1a, which represents the committee’s first step toward revising Harvard’s entire life sciences curriculum, centers on a pair of "framing questions" that put fundamental concepts into an accessible, meaningful context. For instance, students are asked on their first day of class: How does HIV cause disease, and how do we develop drug therapies to stop it? They then spend more than half the semester on this one topic, which provides a vehicle for learning fundamental chemistry, cell biology, and molecular biology.

The decision to focus initially on HIV seemed obvious, Lue says. Despite the vast resources devoted to this global health threat, scientists still don’t fully understand how the virus works or how to destroy it. "HIV is a great mystery that really engages students," Lue says. "And we tell it like a story; so when they learn about chemical bonds, for instance, they don’t just memorize the theory—they think about how the bonds contribute to the structure of proteins, and how this perspective could be used to make drugs that block HIV activity."

Later in the semester, students tackle another daunting question: Who gets cancer and why? Of course, most students know someone who’s either had cancer or died from it, so what they learn provides insights into a disease with deep social consequences.

By splitting the course between HIV and cancer, faculty emphasize different aspects of the core curricula. HIV is an external enemy; as a virus, it achieves its lethal effects by hijacking biological processes in host cells. To really comprehend HIV, students need to understand transcription and how viruses manipulate that and other processes toward their own aims. Cancer, on the other hand, is an internal enemy fueled by genetic mutations that drive uncontrolled cell proliferation. A clear understanding of cancer requires proficiency at basic cell biology, including  how cells grow and divide.

The LS-1a lab also invites creativity and problem solving. Students learn fundamental techniques that, among other applications, are used to develop new drugs that target specific cell pathways. They then learn what it means to test the effect of a specific chemical compound in yeast, thus carrying the idea from basic conception all the way to evaluation in a living system. 

"We wanted to create a formative course in terms of the basics; an integrative course in terms of related fields; and a transformative course that would fuel fire in the belly when it comes to twenty-first-century science," Lue says. "That was the task we set out with."

If last fall’s experience proves prescient, Lue and his colleagues might toast their success. LS-1a drew more than 480 students (the largest Harvard natural sciences class enrollment in over 20 years, Lue speculates) and held them virtually without attrition for the entire semester. What’s more, class attendance consistently reached 85% to 90%, even though students can watch lectures online if they want to. "Frankly, the course is too big for the lecture hall," Lue says. "It has amazing energy."

Life Sciences 1b, which follows in the spring semester, continues with an emphasis on genetics, genomics, and evolutionary biology. Taken together, the two courses fulfill premedical requirements in biology and chemistry and prepare students for intermediate-level courses without additional prerequisites.

View Robert Lue's Faculty Profile

View Andrew Murray's Faculty Profile

View Erin O'Shea's Faculty Profile