Harvard University - Department of Molecular & Cellular Biology

NEW AND IMPROVED! INTRODUCING THE REVISED UNDERGRADUATE MCB CONCENTRATION

by Cathryn Delude

April 15th, 2014

(l to r) Jack Huang, Jonathan D'Gama, Rachelle Gaudet, Ian Boothby, Susan Mango, Tashy Rodgers, Alexandra Rojek, Olive Tang, Tom Torello, Shree Bose

The MCB department is announcing some exciting changes to the undergraduate concentration in Molecular and Cellular Biology, one of the nine concentrations in the Life Sciences cluster. The changes provide more flexibility to students and also reflect the astonishing developments in biomedical research in the past decade. The revisions make more explicit the myriad connections between underlying molecular and cellular principles and their applications in human biology, disease and therapeutic approaches.

In a letter to the undergraduates, Professors Rachelle Gaudet and Susan Mango, Co-Head Tutors for the MCB concentration, explained the rationale for the changes. “The interplay between bench and bedside will affect us all, and decisions about our own health and that of our families will increasingly rely on principles of molecular and cellular biology. Our goal is to prepare you to be informed citizens in this emerging science-and-technology driven society.”

Ripe for Change
Two initial sparks ignited the effort to update the MCB concentration, explained Professor Alex Schier, who will become MCB Chair on July 1, 2014. First, he and Rob Lue, Director of Life Sciences Education and Professor of the Practice of Molecular and Cellular Biology, discussed redesigning their introductory courses. “We thought that it would be exciting to highlight the connection between basic biological mechanisms and the human condition.” Second, Schier and Harvard College Professor Richard Losick, Interim MCB Chair, discussed how the field has evolved in the past ten years. “Molecular and cellular mechanisms have become the foundation to understand the basis of human disease,” Schier said. “Conversely, the molecular study of human disease has led to novel insights into biological mechanisms.”

Losick, who made the revisions a top priority of his interim chairmanship this past year, reflected: “In its early days, the field of molecular biology focused on simple model systems, such as bacteria and their viruses, yeast, worms and flies. But exciting advances over the years have made it possible to apply concepts of molecular and cellular biology to understand human physiology and disease. Conversely, the study of human disease has led to fundamental discoveries in biology. Indeed, it is sometimes said that the greatest teacher of biology is medicine.”  

Schier cited several examples of the numerous connections between cellular biology and molecular medicine. “The study of mad cow disease and the discovery of prions revealed that DNA and RNA are not the only way to transmit and replicate information: proteins can do this, too!” Also, identifying genes in the seemingly esoteric study of mutant fruit fly larvae led to the discovery of similar genes in humans and their roles in birth defects and cancer. “Now there are even drugs that recognize these gene products and are tested as therapeutics. These examples show how medicine informs biology and vice versa.”

Indeed, every day in laboratories around the world, research in molecular and cellular biology provides new insights about the causes and cures of human disease. Conversely, conditions like Fragile X Syndrome or diseases like breast cancer have led to major advances in our understanding of basic processes within cells.

“Our revamped concentration will build on these kinds of examples and connect basic biological mechanisms to the life outside the classroom,” Schier said. That’s important, said Mango, who remembers her own times as an undergraduate at Harvard. “The Science Center and the Houses haven't changed, but the study of biology is completely different.”

As Co-Head-Tutors, Mango and Gaudet have been intensely involved in this effort, but it was a department-wide effort. “It has been really exciting to have so many MCB faculty members participate in this process, which has reinvigorated the interest in teaching and interacting with undergraduates,” said Gaudet. “Many faculty members are developing new courses or making important modifications to their existing courses to reflect the new focus of the concentration. We’ve also seen a lot of enthusiasm from faculty members in the humanities and history saying the wish they could take our courses! The science that we teach is so relevant to our lives, and we’re now making more explicit links between biological molecules and cells, and issues that we all deal with in everyday life.”

In addition to updating the curriculum, Mango is excited that the revised concentration will offer multiple opportunities for concentrators to interact with faculty beyond the classroom. “These range from tutorials and lab research on the one hand, to debate night and movie night on the other. Debate night will be a chance to argue about the strengths and weaknesses of a particular journal article chosen by students working with faculty. Movie night will give students an opportunity to watch a science-related movie and discuss afterwards what’s accurate, what's possible and what's fantasy.”

Highlights of the Updated Concentration
The updated requirements are posted on the Life Sciences web page, and will soon be in the student handbook as well. Here are some highlights.

A series of new course offerings at the intermediate level will replace MCB 52 (Molecular Biology) and MCB 54 (Cell Biology), and provide increased flexibility and a wider range of choices to undergraduates:

•     The new gateway course, MCB 60 (Cellular Biology and Molecular Medicine) provides an introduction to the principles of molecular and cellular biology and their connections to biomedicine. It explores how medical syndromes provide insights into biological processes and how biological mechanisms underlie human disease and physiology.

•     Students will choose from among four courses with different disciplinary focuses and perspectives in a new MCB 60 series:
    - MCB 63 (Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine)
    - MCB 64 (The Cell Biology of Human Life in the World)
    - MCB 65 (Physical Biochemistry: Understanding Macromolecular Machines)
    - MCB 68 (Cell Biology Through the Microscope).  
    

The research requirement is also more flexible. Students may choose among two broad options:

•    A one semester of research for credit (such as LS100r, MCB 91r, and MCB 99), following the existing model;

•    A summer research experience in an approved program, such as Harvard College Program for Research in Science and Engineering (PRISE), Herchel-Smith fellowships, or other approved programs run by various departments and centers, allowing students to take an additional intermediate, advanced, or research course during the academic year;

The revisions also build in additional opportunities for student-faculty mentoring, in addition to the ongoing interactions with concentration advisor Tom Torello and Program Coordinator Lisa Fountain and the ongoing tutorial program. For example, the concentration will launch a new set of fun and academic events (for example, movie nights and debate nights). It will also establish an MCB faculty affiliate for each of the Houses.

Note: Current MCB concentrators who have fulfilled the intermediate course requirement are largely unaffected by the changes to the intermediate courses. Students who have not completed the existing requirements by the end of this academic year will work with Tom Torello to devise a personalized intermediate course plan.


For More Information:
MCB Concentration

The revised MCB curriculum

Research opportunities