Description of Course Goals and CurriculumMOL 460—Diseases in Children: Causes, Costs and Choices—is an upper-level molecular biology seminar. The course is taught thematically, with each week dedicated to a specific disease such as spinal muscular atrophy or leukemia. Professor Notterman introduces each topic by explaining the genotype and phenotype of the disease. Each week, a few students are assigned to read academic articles pertaining to the disease, and present the background and findings from the papers to the class. Student presenters also identify discussion questions that expand on the papers. Professor Notterman generally facilitates discussions through answering any technical questions and through sharing his experiences from working with patients in the clinic. The most valuable parts of the course are undoubtedly the patient visits. Professor Notterman invites children affected by particular diseases and their parents. These visits lend a humanist lens to the study of childhood diseases: beyond understanding the molecular basis for disease presentation, patient visits provide insight into the human experience of managing and fighting childhood diseases.
Learning From Classroom InstructionAs this is a seminar course, the majority of the learning comes from discussions with fellow students. To prepare for lectures, SKIM the papers that are being presented. It is important to be able to identify the author’s argument (generally found in the abstract), and at least one case example that the author uses to support the central argument. Having these pieces of information at the back of your mind will help you follow along with the student presentations. Furthermore, when Professor Notterman and/or the students are presenting, you should ask questions whenever a point is not adequately explained. Even though MOL 460 is an upper-level course, students come from all majors and have different biology backgrounds. Asking for clarification will not only improve your understanding of the diseases but will also contribute favorably to your in-class participation grades (~30% of final course grade). During the discussions, you should listen for and note down the different arguments/perspectives from fellow students. Since the formal assessments are paper-based problem sets that ask students to navigate different perspectives and treatment options, noting down the various arguments brought up during class discussions will facilitate your efforts completing the assessments.
Learning For and From AssignmentsBeyond class participation, you will be graded on your paper presentation, your problem sets, take-home midterm, final group presentation and group paper. When preparing for the paper presentation, you should not only read the assigned paper, but relevant background literature. An efficient way of identifying relevant literature is to refer to the citation pages of the assigned paper and read the listed review articles. Review articles often clarify technical terms in the assigned paper, and provide good background that will be helpful to be share with the class. Furthermore, becoming an expert on the disease topic that you are presenting on will be helpful on the problem sets and midterm exam. Professor Notterman often gives students the option to answer one of several questions. I was usually more comfortable tackling questions related to the disease I presented on, as I have already done extensive background research for that topic. The problem sets and midterm consist of open-book, written essay questions. Some of the questions test your understanding of the biological underpinnings of disease. The answers to these questions tend to come directly from Professor Notterman’s lectures (this is why asking for clarifications on unclear concepts during lectures is particularly important). Other questions present medical cases with ethical, social, economic, and moral implications. The key to answering these questions is to generate an argument consistent with your perspectives, and to support your argument with case examples from readings (hence it is a good idea to write down central arguments and supporting cases as you are doing your readings throughout the semester). The main learning outcome from the problem sets/midterm is to expand your understanding of the biology behind a disease, and the patients’ experiences with that disease. By completing the assignments, you should become more confident in making ethical decisions regarding questions in medicine (i.e. what course of medical treatment is best suited to a specific family with a preterm infant). Investing sufficient time (around 15 hours/problem set) to the assignments will also help improve the clarity and logic of your arguments. When tackling the final assignment/presentation, a strategy that worked for my group was to plan extensively. Since the topics are fairly broad (i.e. explore nature-based healing for breast cancer patients), it is useful to generate a focused objective early on in the project (i.e. explore how nature-based approaches reduce stress for advanced patients and promotes better disease outcome). Create a detailed timeline for what research each group member is responsible for, and concrete times where the group meets to compile the research. At the end of semester, when the group must submit ONE final paper, it is good idea for the group to edit the paper together. This strategy helps to ensure that the paper is cohesive and unified.
External ResourcesAs mentioned earlier, it is important for students to do some background reading in order to extract the most relevant information from the papers assigned. The easiest way to locate relevant background articles is to do PubMed searches of review articles that are cited in the reference section of the assigned papers. Furthermore, it is a good idea to send your presentation a few days in advance to the TA. Through reviewing your presentation, the TA will often suggest articles or textbook chapters that may help to clarify aspects of your presentation. Professor Notterman also immensely enjoys spending time with his students. He offers wonderful advice on everything from classroom-related work to future career plans. Dropping in on his office hours is always a treat!
What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course SelectionMost of the students in the class intend to pursue a career in healthcare (i.e. as physicians or health policy makers). The students are also passionate about illuminating persisting issues in the practice of medicine, and how the broader social and political environments shape healthcare delivery. This course is unique in introducing students to patients, and is one of the few opportunities for students to take a clinical course as undergraduates. In many ways, the course shows students (especially wet-lab researchers like myself) the implications of biomedical research, and how we can harness our scientific understanding to further treatment options for children impacted by diseases. The course is enlightening and a wonderful opportunity for everyone interested in a biomedical career.
Diseases in Children: Causes, Costs, and Choices