Instructor: Andrea Graham
Description of Course Goals and CurriculumThe main goal of this course is to give an intuitive understanding of immune systems. For each of the main steps of an immune response—detection of a parasite, signal amplification to attract effector cells, and defeating the parasite—how does it work? Why is that way the most evolutionarily advantageous? How have parasites learned to defeat immune systems if they have? What strategies do we employ other than defeating the parasite in the traditional sense? These are questions that get inform the way one should see the immune system. In reality, an immune system chasing parasites (including microparasites) is similar to a predator chasing prey. This analogy makes it easier to reason about the immune system. Note that Professor Graham is not trying to teach minute details of any of these components of an immune response. There are numerous molecules involved, but attempting to memorize all of them would distract from the main goal of a high-level understanding of evolutionary immunology.
Learning From Classroom InstructionProfessor Graham explains high-level ideas with ideas backed up by specific examples from studies of how evolution played out in a particular host-parasite interaction. This includes several lessons that are directly applicable to humans as organisms. Although these tend not to appear in assessments, they are likely the most important takeaways for anyone in the course who does not expect to study immunology in the future. It's not important to list out all the details, only to understand why it makes sense that the system works as it does and remember a few pertinent examples. The examples help with remembering which factors are most important, since there are several cases in which multiple competing factors are at play. A more virulent parasite spreads more easily but also kills its hosts faster, so it has less time to spread. Professor Graham presents such examples in lecture with theoretical graphs and real examples. Make sure by the end of lecture, you can explain why the tradeoffs she presents exist. Early precepts especially are more focused on methods than results, crafting you into a scientist rather than an immunologist. It is useful, when reading for precept, to try to think of what you would have done differently and how you might structure a different experiment to achieve the same goal. Professor Graham will occasionally suggest you write down ideas in lecture, and you have to come up with a novel experiment for the term paper, so considering methods is useful.
Learning For and From AssignmentsThe short essays are creative in nature and quite fun. The point is that, just as with lectures, Professor Graham wants to teach you to think at a high level about how immunology should work in theory rather than memorizing hundreds of molecules. The best way to prepare for these assessments is to consider all the weaknesses she mentions in class and the ways parasites have exploited them and been countered. Ideally, you'll also come up with at least one way a parasite could theoretically take advantage of your target animal specifically, but it can be inspired by an idea from class. These assignments are helpful in building your ability to consider all relevant factors, which will help on the term paper. Most important, perhaps, is simply reading the feedback your TA provides. My semester, at least, our TA worked extremely hard to write thoughtful, detailed comments about everything: evolutionary issues, potential flaws, directions for further exploration, and writing style. They were extremely helpful in improving for later assessments and gaining a better understanding of immunology, both that which is relevant to the class and that that isn't.
External ResourcesAs far as exams are concerned, one can get by without having done the readings. Professor Graham will go over some of the studies she assigns in class as well, but it is still useful to read (ideally before lecture) because 1) it gives you intuition for what matters—a reading about predator-prey interactions seemed unimportant until it was equated to parasite-host interactions, 2) it makes it easier to understand the studies she presents in lecture, 3) it increases exposure to the high-level ideas of relevance, and 4) it adds details that, although potentially unimportant for exams, may be of interest. Some of the longer ones can be skimmed, though. I know you have other commitments. Wikipedia is also excellent for providing a quick reminder of what specific cells like macrophages or mast cells are, and its references at the bottom helped me with my term paper. Look over the slides before exams (even though they're open note) and make a brief (1-4 page) study guide complete with a few examples and pictures from the slides. It lets you copy pictures in without having to hunt for them, which is helpful. Talking to the instructors outside of class can also open up wells of knowledge about tangentially-related material, so they are excellent resources, especially if you are interested in immunology or how to live healthier and not just in getting a better grade.
What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course SelectionThis course gives a practical introduction to immunology ideal for someone interested in it but focusing elsewhere and useful for someone studying it in greater depth. It provides a second perspective that helps with understanding the nature of disease. Come for the granola bars; stay for the life lessons. As far as amount of work, the two papers are relatively short, and the midterm is not too intense because it's open-note, so the main squeeze is for the term paper and final.
Immune Systems: From Molecules to Populations