Undergraduate Biochemistry Through Public Health Issues

Dr. Matt Fisher, Associate Professor, Chemistry, St. Vincent College

SENCER Model Course LogoThis model consists of the two semester biochemistry sequence for science majors, which serves to prepare students to go on to health profession or graduate programs. Public health issues are used as the civic/social problem through which I teach the canonical biochemical concepts that are found in almost all upper level undergraduate biochemistry courses. In addition to standard summative assessments that require students to explain and use biochemical concepts (sometimes in novel situations or in the context of data from the research literature), the course is designed to provide students with opportunities to engage in integrative learning. These opportunities come through readings and reflective writing focused on the public health issues as well as a public health project completed by small groups of students where they present both biochemical and non-biochemical aspects of an issue chosen by the students themselves.

My goals as the course instructor are:

  1. to help student develop an understanding of basic biochemical concepts and the ability to use those concepts to analyze situations and explain observations.
  2. to create a learning environment that provides students with opportunities to integrate their learning in this course with what they have learned in other courses in the sciences and courses taken for general education purposes
  3. to embed opportunities for moral and civic learning within a course that is part of the major (required or recommended) for students studying biology, biochemistry, and chemistry.

In some ways my goals as an instructor are tied to the following quote from the acceptance speech given by James Orbinski, then President of Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) when the organization was presented the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. In that speech, Orbinski stated “Silence has long been confused with neutrality, and has been presented as a necessary condition for humanitarian action…We are not sure that words can always save lives, but we know that silence can certainly kill.” This course is an attempt to begin breaking the silence in the context of a science majors curriculum.

Student Learning Objectives:

CH 251 – Proteins and Metabolism

By the completion of the course each student will be able:

  1. to analyze various cellular processes in terms of molecular interactions, thermodynamics, and/or kinetics
  2. to interpret experimental results in molecular terms based on biochemical concepts in protein chemistry and metabolism
  3. to integrate these concepts in a manner such that a student can translate appropriate biological observations into chemical terms.

CH 252 – Nucleic Acids and Membranes

By the completion of the course each student will be able:

  1. to analyze various cellular processes in terms of molecular interactions, thermodynamics, and/or kinetics
  2. to interpret experimental results in molecular terms using concepts in membrane biochemistry, signal transduction, and nucleic acid biochemistry
  3. to integrate concepts from the course with material from other science courses so that a student can translate appropriate biological observations into chemical/molecular terms.
  4. to make connections among the information, ideas, and perspectives in this course and those in other courses or areas outside the natural sciences.

For both courses, I hope that students will leave:

  1. understanding more about the role biochemistry can play in public health and improving human life
  2. seeing yourself as an advocate for using biochemical knowledge to improve the quality of life of all people
  3. excited about the continually changing nature of biochemistry and interested in continuing your own learning in this area.

The Course

Syllabi Fall and Spring

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Fall Take Home Exam

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Spring Take Home Exam

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The two semester biochemistry sequence at Saint Vincent College looks at how biological molecules are made, how macromolecular structures self-assemble, chemical mechanisms of reactions that occur in living systems, molecular basis of the regulation of diverse processes in the cell, and the storage/expression of genetic information. Both courses are designed to provide students with a basic understanding of the molecular basis of living systems with regards to protein structure and function, metabolism, membrane-based processes, and nucleic acid chemistry, so that they can continue their learning in medical school, dental school, veterinary school, graduate studies or on their own. The civic/social context used to teach “through” to the underlying science are a range of public health issues: Alzheimer’s Disease, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, influenza, multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, mental health, and cancer.

The canonical science content that students learn in these courses is typical of undergraduate biochemistry courses for science majors – protein structure and function, enzyme catalysis, a number of metabolic pathways, membrane structure and function, transport, signal transduction, replication, transcription, and translation. Summative assessments used in this course require students to explain important biochemical concepts and apply them to explain a variety of situations and applications. Some of these applications are given as take-home questions that utilize data from the primary research literature.

An important objective of the course is to provide students with the opportunity to integrate learning from a number of courses – both in the science major curriculum and those taken for general education requirements – in a way that also invites students to make connections to both personal and institutional values. By institutional values I am specifically referring to the values of community, care, hospitality, and stewardship; all four of these values are central to the Benedictine tradition that is at the core of Saint Vincent’s identity and mission. These opportunities for integrative learning are incorporated into the course in several ways. Readings and reflective writing focused on the public health issues that I use as context for various units provide opportunities for students to encounter other perspectives and dimensions of these issues. As a capstone activity in each course, small groups of students complete what I call a public health project where they present both biochemical and non-biochemical aspects of an issue they chose. The public health projects are presented using the KEEP Toolkit developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; KEEP is a web-based tool that allows text, images, hyperlinks, and video clips to be integrated into a single presentation that resembles an “electronic poster.”

Linking Science and Social Issues

Fall Semester:
Protein structure, stability, and folding illustrated by amyloid B protein
Taught through Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s Reading Assignment

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Enzyme kinetics and mechanism illustrated by HIV protease
Taught through HIV/AIDS

Central metabolic pathways – glycolysis, citric acid cycle, ATP synthesis
Taught through Malaria and other parasitic diseases

Additional metabolic pathways including gluconeogenesis, glycogen metabolism, and fat metabolism. Finally, integration of metabolic pathways is examined by looking at the biochemical basis and consequences of diabetes, obesity, and malnutrition
Taught through diabetes and malnutrition

Spring Semester:
Protein structure, stability, function, and glycoproteins by examining the functions of hemagglutinin and neuraminidase from influenza virus, designing a flu vaccine, and new antivirals
Taught through Avian influenza

Influenza Reading Assignment

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Transport across membranes illustrated by the molecular mechanisms for multidrug resistance in TB
Taught through multidrug resistant tuberculosis

TB Reading Assignment

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Signal transduction by various pathways illustrated by the biochemical basis of various neurological disorders including some examples of mental illness (schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, depression)
Taught through mental illness

Signal transduction, DNA replication, and transcription (both mechanism and regulation) illustrated through the biochemical consequences of damaging DNA or incorrectly turning on/off proteins (such as estrogen receptor) that are involved in signal transduction or regulate transcription
Taught through cancer and the environment

Public health topics are used in several ways in these courses:

  1. Wherever possible, illustrative examples used in class would be drawn from public health topics rather than the examples found in textbooks that had been used for many years.
  2. At various points in the course, I would ask students to read and respond to articles that focused on the broader societal context of these public health issues.
  3. Students would work in small groups to develop a final “capstone project” on a public health topic of their own choosing. This capstone would provide an opportunity for integrative learning in a student-driven framework.

Evaluating Learning

Student learning is assessed by a variety of strategies, both formative and summative. Much of the formative assessment is accomplished through the approach of Just-in-Time Teaching (http://www.jitt.org, see also the information on the Chemistry of Daily Life: Diabetes and Malnutrtion model course). In addition, many class sessions include opportunites for students, through analyzing experimental data, to apply course concepts. Several summative evaluations are used. There are in-class exams and a comprehensive final that serve as ways to evaluate student learning of basic biochemical concepts. Exam questions are designed to reflect several levels of Bloom’s taxonomy – The in-class exams typically include a take-home question that provides opportunities for students to work with data from the primary literature as they engage in more complex problem solving.

Finally, what I call a “public health project” serves as a capstone activity for the integrative learning aspects of the course. This assignment asks students, working in groups of 3 or 4, to complete the following:

  • identify and present an overview of some aspect of biochemistry central to their topic (it is impossible to present all the biochemistry that is relevant)
  • identify one or two other perspectives on the public health issue from outside of biochemistry, as well as characteristics from those perspectives that are of notable significance in understanding the issue.
  • use one or more of the following core values–community, care, hospitality, stewardship–as a “critical lens” through which they approach these outside perspectives.
  • incorporate the personal perspectives/thoughts of each group member
  • present what they saw as important next steps to be taken in addressing this issue

These projects are created and presented electronically through the use of the KEEP Toolkit, an HTML based software that makes it easy to create electronic posters that incorporate text, images, hyperlinks, and even video clips in an environment that allows for fluidity of arrangement. In the fall of 2009 the KEEP Toolkit will be migrating from a server maintained by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to MERLOT; the software can also be freely downloaded from http://sourceforge.net/projects/keeptoolkit/ and installed by institutions for local use. Individuals with questions about the KEEP Toolkit or who are interested in seeing what some completed projects look like should contact Matt Fisher.

Background and Context

These courses were developed because by the fall of 204 I realized that I was no longer convinced that the traditional way to teach subjects such as biochemistry genuinely develops in students a significant ability at “being able to use scientific knowledge and ways of thinking for personal and social purposes” (as stated in the AAAS report Science for All Americans) That realization was the result of a journey that had included teaching courses for nonscience majors using texts such as Chemistry in Context, participating in discussions over 18 months with other science faculty at Saint Vincent College about possible revisions to the natural sciences goal in our core curriculum, attending two SENCER Summer Institutes (2002 and 2004), and teaching a SENCER course for the first time (Science and Global Sustainability, a course for nonscience majors).

Teaching the Science and Global Sustainability course was pivotally for several reasons. I saw firsthand how motivated the students were at the end of the course to make a difference in the world. That was something that I had never seen with students taking biochemistry in all the years that I had been teaching those courses. As part of the preparation for teaching Science and Global Sustainability, I had to become more familiar with public health issues such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and malnutrition. As I learned more about these issues, I increasingly saw connections between them and the concepts that are typically covered in undergraduate biochemistry courses. Yet these significant public health challenges rarely if ever appeared in biochemistry textbooks. These issues had more than just a scientific component to them; there were moral and civic dimensions that crossed the traditional boundaries between disciplines.

In the April 5, 2002 issue of Science, Ismail Serageldin (director of the Library of Alexandria), wrote a Perspective titled “World Poverty and Hunger – the Challenge for Science” in which he stated:

“For science to realize its full promise and become the primary force for change in the world, it requires that scientists work to 1) engage scientific research in the pressing issues of our time; 2) abolish hunger and reduce poverty; 3) promote a scientific outlook and the values of science; 4) build real partnerships with the scientists in the South…All of that, however, requires our joint commitment as scientists to work for the benefit of the entire human family, not just the privileged minority who are lucky enough to live in the most advanced industrial societies…But scientists’ voices must be heard loudly and clearly in the national discourse of their own societies. This absence not only severs science from its salutary effect on the modernization of societies, but also undermines the public support necessary for its pursuit.”

To prepare undergraduate science majors for the responsibilities that Serageldin describes clearly required that students make connections between scientific concepts studied in courses for their major, larger social issues, and their own personal values and willingness to engage in moral and civic issues. Such learning, clearly consistent with the aims of a liberal education and reflective of the aspect of science literacy highlighted earlier, would also be decidedly integrative in nature. If I was to be more effective at helping science majors make these integrative connections, then I had to change the way that the course was structured.

At the same time, I could not avoid the question of how to balance the content-intensive nature of the biochemistry courses with the time and attention required to develop this integrative understanding. How could these courses be structured so that students were challenged to master the scientific concepts and at the same time make connections to pressing issues, a variety of disciplines (in and out of the natural sciences), and their own personal values? During the 2005-2006 academic year, this was the focus of my Carnegie Scholar project. The work has continued since the end of my fellowship, and what is described here as a SENCER model course is the result of four years of continuous work on this question.

The courses are required for the B.S. in biochemistry and also serve as electives for the B.S. in biology and the B.S. in chemistry. These courses are often taken by students preparing for several different health profession careers (medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine).

Related Resources

The courses have not generated other curricular initiatives or faculty/student research specifically from the course. To date there has not been specific recognition of these courses, although I have given several presentations at various conferences (Biennial Conference on Chemical Education, Lilly Conference on College and University Teaching, International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning) and have several contributed chapters to various books on these courses (as of August 2009 one chapter in press and one in preparation).