Molecular and Cellular Bio Updates Receive Good Reviews

Administrators behind the revamping of Molecular and Cellular Biology did not have to wait long to gauge the popularity of their new programs, courses, and requirement changes, said Alexander F. Schier, department chair of MCB.

“MCB 60: ‘Cellular Biology and Molecular Medicine,’ our new gateway course, has enrolled more than 100 students, twice as many as expected,” Schier said.

After bringing on more teaching fellows to accommodate high enrollment, Schier, along with his MCB 60 teaching partners Vladimir Denic and Briana Burton, was eager to begin the new class, which implements curricular changes that relate lessons from the classroom to the science seen in news stories.

“The changes we made became possible because molecular and cellular biology has become highly relevant for understanding human physiology and disease,” said Schier. “It is now possible to directly connect most of the biological mechanisms we teach to human disease, ranging from cancer to Ebola.”

The teaching team has worked to leverage the increasing relevance of science at the molecular level to stories of outbreaks and popularly reported science. Highlighting these connections will help make the material more accessible to a broad range of students, Schier said.


“When you spend all your time in the classroom, you’re not paying as much attention to where it will lead you,” said Chris D. M. Mukasa ’17, a prospective MCB concentrator. “It’s really helpful to see how people who have graduated with similar degrees make use of their education in productive ways.”

The new gateway course is part of MCB’s concerted effort to engage concentrators by highlighting the application of MCB to real-world science in addition to fostering a concentration community. Besides MCB 60 and MCB 63: “Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine,” concentration administrators have launched associated programming, like MCB’s inaugural movie night.

The administrators organized a showing of the film “Contagion” for concentrators and pre-concentrators of MCB and Chemical and Physical Biology. Halfway through the movie, a panel of public health experts led a discussion on the epidemiology and biology featured in the movie. The students and the panel—including Barry R. Bloom, professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, and members of Pardis C. Sabeti’s lab, who have worked on sequencing the Ebola genome this fall—arrived at a consensus on the film’s science.

“We MCB concentrators thought they could have done a better job making it seem like an actual pathogen,” said Bianca Mulaney ’16, an MCB concentrator who attended the event, of the fictional disease in Contagion.

Despite disputes with the technical accuracy of the film, Mulaney said that she thought the movie screening was an effective way to open discussion of MCB topics to a broader undergraduate audience.

“This event was a great first foray into the effects of what you might learn as a concentrator on society, in terms of global and public health, economics, security, and social perception,” she said.

In addition, the panel discussion coincided with MCB’s renewed focus on facilitating connections between students, faculty, and scientists.

“In MCB, we emphasize small classes, one-on-one tutorials, faculty affiliates with the houses, and lab research, which together provide a more personalized approach to learning,” said MCB professor Susan Mango.  

With small sections and lab groups, MCB 60 not only addresses current events, like the underlying molecular and cellular mechanisms of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, but it also features a remodeled format. Rather than lectures and exams alone, the professors seek to engage students in class-wide discussions, lab research projects, quizzes, and dinners at Schier’s home.

“As a curricular change, I think it’s fantastic,” said Alexandra Rojek ’15, of the new gateway course. “I’m excited for the sophomores that are starting now.”

—Staff writer Jessica A. Barzilay can be reached at Follow her on Twitter@jessicabarzilay.


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