Viruses, murder mysteries and basketball

John Carlson

The Eugene Higgins Professor of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology

Undergraduate course: “Principles of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology”

Joys of teaching: I find it enormously rewarding when students become intrigued by something we discuss in class. An art major once told me that her imagination had been captured by my lecture on viruses — both by the images of viruses and by the concept of a virus as an agent that insidiously subverts the workings of a cell. She said that for the rest of the semester her studio work focused on artistic representations of viruses. I was thrilled.

I also enjoy presenting key concepts from two perspectives. After concluding our discussion of an important principle, I like to present its essence in an alternative form. Sometimes I present it in a way that illustrates its relevance to the students’ lives, and sometimes in a way that may be somewhat offbeat. For example, if a key concept about human DNA sequence variation is made clearly and accurately in a paragraph of a murder mystery, I’ll read it to the class. The students love this, and so do I.

Lessons from students: I’ve learned a great deal from the questions that students ask. I ask them questions during class, and I encourage them to ask me questions in return. Although students in my introductory course have little prior knowledge, they’re very bright and ask some fascinating questions. It’s especially wonderful to be asked something that I’ve never thought about before. Recently a sophomore on the basketball team asked a very thoughtful question about cell metabolism that had never occurred to me before. Such questions inspire me to look into the subject in more detail until I find a satisfying answer — and in this case the question somehow inspired me to take my kids to a Yale basketball game.

Beyond the subject: Besides teaching the principles of the field, I strive to give a sense of how these principles were discovered. Even when teaching an introductory class I explain in detail how critical, paradigm-shifting experiments were done, and I even show some of the original data. I also show many authentic images taken through microscopes — I want my students to see real chromosomes, real cells and real cell organelles, not just the colorful cartoon representations of them that are so common in textbooks. I hope to foster an appreciation not only for the elegance of biological systems, but also for the elegance and creativity with which scientists have analyzed them.