California State University, Fullerton

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A Different Approach to Teaching Cell Biology

Sept. 17, 2012

A biological science course taught last spring took a different approach to its curriculum, using a popular 2010 nonfiction book as a launchpad to a discussion on scientific discoveries and bioethics.

Students in the upper-division course “Advances in Cell Biology,” taught by Merri Lynn Casem, expanded their understanding of cellular biology by reading primary scientific literature detailing the contributions of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized human cell line, to science’s understanding of how cells function.

To learn more about the human story behind the science, the class also read Rebecca Skloot’s book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” the story of the African-American woman who was the source of the cells, and the controversy surrounding the establishment and marketing of the cell line.

As part of the course, Lezlee Hinesmon-Matthews, assistant professor of African American studies, and John K. Davis, associate professor of philosophy, contributed their perspectives on the social and bioethical issues. At the final class meeting, students composed haiku poetry reflecting on the HeLa theme, including:

Henrietta Lacks
very helpful in research
the sacrificial life
     — Noopur D.

cells live forever
human life shorter for it
was it all worth it?
     — Robert B.

meant nothing back then
the death of a poor black mom
means everything now
     — Elizabeth H.

“It was a very fun and challenging class,” said Casem, professor of biological science. “I really enjoyed collaborating with colleagues outside my college! There is such power in transdisciplinary collaboration.”

While this semester and the near future, Casem is teaching courses in the more traditional, defined curriculum, format: “I am looking for opportunities to repeat that experience.”

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