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Think Like a Scientist: Genetics, the Scientific Method, and Science Communication

Session C: August 3 - August 13, 2021
9:30 a.m. - 12 p.m.
Philosophy and Society
Kaitlin Laws

How does genetic information result in physical traits, and how are those traits inherited? How do scientists use genetics to understand biological processes? How is scientific knowledge shared within and outside of the scientific community? In this course, we will study the principles of genetics, discussing both the molecular regulation of gene expression and classical Mendelian transmission genetics; further, we will explore how scientists use genetics to contribute to our understanding of other areas of biology, highlighting neuroscience. Focusing on the use of the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, as a genetic model organism, we will discuss how scientists draw conclusions from their data and report their results to their communities. Finally, we will ask how to critically evaluate genetics research presented in both scientific journal articles and as pieces in mainstream publications.

Course format: The course is a mixture of lectures, discussion, and activities, complemented by nightly assignments. The emphasis of the course is on primary and secondary literature, although traditional lectures will make up a portion of each session. Our class will meet every day of the session from 9:30 AM to 12 PM. While this syllabus provides a roadmap for what we seek to accomplish during our short time together, my preference is for your interests to drive our course, so please don’t be shy in asking questions or suggesting topics for discussion!

Learning outcomes: You can expect to learn the fundamentals of molecular genetics (gene structure, the flow of genetic information, and the regulation of gene expression) and Mendelian inheritance (how genes are transmitted) and understand how experimentalists exploit these principles to learn more about biology as a whole. We will explore how to design and perform experiments based on testable hypotheses and to collect and analyze data. We will spend considerable time in critical reflection of primary and secondary scientific literature, making this an appropriate course for future science
majors and those who are simply curious about biology.

Canvas: You will access all of our course content from Canvas. As such, registering for Canvas is absolutely necessary for your participation in this course; you should verify that you can access it immediately. As of this writing, our Canvas module may look a little bare bones—don’t worry, it will be populated in due time. Please complete the survey on our Canvas site before class. Please refrain from distributing materials posted on Canvas to anyone outside of the class: this violates both the privacy of your fellow students and copyright.

Expectations for communication: Questions about course content should be posted to the discussion board. Personal questions or concerns can be sent directly to me using either Canvas messages or email.

Course reading/listening: Scientific journal articles: You will read an article chosen by your instructor to complement the topics discussed in class. We will critically evaluate this paper in a “journal club” format. You can access these articles on Canvas.

Science articles in mainstream publications: To explore secondary science communication, we will analyze a selection of science articles and/or book excerpts from The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Scientific American, and The New York Times. You can access these articles from Canvas.

Podcasts: Newspapers and magazines are not the only source of science news for laymen. We will discuss specific episodes from at least stwo podcasts: Radiolab (“Henrietta’s Tumor”) and This American Life (“Baby Scientists with Faulty Data”). Instructions for listening will be available on Canvas.

Reflection questions: These questions are meant to guide your reading and will form the foundation of our in-class and online discussions.


Day 1: How does the public learn about science?
Activity: “The reanimators” case study
Homework: developing criteria for evaluating science journalism

Day 2: How can we be responsible consumers of science news?
Activity: evaluating secondary literature
Homework: genetics definitions and nomenclature

Day 3:  Why do genes matter?
Lecture: “Simple” Mendelian inheritance
Activity: worked genetics problems
Homework: even more genetics problems!

Day 4: How do mutant variants persist in a population?
Activity: “Cross out the mutation”
Homework: journal club preparation

Day 5: How do genes control behavior?
Activity: Journal club

Day 6: How do scientists study genes in humans?
Activity: “Got lactase” case study
Homework: “genetics and eugenics”

Day 7: How are scientific ideas used and misused?
Discussion: “Genetics, history, and the American Eugenics Movement”
Homework: “Same, but different”

Day 8: What, besides “genotype”, contributes to “phenotype”?
Discussion: Epigenetics

Day 9: What is the role of the scientist in society?
Discussion: Henrietta’s tumor