TWiV 449: The sound of non-silencing

The TWiV Council explores the finding that facial appearance affects science communication, and evidence that RNA interference confers antiviral immunity in mammalian cells.

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The Traditional Lecture is Not Dead. I Would Know – I’m A Professor

Virology 2017Wired Magazine recently published an article with a headline distinctly opposite of mine, which claims that the traditional lecture is dead. I disagree, and here is why.

The thesis of the article, by Rhett Allain, is that modern technologies have made the traditional lecture obsolete. The traditional lecture is one during which a teacher stands at the front of the room and ‘disseminates knowledge to students’. Allain claims – rightly so – that animated videos like The Mechanical Universe are far more engaging. He suggests that, to teach physics, just show the students episodes from this show. If they have questions, just pause the show.

He claims that showing these videos – or equivalents for other subjects – beats most lectures. Lectures in which teachers drone on and on.

Well guess what – I teach a virology course at Columbia University, and at the end of the year, most of the students say its one of the best, or the best class they have taken in their college years. I don’t show The Viral Universe or any other videos during my class. I talk to the students about my knowledge of viruses, gained from researching them for over 30 years.

Not every virology lecturer has my experience in the field. Many of them learn virology from a book. I agree that lectures given by those individuals are dead.

I do record each lecture and post them at YouTube, so that the students in the class, or anyone in the world for that matter, can watch them. It’s a new technology that Allain likes. I like allowing the students to time-shift their learning: some never come to class. But it’s still me making the videos and sharing my knowledge via a traditional lecture format.

Allain is also fond of the flipped classroom – assign a video for students to watch before class, and then use class time to discuss it. I love this idea. But I still think that for my introductory virology class, it’s better for me to talk to them. To walk around the room, without notes, look them in the eye, and muster all my passion and love for the field and send it their way. And don’t think that doesn’t matter – many of my students tell me that my passion for the subject is what makes them interested in viruses.

Research says that most students learn better by doing. I do pause a few times during each lecture to have students complete an online quiz – something Allain also likes. It gives me time to see if what I’m saying is sinking in, and to clarify complex material.

When I lecture, students come to me afterwards with questions, and some even walk with me to the subway, to talk about viruses. How can a video provide that experience?

Allain’s response might be that if anyone wants to teach a virology course, just play my lectures and discuss them in class. I’m all for that. But every spring semester, I’ll be in front of the class, talking about viruses, and making new videos. There is no substitute for a expert who is passionate about their subject. I realize that every physics course can’t be taught by Einstein, but he can teach at least one, and the students at his university will love it.

Not every passionate researcher will make a great lecturer, and for them,  videos and flipped classrooms are a great way to teach. But for those passionate researchers who can teach – why not put them in front of a class and inspire the next generation? I do it every year.

TWiV 448: Mavis the Structure Maven

From ASV 2017 in Madison, Wisconsin, the complete TWiV team speaks with Mavis Agbandje-McKenna about her career and her work solving virus structures by x-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy.

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TWiV 447: Un-impacting an elephant

The glorious TWiVerati un-impact their email backlog, anwering questions about viruses, viruses, viruses, viruses, viruses, and more. You should listen – our fans ask great questions!

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TWiV 446: Old sins die hard

The TWiV hosts review an analysis of gender parity trends at virology conferences, and the origin and unusual pathogenesis of the 1918 pandemic H1N1 influenza virus.

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The first human virus discovered

PlaqueOn the wall of a Columbia University Medical Center building just across the street from my laboratory is a plaque commemorating two participants in the discovery of a mosquito vector for yellow fever virus.

The plaque reads:

Aristides Agramonte, Jesse William Lazear, Graduates of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, class of 1892. Acting Assistant Surgeons, U.S. Army. Members of the USA Yellow Fever Commission with Drs. Walter Reed and James Carroll. Through devotion and self-sacrifice they helped to eradicate a pestilence of man.

Yellow fever, known in tropical countries since the 15th century, was responsible for devastating epidemics associated with high rates of mortality. The disease can be mild, with symptoms that include fever and nausea, but more severe cases are accompanied by major organ failure. The name of the illness is derived from yellowing of the skin (jaundice) caused by destruction of the liver. For most of its history, little was known about how yellow fever was spread, although it was clear that the disease was not transferred directly from person to person.

Cuban physician Carlos Juan Finlay proposed in 1880 that a bloodsucking insect, probably a mosquito, was involved in yellow fever transmission. The United States Army Yellow Fever Commission was formed in 1899 to study the disease, in part because of its high incidence among soldiers occupying Cuba. Also known as the Reed Commission, it comprised four infectious disease specialists: U.S. Army Colonel Walter Reed (who was the chair); Columbia graduates Lazear and Agramonte, and James Carroll. Lazear confirmed Finlay’s hypothesis in 1900 when he acquired yellow fever after being experimentally  bitten by mosquitos who had fed on sick patients. Days later, he died of the disease.

The results of the Reed Commission’s study proved conclusively that mosquitoes are the vectors for this disease. Aggressive mosquito control in Cuba led to a drastic decline in cases by 1902.

The nature of the yellow fever agent was established in 1901, when Reed and Carroll injected filtered serum from the blood of a yellow fever patient into three healthy individuals. Two of the volunteers developed yellow fever, causing Reed and Carroll to conclude that a “filterable agent,” which we now know as yellow fever virus, was the cause of the disease.

Sometimes you don’t have to wander far to find some virology history.

Update 6/16/17: The statement on the plaque that Agramonte and Lazear “helped to eradicate a pestilence of man” is of course incorrect, as yellow fever has never been eradicated. Recent large outbreaks of yellow fever in Brazil and Angola are examples of the continuing threat the virus poses, despite the availability of a vaccine since 1938.

TWiV 445: A nido virology meeting

From Nido2017 in Kansas City, Vincent  meets up with three virologists to talk about their careers and their work on nidoviruses.

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TWiV 444: Astro Kate, The Right Stuff

From ASM Microbe 2017 at New Orleans, Vincent and Rich meet up with Kate Rubins to talk about becoming an astronaut, space travel, and doing science in space.

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A conversation with Islam Hussein of Virolvlog

From ASM Microbe 2017 in New Orleans, I speak with Islam Hussein about his science career, how he became interested in science communication, and his video blog in Arabic, Virolvlog.

Virolvlog meets TWiV

Islam Hussein of Virolvlog interviews me about my career in virology and my interests in communicating science, at ASM’s Microbe 2017 in New Orleans.