Introduction to Mammalian Microbiomes

Since the end of September, I’ve been teaching a course for the UO Clark Honors College; Introduction to Mammalian Microbiomes.   And in a novel challenge for me – I’m teaching the idea of complex, dynamic microbial ecosystems and their interaction with animal hosts … to non-majors.  My undergraduate students almost entirely hail from the humanities and liberal arts, and I couldn’t be more pleased. So far, it’s been a wonderful opportunity for me to pilot a newly developed course, improve my teaching skills, and flex my creativity, both in how I explain concepts and how I design course objectives.

I enthusiastically support efforts towards science communication, especially in making science more accessible to a wider audience.  My students likely won’t be scientific researchers themselves, but some will be reporting on science publications, or considering funding bills, and all of them are exposed to information about human-associated microbial communities from a variety of sources. To navigate the complicated and occasionally conflicting deluge of information online about the human microbiome, my students will need to build skills in scientific article reading comprehension, critical thinking, and discussion.  To that end, many of my assignments are designed to engage students in these skills.

I feel that it’s important to teach not only what we know about the microbial community living in the mouth or the skin, but to teach the technologies that provide that knowledge, and how that technology has informed our working theories and understanding of microbiology over centuries.  Importantly, I hope to teach them that science, and health sciences, are not static fields, we are learning new things every day.  I don’t just teach about what science has done right, but I try to put our accomplishments in the context of the number of years and personnel to achieve publications, or the counter-theories that were posited and disproved along the way.

And most of, I want the course to be engaging, interesting, and thought provoking.  I encouraged class discussions and student questions as they puzzle through complex theories, and I’ve included a few surprise additions to the syllabus along the way.  Yesterday, University of Oregon physics Ph.D. student Deepika Sundarraman taught us about her research in Dr. Parthasarathy’s lab on using light sheet fluorescence microscopy to visualize bacterial communities in the digestive tract of larval zebra fish! Stay tuned for more fun in #IntroMammalianMicrobiomes!

 

OMSI presentation: A crash course on the microbiome of the digestive tract

Last night, I gave my first “science stand-up” as part of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) Science Pub series at Whirled Pies in Eugene, OR.  I really enjoy giving public presentations of my work, and while I’ve been on stage with a microphone before, it was the first time I got a stool to put my drink on.

I gave a talk which encompassed much of my previous work on host-associated microbiomes in moose and other ruminants, as well as more current research from others on the human gut.  It’s difficult enough to fit the field of host-associated microbiomes into a semester-long class, nevermind an hour (I digress), so I kept it to the highlights: “A crash course on the microbiome of the digestive tract“.   You can find the slides here: Ishaq OMSI SciPub 20180208, although there is no video presentation at this time. I was honored to have such a well-attended lecture (about 120 people!) with an engaged audience, who had some really on-track questions about the intersection of microbial diversity and health.

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Photo Credit: Al Lebovitz

As I’ve discussed here before, academic outreach is a sometimes overlooked, yet nevertheless extremely important, aspect of science.  The members of the general public are a large portion of our stakeholder audience, and outreach helps disseminate that research knowledge, facilitate transparency of the research process, and engage people who might benefit from or be interested in our work.  As I told the audience last night, scientists do like when people ask us about our work, but “we’re more scared of you than you are of us”.  I encourage everyone to add science to their life by getting informed, getting involved, and getting out to vote.

Thanks again to OMSI for inviting me to participate, and to Whirled Pies for hosting!

 

Featured Photo Credit: Al Lebovitz