When I think of what most interests me about science, and what brought me back to the subject in the first place, I think of Microbiology. I remember reading the book The Hot Zone when I was in Middle School and being completely enthralled with it. The life or death, time-pressured situations to find out what was happening and stop it drew me in right away. For those unaware, The Hot Zone follows several instances of hemorrhagic fever viruses around the world (ebola and marburg). After getting my Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and managing only one month of Graduate school, I was back as an undergrad studying Micro. I had really wanted to take Virology, as that most closely related to the topics that interested me when I was so much younger. Unfortunately UWM never offered the class, I couldn’t follow the path I wanted to, and I didn’t end up finishing that degree either. After coaching for eight years and deciding to teach, going into science was a no-brainer for me. One of the ways I plan to engage my students is teaching what really interests me, and so Viruses and the Immune Response are high on my list.
When I think of what I know on these topics, it has been 20 years since I’ve read The Hot Zone, and the last classes I took in Microbiology were in 2011. I learned first hand how our old style of learning, rote memorization, works well for passing exams, and not so great for internalizing content. I can remember bigger concepts and not so much mechanisms and structures.
Viruses are not considered to be alive by many scientists. This is because they are mostly genetic material surrounded by a protective coat called a capsid. They require a host cell to replicate. Once they find a way into a host cell, they hijack the cell’s reproductive mechanisms and use it to make copies of itself. Viruses can infect almost any living thing on earth, including bacteria. They are inefficient in a way, in that they usually kill the host cell they have infected, requiring the virus to find a new host to infect in order to stay “alive”. Vaccines, a weakened form of a virus, can be used to immunize a person against the effects of a virus. Smallpox is an example of one that was eradicated. Some viruses can infect multiple species and jump between them. Viruses can mutate and become more infectious, more deadly or more effective in other ways. Some can combine with other viruses to form newer, “deadlier” pathogens.
I feel that there are two categories to the information that I want to learn about viruses, and microbiology in general. I first of all need to re-learn material. In pulling up a page on viruses, I found that much of the information came back to me relatively easily. However that means I need to do the reading. Expecting years-(decades?!)-old material to come back simply by recall will not help my students. But more than that, I would love to learn more about viruses that I never got to in college. When I read The Hot Zone, I wanted to find a way to fight ebola, to save lives. I imagine students that learn about viruses like this and become interested in them would feel the same way. I want to learn enough about the nature of viruses to explain what is happening at the molecular level, and to be able to teach students about both the body’s response to viruses in general and how we are fighting them with science.
Here are some quick links for further exploration on viruses and the immune response.
Wikipedia – virus
Here you can learn how the symptoms, expression and transmission of hemorrhagic fevers were exaggerated in The Hot Zone, causing many misconceptions about them.
And follow this link to Newsela for classroom-friendly texts on viruses and other infectious diseases, as well as immune response information.