Star Turn

February 4, 2000

Melody Mellor meets the microbiology lecturer who will stoop to anything in an effort to engage his overworked students.

Third-year medical students have it tough. Only a few days after the millennium celebrations, they returned to campus to endure hours of back-to-back lectures while fellow students in other faculties were probably still trying to kickstart their intellects over a fag and coffee. Dick Killington is well aware of this. A senior lecturer in the microbiology division of Leeds University's School of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, he teaches virology on the medicine course.

"The thing you have to realise about these students," he says, "is that their brains are zonked out by lectures, all day, every day. The core of the course is in my handouts, and they could pass on them alone, so what I try to do during lectures is to grab and stimulate their interest."

Grab it he does, beginning with "a light video to relax you". The video - footage of millennium celebrations worldwide - is intended to demonstrate that, despite humanity entering a new era with technology that could scarcely have been imagined even 100 years ago, infectious disease remains a debilitating health threat.

Students relax with some audience participation, including the opportunity for each densely packed row to provide an example of a disease caused by a virus, and preferably without looking at the handouts. Dr Killington explains his use of audience participation as "partly theatrical - at this level, and with so many students, it's the best way of holding their attention. The occasional video, some George Michael or an excerpt from Pulp Fiction, wakes them up."

Using the trusty overhead projector and pointy stick, Dr Killington moved on to an overview of the structure and replication of viruses and more detail of the types of diseases they cause. He veered away frequently from the factual core of the lecture to reinforce the relevance of virology to medical students.

The main reason for most patients' visits to GPs, for example, is infectious disease; and because there are few drugs that can deal with viruses, the medical profession's best weapon in controlling the spread of viruses will be medical education.

One of Dr Killington's best weapons for encouraging understanding of virology among medical students is humour, and he employed it to good - and ribald - effect ("What's the difference between love and herpes? Herpes lasts forever"). While introducing the classification of viruses, Dr Killington performed an extended, and often visual riff on stethoscopes, their uses and abuses.

He invited students to classify themselves according to the type of stethoscope they purchased ("Probably the most important decision you will make as a student of medicine"), the number and type of its attachments, and the way in which they carried it. Discussing the ways in which viruses are spread (usually via skin trauma, the respiratory tract, gastro-intestinal infection, venereally, or passed from mother to child), another lengthy digression featured Dr Killington striding about the podium, providing useful advice for medical students on avoiding infections themselves.

As 250 students filed out afterwards for a well-deserved coffee break before their next lecture, Dr Killington remarked: "They're all self-learners, these students. What I have to do is to motivate them and make virology relevant to them as future practitioners." Speaking as a layperson with an O level in biology, I'd say he succeeds.

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