Teaching intelligence - Monster mash proves highly infectious

Dracula, extraterrestrial bugs and the undead are aiding the study of microbiology. Jack Grove writes

October 27, 2011

Credit: Kobal
A graveyard smash: it may not be what C. P. Snow had in mind, but Joanna Verran's willingness to use popular sources is helping to bridge the 'two cultures' gap

Can vampire movies help students to understand how infectious diseases are spread? Or could a patchwork quilt explain the prevalence of scarlet fever in 19th-century America?

Science and medicine have long provided inspiration for literature and cinema, but does an appreciation of the arts enliven and inspire the scientific mind?

Bridging the gap between these two worlds is something Joanna Verran, professor of microbiology at Manchester Metropolitan University, is keen to advance.

One of her recent initiatives was a lecture to 180 students about microbiology and art.

"It seems a wacky idea at first glance. But I explained the links between the subjects, such as biodeterioration and art conservation, the role of disease in history as depicted in classical art and science-art collaborations," she said.

"The lecture provided a different slant to microbiology and gave interesting examples of applied microbiology, and the students really enjoyed it."

Professor Verran, who was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship this summer by the Higher Education Academy, has also encouraged her students to think imaginatively about their subject.

"It's all extracurricular activity, but the work done by these first-years is very exciting," she explained. "If they are interested in photographic art, we will talk about what type of project they could do and what impact they want to make.

"One excellent project came from a girl who wanted to make a quilt inspired by the novel Little Women."

Quilts are part of the warp and weft of the book, as is Streptococcus pyogenes in the form of scarlet fever.

"It's a book about illness, and she wanted to demonstrate the pattern of this type of bacteria using textiles," Professor Verran added.

Other projects that have highlighted the creativity and enthusiasm of her students include jewellery inspired by microorganisms, models of viruses and songs posted on YouTube.

Some of this work has featured in public exhibitions such as the Manchester Science Festival.

Other students have set up their own book clubs. "One group read and discussed the book Aids Sutra by Amartya Sen (the Nobel prize-winning economist), which talks about Aids in the Indian sub-continent," Professor Verran said.

"It brings the subject out of the textbook and lecture hall and into the real world. It also gets them to think about the subject in a different way, and I think it helps them commit themselves more fully."

Such activities, she argued, not only help students to interpret science in a different way, but also give them tangible benefits when they graduate.

"When students eventually go for interviews, it's a great thing to talk about. It shows they haven't just been handed teaching materials, they have created things themselves."

With students involved in artistic projects performing as highly as those who concentrate solely on their textbooks, the value of such activities can only really be assessed through student feedback.

But Professor Verran said that as a lecturer, she had been "impressed, enthused and moved" by the creativity her undergraduates had exhibited.

"This work has truly benefited their experiences of innovation, exploration, problem-solving and communication, and mine as well. For me, it has been inspirational."

The Bad Bugs Book Club

While some of the projects - such as quilt-making - are niche interests that would be difficult to roll out more widely, Professor Verran, who was given the Communications Award by the Society for Applied Microbiology this year, is not afraid to use unashamedly populist books and films to get students involved.

"We had a zombie-fest night where we discussed the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, and we screened the three film versions," she said.

"We are also reading World War Z by Max Brooks for this week's Manchester Science Festival, which is another zombie (text). These films and books are all about illness, our attitudes to it and fear of it. It's interesting to look at how microbiology and virology are represented."

In another instance, a professor of Gothic literature was coaxed out of the English department to talk to the microbiology students.

It might not be the exact solution that the late C.P. Snow had in mind when he lamented the gulf between science and the arts in his influential 1959 lecture "The Two Cultures", but the University of Cambridge physicist and novelist would surely have approved of Professor Verran's efforts.

One of her longest-running initiatives is the Bad Bugs Book Club, a monthly meeting at which students and academics at Manchester Met are encouraged to explore the representation of microbiology in fiction.

Unsurprisingly, depictions of the complexities of biology do not always entirely convince such an expert audience.

Robin Cook, the US doctor-turned-writer, has been taken to task for his portrayal of a deadly E. coli bug in his novel Toxin, while Alistair MacLean's germ warfare thriller The Satan Bug was dismissed as "unrealistic".

But Michael Crichton gained slightly more approval for his tale of scientists battling toxic extraterrestrial microorganisms in The Andromeda Strain.

"Personally, I enjoyed picking out the public health aspects in Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell, and the enthusiasm for technology - as well as disease transmission - in Dracula," said Professor Verran.

"We have found plenty to say about every book - in fact, some of the less accurate or more contentious science makes for the best discussions."

So far the group has read around 20 novels, but when it tried to settle on the one deserving of the "Good Bad Bugs Book Prize" it proved impossible, with everyone choosing a different favourite.

To ensure that as many people as possible benefit from these out-of-class activities, the discussions are summarised on a website, alongside supplementary reading guides.

"We always try to suggest activities for students to encourage further investigation of the microbiology described," said Professor Verran, who is director of the graduate school of the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Manchester Met.

Inspired to brush up her own skills, she has even taken a course on teaching creative writing, which she said was "a totally different skill to scientific writing, in which you need to strip out personality from your research".

In a world in which science communication is suddenly in vogue, offering researchers a way to demonstrate that all-important "impact", learning such skills is no longer something that can be dismissed as simply a distraction or an optional extra.

Professor Verran said: "When writing more creatively on science, you need a more personal narrative. It's hard to switch between the two.

"I want to encourage the students to reflect on how science can be communicated and to use their personal talents to enhance this communication."

She added: "They should see themselves as cultural emissaries, making science understandable, exciting and essential to our audiences."


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