Chemistry major Will Richardson ’21 never had a science course like it: Instead of doing lab work and problem-solving, the 11 students pored over scientific literature and then presented about what they’d read. Much of it was newly published work on COVID-19.
For Richardson, the format of the small, deep-dive Structural Biology course dismantled the wall between professor and student. “It felt like we were all learning together, which is how I would imagine graduate school would be, so that’s one of the things that I enjoyed the most,” said Richardson, a pre-med student who can see himself possibly pursuing a dual medical and doctoral degree.
In fact, Associate Professor of Chemistry Adam Van Wynsberghe designed and taught the new course, modeling it after seminars he’d taken in grad school. It’s one of several new half-credit courses that the Chemistry Department is offering this academic year for the first time. The idea is to provide upper-level students a chance to examine a focused topic.
“So instead of knowing a little about a lot of different things, which is most of our curriculum, students get to learn a lot about one thing, and, if they move on to graduate school or to some sort of specialty that involves science, that is actually what they will be doing,” Van Wynsberghe said.
Structural Biology is a technique for identifying three-dimensional shapes of biological molecules such as proteins, nucleic acids, and viruses. It’s often some of the early lab work in the development of vaccines and antiviral therapies, Van Wynsberghe explained. The new course was already in the works when the pandemic hit, but he retooled it to spend the last half looking at the primary literature of COVID-19.
“It was fascinating,” said Crystal Lin ’22, a biochemistry and Chinese double major. “I’ve never been exposed to a lot of scientific literature, especially following the most recent papers.” Reading the literature wasn’t easy, but she learned to tell the difference between a good and a not-so-good scientific paper.
“I enjoyed learning biochemistry before I took this class, but through this class, I was able to find a more specific subfield of biochemistry that I am interested in learning more [about] and potentially doing research in,” she said.
Not all of the half-credit courses focus on literature and discussion. The department offered two during fall semester and will offer two more this spring. Richardson wants to take both of them: Chemical Approaches to Solar Energy Conversion and Inorganic Materials: Nanowires to Metal-Organic Frameworks.
“It's just a really cool way where a professor can share some of his passion with the students in a very meaningful manner,” Richardson said.