By Greg Buhrman
OK, I admit I was getting a little desperate today. I’d started this class with the idea of teaching Cell Biology and along the way, explaining how normal cellular biology relates to the disease state, with a focus on cancer and diabetes. When I started organizing the class it made sense at the time. After all, I’ve spent the last ten years doing cancer research, mostly with Dr. Carla Mattos (my thesis mentor) and Dr. Jason Haugh (a committee member and collaborator in the Chemical Engineering Department) at NCSU and for a year or two (one year in his lab, two years if you count collaboration time) with Dr. Johannes Rudolph at Duke Univ. With that experience, I felt like I had a reasonable handle on enough aspects of cancer research to teach it. Diabetes is a disease that I’m just starting to work on now in Dr. Bob Rose’s lab at NCSU, so I felt like if I’m going to be learning about it anyway, I might as well incorporate it in the class.
So anyway, all that sounds great on paper, but it’s harder to put into practice. Last week, I started lecturing on the nucleus & quickly realized that if I wanted to say anything useful about cancer, I needed to explain the histone code & DNA methylation.
In other words, epigenetics. This was a topic I had planned to introduce later in the course, but I decided to plunge ahead with it anyway. The first lecture on the nucleus was fairly straightforward & straight from the textbook, but with enough detail about the nucleosome that I felt comfortable jumping into the histone code & epigenetics. Tuesday, the histone code lecture went OK, but I could tell I had lost some people, especially when I got into some of the complicated regulatory cycles, modes of inhibition and the relationship with oncogenes and tumor supressor proteins. So today I was a little desperate.
Thank God for Les Miserables. Last night, my wife and daughter went to see Les Miserables at the Progress Energy Center. They said it was awesome. From the start to finish, the audience sat rapt with attention and applauded wildly at the end. I thought, ‘That’s exactly what I want in my lecture !’ So, before I started today’s lecture, I put up the first slide, which made an analogy between cellular biology and life on a battlefield, cranked up ‘Red & Black’ from Les Miserables, and sat back.
It worked. My ‘audience’ stayed awake for the whole lecture. They asked excellent questions and seemed completely engaged. We worked through some very advanced concepts and I think that we are well on the way to making real progress. I even got a smattering of applause at the end of class, but I think that was mostly because I finished early.
I promised Dr. Clay Clark that I’d write at least one of these blog pieces, but I don’t know how many more I’ll do, so in case this is my only one, here are the acknowledgements. I want to thank Carla, Jason & Johannes for teaching me something about cancer. I want to thank Bob for giving me a chance with diabetes & Dr. Jane Lubischer and Dr. Harry Daniels for giving me the chance to teach this class. Mostly, I want to thank my students in cell biology, who haven’t jumped out of the boat, even when it became clear we were going into deep water. Lastly, I want to thank my family and especially my daughter Dakota, who is studying neurobiology at the Univ. of Pittsburgh and still finds time to let me bounce lecture ideas off of her.