Dogs, Malaria, Data Manipulation, and the Human Genome: New classes shape an interesting CHC experience

Dogs playing Data on computer screenMosquito/malaria Human genome  


By Lauren Tokos, CHC Communications

When it became official that classes would be held in person for the 2021-22 academic year, Professor Melissa Graboyes decided she was going to build a trap.

Graboyes, a professor of African and medical history, was delighted to bring back her course HC101: Malaria for the fall 2021 term.

“It’s an interdisciplinary look at malaria: history, ethics, science, biology,” Graboyes explained.  “We try to cover a bit of everything in just ten weeks so students get a solid introduction to this disease, its history, and impact.” Having taught this course remotely last year, she found that it was equally fulfilling for her students and herself and offered it again this year. With a twist.

This term, the students in Graboyes’ course will embark on an intricate group project that focuses on replicating mosquito traps that are currently being used on the African continent.

“I’ve never built these traps before, so it’s going to be a real experiment,” she said. “I’m looking forward to learning along with the students to figure out what works, what doesn’t, and why.”

The HC 101 courses are designed to provide a solid foundation for CHC first-year students to prepare for the next three years of course work and introduce them to critical thinking, research, and learning from one another.

By using her own materials as a model, Graboyes gives her students experience in academic research and how it evolves in real time. It also serves as a demonstration of how research will serve as a basis for their upcoming thesis project.

“Students will read an article in-progress that I’m writing with a graduate student, will see archival materials I collected from the UK, Switzerland, and Tanzania, and will see interview materials from Zanzibar,” she added. “I hope to pull back the curtain on how new knowledge is produced so that students see books and articles don’t just appear out of thin air.”

Second-year CHC student Kavi Shrestha took HC101: Malaria remotely last year, and said she found the course to be engaging and enlightening. Even though it wasn’t an in-person experience, she felt “the class was definitely challenging but also engaging, and I think it definitely helped me prepare for my other honors courses. It altered my world view, making me begin to question the true impact and ethicality of global initiatives,” she said.

David Lefevre, who also took the class last year, found that the course bolstered the interdisciplinary nature of the honors college. “While a disease such as malaria appears to be an apolitical subject, when attempting to deal with it, we make politically charged decisions when deciding whose voices and perspectives are heard, which technologies are utilized, how are control methods implemented, which risks are taken, who is taking such risks, and more,” he said. “This class did a great job of explaining that all of science is inseparable from its historical and political framework.”

HC101: Writing the Genome

Rachel Rodman, a recent addition to the CHC faculty, offered HC101: Writing the Genome this fall, which demystifies falsities surrounding the human genome. As a biology expert, Rodman combines her field of study with contemporary writing forms to showcase interdisciplinary approaches to hard sciences.

“We'll be doing a lot of writing about genomes, we’ll read a lot about other people writing genomes, and we’ll also use metaphors thinking about literary texts as genomes and how we can write those,” Rodman said. She added that the class explores specialty topics she doesn’t normally get to focus on like "transposons," which are mobile genetic elements — pieces of DNA — that jump from one part of the genome to another.

“I think they are probably just about the coolest thing about genetics that a lot of people haven't heard about or haven’t studied,” she added.

Rodman traces her interest in the human genome back to 2011 when she was working in the United Kingdom and the University of Edinburgh was working on the human genome. 

“Authors from all over were coming together and writing short stories about genes and the human genome,” she said. Unlike the work done on the human genome, Rodman will make more concrete connections to biological concepts, ensuring that her students retain knowledge in both literature and biology.

“I like to talk about both science and basic writing and communication skills,” she said. “And I want to accomplish both of these things at the same time.”

HC441: The Art of Data Manipulation

“The phrase ‘the numbers don’t lie’ really sums up our society's blind dependence and belief in numbers,” new CHC faculty member Rebecca Altman said. “While numbers can be used to efficiently communicate information, those numbers can also be misrepresented in a way that manipulates our perspective on certain topics.”

Altman’s class, HC441: The Art of Data Manipulation, focuses on how quantitative information is exploited by news sources and popular culture.

Through her experience, she has learned that “performing research and clearly communicating its results are two very different skills.” While it’s important to Altman that students in her class become more aware on how data is misrepresented and how to protect themselves from misleading information, she adds that “when we approach these topics, we should really be giving people the benefit of the doubt, because everybody makes mistakes. That itself highlights the purpose of this course…to use these instances as learning opportunities instead of tearing people down for mistakes that they’ve made.”

HC101: Dogs, Past and Present

Through her first course in the honors college, HC101: Dogs, Past and Present, history professor Lisa Wolverton uses popular culture and academic history to teach her students about the history of dogs, both contemporary and age-old, by combining several different disciplines including anthropology, psychology, biology, and of course, history. Instead of expecting her students to master these various designations, Wolverton said that “[w]hat I really want to get them a feel for is the variety of ways to learn about a subject and to use different ones. To think a little about what these categories really mean.”

 “One of the things I hope [students] understand is that you can study anything,” Wolverton, who first introduced the course nearly a decade ago at UO when she was heavily involved in animal rescue in Eugene, said. “Anything can be studied in some academic fashion. I think everything has a history — even dogs have a history. The question is how do you go about it?”

Wolverton also looks forward to showing her students that although her professional research does not relate exactly to the course content, she is still able to make relevant connections.

In Wolverton’s experience, the cultivation of knowledge is best done by asking good questions and understanding how to analyze information.

“Sometimes it’s beneficial to not be an expert — to not get too down in the weeds about an issue,” she said. “So, I think sometimes better teaching comes from material that the professor knows a little less well.”