The Genetics Class of the Future is Here

by Brian Mertz

Molecular Me isn’t your grandfather’s genetics course. Nor is it your father’s class. In fact, depending on the age difference, Molecular Me may even be too new for your older brother.

There’s nothing new about studying genetics in college, but without recent technological breakthroughs, it would have been impossible for Professor of Chemistry Jeff Moore to teach Molecular Me the way he wanted.

The study of genetics is poised to bring significant changes to many parts of society, including health care, nutrition and some of the most fundamental ethical questions about our lives, including being able to identify before birth if a child would be at a greater risk to develop a specific disease later in their life.

Instead of just reading about how genetics will transform our world, Moore wanted his students to grapple with these issues first-hand by analyzing their own genetic code.

“The idea is that we can give students their own genetic data to understand the relationship between what is going on at the observable level (some trait that student knows or may inherit) and what is going on at the molecular level,” explained Moore.

Pushing the boundaries on how science is taught in the classroom earned Moore accolades before the first student even signed up for Molecular Me.

In the summer of 2014, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) named Moore an HHMI Professor for his work in transforming education within the field of chemistry. The honor included a five-year grant from HHMI.  Moore was encouraged to explore new ways of teaching and share ideas on how to improve science education.

Moore decided to offer Molecular Me in the Fall semester of 2014 as part of his HHMI Professor Program. Relying on bleeding-edge technology, non-traditional teaching techniques, and a lot of saliva, Molecular Me was going to be an experiment itself.

But despite the new approach to teaching a rapidly changing subject, Moore still had a more traditional goal for the course – inspiring his students to become self-driven, curious learners.

Throw the syllabus and the textbook out the window

Lifting up a thick, hardcover genetics textbook, Moore explained why he would never write a traditional textbook for a rapidly developing field like personal genetics.

“This book is out of date by the time it comes to print,” Moore said. “Although it has a lot of useful information, it is immediately out of date. The field is changing that fast.”

If his students were going to learn cutting edge research techniques in a rapidly developing field, Moore knew that Molecular Me would need something more flexible than a traditional textbook or printed course packet.

Additionally, the Fall 2014 semester was the first time Moore had ever taught a genetics course. In many ways, he was learning along with the students. He openly invited the students to drive the direction of the course.

“I told them from day number one: ‘Here’s the syllabus, throw it out the window. We’re not sticking to this. We don’t have to stick to this. This isn’t the usual course. You (the students) can tell us where we’re going to go.’”

Like so many other aspects of Molecular Me, this innovative structure to the course materials was made possible by new technologies. This time, the technology came from the University of Illinois in the form of the eText digital textbook platform.

Using eText, Moore was able to write and revise chapters from week to week throughout the course. New information or content relating to a specific area of study could be added to the eText at any time, and the new information would be immediately available to students.

“One thing that I liked is that he would embed YouTube videos and link to articles that he found while writing the chapter, and that was really useful to see where his thoughts were going when he did certain things,” said freshman Harrison Davis.

“eText@Illinois was created to be flexible,” said Milind Basole, a Principal ELearning Professional at the University of Illinois. Basole manages the eText service and helped Moore design the eText used in Molecular Me.

eText also has built-in features that allow instructors to get immediate feedback from their students. Practice problems and assessments can be displayed in the middle of the text. As well, communications tools built in to eText allow students to have online discussions as a class or one-on-one with the instructor.

These points of feedback from students allow instructors to further refine their content during the course.

“We realize that faculty are often conceptualizing or re-adapting content to suit their specific teaching needs or to include relevant emerging topics. eText permits author(s) to create and/or modify content on the fly as long as they remain slightly ahead of their teaching schedule,” said Basole.

By utilizing eText for future offerings of Molecular Me, Moore is ready for rapid changes in the field of genetics from week to week, and from semester to semester.

“The eText is able to keep up with that. Every semester you get ready for your lecture. Since the last time I gave this class, I determine that this is what has changed and I better incorporate that new information in to this part of the course,” Moore explained. “The fact that eText is so nimble is key.”

Gene-sweeping for variant bombs

The website for the software program VarSeq says that it “streamlines the process of annotating and filtering variants obtained from next generation sequencing pipelines.”

Professor Moore has a different way of describing the process:

“Basically you do what I like to call a gene-sweep looking for variant bombs. You’re looking for the changes in the sequence that flag something really crucial.”

Students in Molecular Me frequently used cutting edge software like VarSeq to analyze their own individual genetic data. In some cases the software was so new that the software creators told Moore that his students were some of the world’s first experts in these applications.

“I haven’t seen any of my other classes use technology like this,” said freshman Alex Celmer. “Other classes you just use an online website to do your homework. This is definitely information and technology that I never knew existed before this class.”

Students would use the VarSeq software to analyze their own genetic code, looking for variations that determine each of our unique characteristics including our eye color, skin pigmentation, height and even how susceptible we are to specific diseases.

While new software makes it possible to analyze the students’ genetic data, just getting the data itself is something that would have been cost prohibitive just a short time ago.

In 2003, the human genome was successfully sequenced after 13 years of work and a cost of $2.7 billion dollars.

Flash forward to 2014, using a service offered by a DNA analysis company called 23andMe, students in the Molecular Me course were able to receive about a million snippets of their own genetic code in a few weeks. It only cost each of them $100 and a vial of their saliva.

“It’s kind of gross actually,” said Celmer with a laugh. “They give you this big thing that you have to spit into. It takes a LOT of spit, but it was definitely worth it.”

Just because he knew it was possible to get the genetic data and analysis tools into the hands of his students, didn’t mean that Professor Moore knew what his students were going to discover once they started analyzing their own data.

Getting personal

Because each person’s genetic makeup is unique, coursework in Molecular Me did not rely on traditional problem sets out of a textbook. Instead, students were taught how to identify and analyze genetic markers, and then the students set out to make discoveries about themselves.

“I remember when we got our data that one of the things that I looked at were genes for heart disease and diabetes,” said freshman Harrison Davis. “All of my family is fairly lean and doesn’t have significant health problems. I was kind of surprised that with some genes for heart disease I was good but other ones I was at risk and needed to watch out.”

Over the course of the semester, students recorded their insights and findings in journals that Moore reviewed on a weekly basis. By evaluating journal entries instead of problem sets or tests, Moore was able to focus more on the students’ processes and techniques.

“I wanted them to describe the process. What were they after and what did they find? What kind of roadblocks did they run into? That’s why we didn’t give an exam.”

Students didn’t always have success when looking for variations in their genetic code.

‘There are a lot of dead ends, and you have to just take it with a grain of salt and go onto the next one,” said Celmer. “You can’t be afraid of failing. You are going to fail all the time. This class taught me about how to embrace failure and use it positively.”

Not having predetermined problem sets was something that Moore viewed as a positive, even if it may have been a new experience for both him and his students.

“There’s the data. The data is unique to me. The data is real and meaningful,” Moore explained. “But it’s not like I can expect an end of the chapter problem where I can go look up the answer. “

Some of the students took to this model of discovery.

“A lot of professors will just give you the information,” said freshman Harrison Davis. “He likes to dangle it in front of you and lead you on through discovering it for yourself. I think that’s a great way to learn.”

“It’s a class of discovery,” said Celmer. “You have to go out and have to try and find information. That is going to make you a better learner. You want to be able to go out and learn on your own and not just have people throw information at you.”

Tough Questions

When students did find variances in their genetic makeup, the results from their analysis could reveal that they were potentially at a greater risk for everything from alcoholism to Alzheimer’s disease. For that reason, understanding the ethical concerns that are a part of studying genetics was something that Moore stressed early on.

“Fortunately, I erred on the side of caution and made a big deal out of it in the beginning,” said Moore. “I think that got their attention that they could learn things about themselves that also then relate to their family members that they don’t want to know or that there might not be anything to do about.”

“Personally, I wanted to know everything,” said Alex Celmer. “I loved being able to look through my own genetics. I think it’s really interesting to be able to see all these diseases and learn about genetics through myself. It made me want to learn about it even more.”

Whether in their work or personal lives, Moore feels that his students are inevitably going to encounter issues related to genetics in the future.

“This is the generation of students who are going be thrust right in the middle of this debate as their careers unfold,” explained Moore. “I think we can turn our backs and let someone else deal with it down the road, but I think that is the wrong approach. I think a much better approach is to bring them up to speed as quickly as possible, as early as possible, and begin to face the unknown problems.”