Life Sciences 1a and 1b, "An Integrated Introduction to the Life Sciences"

If you’re a science concentrator, you’ll probably be taking this sequence of classes whether you want to or not. But even if you’re a hardcore Lit major who’s only looking to fulfill those pesky Science A and Science B cores, you might enjoy the Life Sciences courses as long as you don’t mind a little more work than, say, a gut like Dinosaurs (Science B-57) might offer. LS1a and LS1b offer a mostly graceful blend of hard science and real-world applications that is so often missing from introductory science courses. These classes offer something that both perfectionist pre-meds and aspiring novelists can enjoy and use.

Built from the ground up by a cadre of Harvard professors hailing from a swath of “science-y” disciplines, these courses integrate the aspects of biology and chemistry that you’ll actually find in the real world—not just in a lab or a theorist’s head. Because of the courses’ interdisciplinary nature, they are taught by a group of fully-tenured faculty members (five for 1a, four for 1b) who, despite all their prestige, are actually interested in teaching and talking to students.

The extensive teaching staff for both classes produced a balanced compromise between labs, problem sets, and midterms. Yes, there are two midterms in each class, but they’re nothing to cry about. The problems sets are due weekly and won’t fry any brain cells as long as you don’t start them Thursday night at 11 PM. The labs aren’t always relevant to the course, but they’re easy points. If you’re having trouble with the work, the capable TFs are happy to assist you, but may be a little bewildered by some portions of the course they haven’t had time to study. The profs, however, are usually happy to help you out during office hours with everything from the most rote questions to broader applications of course material.

All of the professors in LS1a are capable lecturers, although Daniel Kahne turns more than a few off with, what some call, his abrasive demeanor. The rest of the professors are markedly good at teaching this weird quasi-biochem hybrid class, including boy-genius-turned-faculty-member David Liu, the hyper-energetic Robert Lue, Biology department chair Andrew Murray, and the fantastically engaging Erin O'Shea. Advice you've heard before: go to office hours; these profs are really fun, and at least one will probably win a Nobel Prize (our money is on David Liu).

The 1b class is more of a mixed bag, taking fewer risks and breaking less ground than LS1a. This class takes a more traditional approach to biology, expanding on the now-defunct BS50 course by focusing on genetics and some peripheral disease-related material. The 1a profs seem more polished than those in 1b, though Daniel Hartl stands out as a truly impressive lecturer. Maryellen Ruvolo and John Wakeley clearly have interesting points to make, but get lost in their expansive Powerpoint presentations and statistical data. Robert Lue in 1a and Craig Hunter in 1b have the toughest material, but Lue gets students more excited about his dense subject matter. Life Sciences 1b is still interesting, but not as innovative as its fall counterpart.

It’s important to keep in mind that the professors in 1b didn’t have a semester’s worth of CUE evaluations to turn the class around as the 1a staff did. After incorporating student feedback, 1a became markedly more interesting in the Spring. Thus, there’s no telling what a year at the drawing board will yield for 1b. Considering that they’re above average for introductory science classes, and offer a kind of cross-pollination of disciplines that you don’t often get at Harvard, these classes come highly recommended for anyone interested in “real” science.

N.B.: 1a will no longer be offered in the spring, and 1a is no longer a prerequisite for taking 1b (so, if you are mad about genetics but don’t have any interest in biochemistry, you can skip right over to 1b).