Looking for Links In the Life Sciences

The first course of its kind, Life Sciences 1a is still evolving

Nearly 500 students broke interdisciplinary ground this semester as part of Life Sciences 1a, “An Integrated Introduction to the Life Sciences: Chemistry, Molecular Biology, and Cell Biology.”

The course, which ran for the first time this fall and is the first of its kind at any university, was months in the making and presents biology and chemistry in the context of modern medical applications.

Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology David R. Liu ’94, one of the class’s four professors, writes in an e-mail that he hopes students will emerge from the course with an awareness of how concepts from different disciplines come together in contexts such as HIV and cancer.

“The value of interdisciplinary approaches in scientific research is already widely appreciated,” Liu writes. “Hopefully courses such as LS1a will reveal the value of interdisciplinary approaches in science education as well.”

Though the professors already have plans to revise the course for next year, they say they’ve been pleased with its pilot. And while some enrolled students say the course tries to appeal to an audience that is too broad, others offer praise for its integration of different topics and real-life applications.


Hoping to create a course that taught both scientific theory and its applications, the Life Sciences Education Committee (LSEC) began planning Life Sciences 1a in January 2005.

Led by Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences Douglas A. Melton and composed of faculty from various life science departments, the LSEC met through the fall to create what course preceptors Ernie Chang and Elizabeth J. Heller say is the first course of its kind.

“[W]e hope that students can see how a wide variety of seemingly disparate concepts in chemistry and reality fit beautifully together to form a coherent understanding of a biological system and a basis for tackling the problems that arise when the system is involved in human disease,” Liu writes.

Unlike Princeton and Columbia, where similarly interdisciplinary classes are limited to concentrators or non-concentrators respectively, the LSEC members worked to create a course attractive and accessible to students in all concentrations and to incoming students regardless of previous science background.

The class begins with fundamental concepts, but quickly moves into advanced examples at the forefront of modern research, such as the chemical strategies behind the development of HIV protease inhibitors, according to Liu.

“A significant number of concepts taught in LS1a are traditionally reserved for upper-division or even graduate-level courses,” he adds.


The course is able to achieve such specialization because it is taught by a rotating team of four professors in the fall—Liu, Senior Lecturer on Molecular and Cellular Biology Robert A. Lue, Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology Daniel E. Kahne, and Smith Professor of Molecular Genetics Andrew W. Murray. Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Erin K. O’Shea will join the spring teaching staff.

According to Brian N. Tse, one of two Head Teaching Fellows for the course, the rotating lecturers are a benefit rather than a detriment.

“The professors’ lectures mesh really well with each other,” says Tse. “They have slightly different teaching styles that complement each other really nicely.”

All four professors attend each lecture, where they sit among the students, Tse adds. The professors have a close affinity with many students. The relationship is reflected in multiple Facebook groups, including several focusing on the professors and one dedicated to the chalk they use to draw amino acids on their Science Center blackboard.

The class boasts a team of 25 teaching fellows leading 33 sections. The course also features four formal labs in the field of pharmaceutical research, which Heller cited as “one of the strongest intersections between [biology and chemistry].”

Students are also able to take advantage of an unusual number of resources outside of class, including weekly review sessions and a study network facilitated by older undergraduates.

For students who wish to go into further depth about course subjects, professors periodically hold “stretch sessions,” optional lectures that introduce topics beyond the scope of the course.

Students enrolled in the course also praise the lecture notes available online after each class.

Liu writes that office hours for the course are well attended.

“Typically my office ‘hours’, given twice a week, end up becoming about four hours a week of discussion predominantly about more advanced concepts of current interest in chemistry and biology,” he writes.


Heller says that students have been doing “phenomenally well” overall, citing the high mean score of the class on the most recent hourly exam.

“[The feedback offered by students] collectively suggests their comprehension of and enthusiasm for the material presented in this course,” Liu writes.

Several students say that they admire the premise of the course. “I think it was a really good concept to combine all the different aspects of science in order for us to get a bigger grasp of how they play in with each other,” Martha A. Tesfalul ’09 says.

Vanessa Vargas ’09 also praises the course’s efforts to look out for students with less science background, but says the course lacks focus at times.

“Especially at the beginning of the course, we would have readings from the beginning of the book, and then for the next day, from...chapter 27. There isn’t a fluidity throughout the course,” Vargas says.

But Vargas adds that the course is appealing because the professors explain the material’s applications.

“I think that the material is interesting just because they apply it to everyday things,” she says.

Sagar V. Mehta ’09 says that discussing applications of the material only improves the course to a degree.

“This is what Life Sciences 1a is—there are these kids at Harvard, and we want them to cure AIDS and cancer. So we’re going to give them a course that puts everything in terms of AIDS and cancer—mostly AIDS,” Mehta says. “And that does make it interesting—for short periods.”

Mehta, who was a 2005 Intel Science Talent Search finalist with a project in bioengineering, and who enrolled in the course to fulfill a concentration requirement, says the course does not meet the needs of students who already have significant science backgrounds.

“I feel like since half of the freshman class is in it, and not all entered at the same level of science...if you’d had AP bio and AP chemistry in high school, the course is pretty much a review. Besides two or three lectures, it doesn’t cater to everyone,” he says.

The professors aimed to maintain students’ attendance and attention using the Break-Out system, in which students had to answer a question posed during lecture and turn in the answer at the end of class. Each correct answer earned a student a point on his or her final exam grade.

“We have roughly between 80 and 90 percent attendance, although just based on the lecture hall, it’s hard to tell. On the whole, [the Break-Out system has] definitely kept the lecture hall full,” Heller says.

But according to one student, the Break-Outs don’t help with the sleepiness experienced in lecture itself.

“I was in Life Sciences 1a one day, sitting in the last row as usual, and I look behind me, and sprawled out on the floor are kids! And what are they doing? They’re sleeping,” says the student, who asked to remain anonymous because the final exam and final grades in the course have not yet been given. “I wish I had the courage they had, but no—I sleep in my seat instead.”


Heller and Chang suggest that they may modify the order in which material is introduced and use different textbooks when the course is offered again next fall.

The instructors also hope to be better prepared for high course enrollment. The course planners had anticipated that between 350 and 500 students would enroll, resulting in about 10 students per section. Because a total of 467 students are taking the class, section sizes this fall hover around 12. More students than expected signed up for the class after shopping period, and few students dropped the course.

“It is tempting to speculate that the fairly steady enrollment in the course may reflect its ability to spark the curiosity and maintain the interest of our students,” Liu writes.

And overall, Life Sciences 1a staff members have been pleased with the first run of the course.

“I think that I’d like to say that the course has gone well, but ultimately that’s going to be up to the opinion of the students,” Chang says. “We’re certainly very appreciative of the patience of the students.”

Liu says it has been a joy to watch students becoming enthusiastic about the course.

“It has been very gratifying to witness a students’ interest in the natural sciences blossom during the course, or to observe an ‘a-ha!’ moment in which a student struggling to understand a key concept suddenly puts all the pieces together,” he writes. “These moments are what make our jobs unique and wonderful.”

—Staff writer Elaine Chen can be reached at