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After 40 Years, One Last Hurrah

Professor Joseph D. Brain stands before a chalkboard in a photo taken between 15 and 20 years ago, by his estimate. Brain will teach his course "The Human Organism" for the final time this spring.
Professor Joseph D. Brain stands before a chalkboard in a photo taken between 15 and 20 years ago, by his estimate. Brain will teach his course "The Human Organism" for the final time this spring.
By Madeline R. Conway, Crimson Staff Writer

When Joseph D. Brain delivered the first lecture of his new physiology course “The Human Organism” in 1971, scientists had not yet eradicated smallpox, profiled DNA, or discovered HIV.

The men and women who filled the seats of Brain’s classroom that first day had only just begun living in the same residential Houses months before. And when they signed up for his class, these undergraduates enrolled under the old General Education curriculum, which would not be superseded by the new Core Curriculum for another eight years.

On Monday, more than four decades later, Brain delivered his first lecture of another semester of the course now titled Science of Living Systems 17: “The Human Organism”—for the 40th and final time. Brain, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, has decided this semester’s offering of the course will be his last as he plans to devote more time to research. He has only skipped one year of teaching the course since its inception.

Despite the changes that have swept the scientific community and Harvard’s campus since the course was first offered more than 40 years ago, the fundamental mission of the class has remained unchanged: to make “The Human Organism” relevant to topics in public health, undergraduate interests in the humanities and social sciences, and current events.

SCIENCE WITHOUT BORDERS

In 1971, two years after joining the faculty at the School of Public Health, Brain decided that he wanted to teach undergraduates to think more critically about public health. At the time, he felt that College students lacked knowledge about the discipline, which he believed had important connections to subjects beyond medicine or even science.

“The context is that health really is a big deal. Whether you feel well or if you get certain diseases, it’s a huge part of our life, and it’s a huge part of the economy,” Brain said in an interview last week. “I really want people to understand the determinants of health: of their own individual health, of the people of the United States, global health.”

From the beginning, Brain sought to use the lecture component of the course to emphasize connections between his subject material and public health trends. But about ten years into teaching the class, he altered its structure to better reflect that goal.

He introduced topic sections devoted to exploring a specific subject, such as tuberculosis or obesity, into the section component of the course. Students in topic sections choose a focus within that subject and work toward writing a term paper.

Undergraduates who have taken the course say that the topic sections have given them a new perspective on public health. Rebecca A. Betensky ’87, a former student in the course, translated her topic section into a career path. Though she originally took Brain’s course to fulfill a Core requirement, her section on epidemiology helped her fine tune her interest in math into a passion for biostatistics.

“That was really enlightening to me,” Betensky said. “It was really exciting for me to see some applications of math in medical and scientific research, so that really sparked my interest in biostatistics.”

Betensky went on to get her Ph.D. in the subject. She is now a professor of biostatistics at the School of Public Health.

JACKS OF ALL TRADES

Brain has also sought to make his course relevant to non-science undergraduates. He says it is not designed for science students and estimates that only about 15 to 20 percent of students enrolled in the past have studied math or science.

Nancy C. Long Sieber, a longtime instructor for the course who once taught a topic section on battlefield medicine, said “The Human Organism” offers students the chance to explore diverse interests.

“It’s always impressive to me how health and biology and medicine touch these parts of people’s lives,” Long Sieber said. “Kids coming from very diverse backgrounds will find something interesting about the class, [whether a] government major, history—even if you’re studying French literature. There’s always something there that’s going to...have something to do with public health.”

Long Sieber is an adjunct physiology lecturer at the School of Public Health and currently co-teaches the course with Brain and Stephanie A. Shore, a senior lecturer on physiology at the School of Public Health.

Students who have taken the course over the years say that they have been able to examine topics in the humanities and the social sciences from a new perspective. Ana I. Mendy ’09 took “The Human Organism” as a sophomore to fulfill a Core requirement, but she ended up finding the topic section and the research she conducted for her term paper useful for a much larger project—her senior thesis.

Mendy, a history concentrator, had already been contemplating writing a thesis on the Haitian Revolution when she studied battlefield medicine for her topic section in Brain’s course. While writing her term paper on Haiti, she read literature that ultimately served as groundwork for her thesis research.

“That’s why I really liked [the class],” said Mendy, who is a former Crimson editorial writer. “It’s not only that the class was friendly for people who were not in science, but it was also a class that allowed you to do applied science to whatever you’re excited about, which in my case was history.”

CONNECTIONS IN REAL TIME

While striving to connect the course to themes in public health and students’ other academic interests, Brain has also sought to make his course timely.

According to current head teaching fellow Jennifer L. Garza, Brain continually revises the course to relate it to current events. In 2009, when a swine flu outbreak led to fears of an international pandemic, Brain adjusted his curriculum to devote time to covering the disease.

“He’s really good about adjusting from year to year what he teaches in order to be really relevant and capture the interest of the students,” said Garza, who is entering her fourth year teaching the course as a teaching fellow. “I think he is a fundamental part of setting the tone of the class.”

Long Sieber also lauded her colleague’s skill in making his subject material relevant across time and discipline.

“I’ll miss his enthusiasm, his wide range of knowledge, his ability to just move from one topic to another and see connections,” Long Sieber said. “[Brain] can find relevance in things that I just think are two different subjects. It’s a really hard thing to replace.”

Long Sieber, who works in an office right door next to Brain, said she hopes to continue teaching the course in the future, even as soon as 2015.

“[I want] to continue to make it the very relevant and timely course that he’s managed to maintain for all these years,” Long Sieber said.

—Staff writer Madeline R. Conway can be reached at mconway@college.harvard.edu.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: Jan. 30, 2013

An earlier version of the caption accompanying a photo related to this story incorrectly stated that Harvard School of Public Health Professor Joseph D. Brain has taught “The Human Organism” for nearly 30 years. In fact, Brain has offered the course each year for 40 of the past 41 years.

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