COVID-19 scientific leaders share expertise in new MIT class

Course faculty, from left to right: Teaching Assistant Lena Afeyan, Professor Facundo Batista, and Professor Richard Young. Image credit: screenshots courtesy of MIT Biology, graphic by Ceal Capistrano

September 8, 2020

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As the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the globe, bringing everyday life to a screeching halt, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and its affiliates ramped down much of their lab work and stopped teaching classes in person, but refused to come to a stand-still. Instead, they changed tacks and took action investigating the many unknowns of Covid-19 and the virus that causes it — SARS-CoV-2, organizing pandemic responses, and communicating with the public and each other about what they knew.

One result of this period was the advent of a new course, aimed at providing MIT students with information on the science of the pandemic. The MIT Department of Biology tapped two scientists with experience working on pandemics to spearhead a course on “COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2 and the Pandemic,” which began September 1. Whitehead Institute Member and MIT Professor of Biology Richard Young, who had been quick to organize Covid-19 related research efforts, and Ragon Institute Associate Director Facundo Batista, a resident expert on immunology and infectious disease, agreed to lead the course.

The class meets virtually on Tuesday mornings, and a public livestream and recordings are available for anyone who wants to watch the lectures. Students who are taking the course for credit also gain access to a weekly session led by teaching assistant Lena Afeyan, an MIT graduate student in Young’s lab at Whitehead Institute. The session provides relevant background information on the science before the lectures.

Getting students up to speed on what is and is not known about the pandemic is no easy task. The science is complex and, in these early days, full of unknowns. Experts in many fields must pool their knowledge; virologists, immunologists, epidemiologists, public health researchers, clinicians, and more are focused on important pieces of the puzzle. Therefore, Young and Batista reached out to the leaders in all of those fields to give lectures in the course. Students will hear from experts that include the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, as well as David Baltimore (California Institute of Technology), Bruce Walker (Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT, and Harvard), Britt Glaunsinger (University of California, Berkeley), Eric Lander (the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard), Michel Nussenzweig (Rockefeller University), Akiko Iwasaki (Yale University), Arlene Sharpe (Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital), Kizzmekia Corbett (National Institutes of Health), and others at the forefront of Covid-19 efforts. The course faculty agree that the best way to get accurate information to students is to have the experts provide it directly.


Designing the course

For many of the students, Covid-19 may be their first serious encounter with a pandemic, but a number of the lecturers have worked on the AIDS pandemic or other widespread infectious diseases, which they draw on when teaching.

“I like to put the coronavirus in the context of viruses I know better, like flu and HIV and polio virus,” says David Baltimore, the Nobel laureate professor of biology and President Emeritus at the California Institute of Technology who was also the first director of Whitehead Institute and a professor at MIT. However, the scientists’ relevant backgrounds can only help so much. The new coronavirus is a unique and difficult research subject.

“It has no obvious evolutionary relationship to other viruses. It’s got a much longer RNA, many more genes, so more complexity of function, more complexity of genetics, and it’s received relatively little study up until recently,” Baltimore says. “There is a lot more work that needs to be done.” 

When planning the class, Young wanted to give all of the information needed to understand what is likely the first pandemic to powerfully impact the lives of the undergraduates taking the course. His motives were pedagogical — and practical.

“If we give people knowledge of what’s known and not known about the virus, provided by experts whom they trust, they can help us come up with solutions,” Young says.

Young and Batista expect that some of their students will soon be conducting their own Covid-19 research. Batista hopes that this experience will encourage students to think even beyond the scope of the current pandemic.

“I think the US and the Western world have underestimated the risk of infectious diseases because the big pandemics have been happening elsewhere. This class is about bringing people together on Covid-19, and more than that, [it is about] creating a consciousness about the threat of future infections,” Batista says.


Where to start?

The first lecture was given by Bruce Walker, director of the Ragon Institute. Walker provided an overview of the available information, including how the pandemic appears to have started, how the virus causes disease, and what the prospects are for treatment and vaccines. The level of the science is aimed at MIT undergraduates, but because the livestream audience may have different science backgrounds, Walker made sure to define basic terms and concepts as he went. The lecture was attended by 250 students, with more than 7000 people watching the livestream.

Registered students can ask questions during a Q&A at the end of each lecture. Walker addressed students’ concerns about the US response to the pandemic, the risk of reinfection, mutability of the virus, and challenges with new types of vaccines. With the aim of providing accurate information, his answers were not always reassuring. However, in spite of the many uncertainties that the scientists are grappling with, the course faculty’s message for students is an optimistic one.

“People have felt powerless in this pandemic,” Afeyan says. “A course like this can help people feel like they have the tools to do something about it. There is a plethora of problems that will stem from the pandemic so there are lots of ways to get involved regardless of your field.”

 Researchers have banded together across MIT, Whitehead Institute, Ragon Institute, and around the globe to address the pandemic. For students who want to join the research effort, the content of the lectures is paired with discussions during Afeyan’s sessions with researchers earlier in their careers, who can talk to the students about next steps should they choose to pursue one of the fields presented in the course.

As for students and audience members simply looking to understand the public health event that has so strongly impacted their world, the faculty hope that the course will provide them with the answers they need. Scientists are not the only ones dealing with lots of uncertainty these days, and there is value in learning what the experts know as they know it, straight from the source.


Written by Greta Friar

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