Sunday, August 30, 2015

"Never Really Alone" with Rob Dunn

The summer is sprinting away, leaving me behind!  Tomorrow, the 31st of August, is the first day of classes for Fall 2015 at the University of Puget Sound.


This semester, as I have been discussing in prior posts, I will be teaching Microbiology to 16 hopefully avid "Micronauts" (juniors and seniors).  In addition, I will be teaching a freshman writing course revolving around ideas in symbiosis and parasitism, which I call "Never Really Alone."  Here is the course description.

Last Fall---the first time I taught SSI-165A---we had quite a wonderful class, and were fortunate to have a number of leading experts in the study of symbioses and parasitism "televisit" my classroom.  My previous posts are a testament of the willingness of some awfully famous folk to do "outreach" to my freshmen, and I am quite grateful.

The last of our speakers last Fall was Dr. Rob Dunn of North Carolina State University.  Rob's willingness to chat with my class was a particularly big deal to me, since he is the author of one of the books I use in my course, the compulsively readable "The Wild Life of Our Bodies:  Predators, Parasites, and Partners That Shape Who We Are Today," which is wonderful proof of what I try to teach my freshman:  that we are all walking ecologies!

Rob Dunn studies a dizzying array of systems, and has brought together quite a group of researchers to investigate them, as a look at his  blog website and laboratory website amply demonstrate:  belly button microbes, ants in unusual places, tracking housecats, life in the dust of our homes, microbial components in beer, heartbeats...and the small mites that live on our faces.  

Biodiversity everywhere!

One of the things that Dr. Dunn and his coworkers have studied recently are those fascinating and odd Demodex face mites that we all have.

As you might expect, this topic gained a lot of interest.  Not only did the Dunn lab find that we all carry these tiny passengers on our very faces, but that there is more than one species resident!

Ed Yong wrote a wonderful summary of some of the work that Rob Dunn and coworkers have carried out.  We are truly never alone!

As in previous "televisits," I had my freshmen students read some of the work of Rob Dunn, and come up with questions that I sent to him. Then, Dr. Dunn visited our class via "Google Hangouts" and discussed those questions with my class.  The students, and yours truly, were very, very lucky.  Here is that visit.

It is no secret that I adore having students explore science using nontraditional, even artistic, approaches.  One young woman in our class made some plastic models of Demodex, as you can see below.

One of the questions that seemed to interest/concern my students about Demodex is how they spread from person to person.  At one point, Dr. Dunn suggested that they might fly through the air like dust motes.  This inspired the young woman in class to try to represent a paratrooping Demodex!

It was a truly memorable session, and a wonderful speaker and topic to finish up that series.  As before, my students created a "thank you" poster for Dr. Dunn.

And the artistic friend of one of our students created a sketch of Rob Dunn to commemorate the visit.

So in all, I really enjoyed teaching "Never Really Alone," and the "televisiting" speakers remain a big reason.  The students agreed.  I hope that, if nothing else, I gave them an appreciate of the "wild life" that make each of them into walking ecologies!

Many, many thanks to Rob Dunn and the other visiting speakers: Jack Gilbert, Ed Yong, Margaret McFall-Ngai, and Seth Bordenstein. 

Tomorrow, I begin teaching the course again to a new crop of freshmen---I wonder whom I will be able to coax into televisiting to bring new ideas to these wonderful freshmen?  And to increase my own sense of wonder as well, of course.

Teaching science is a very, very satisfying profession with classes like my own.

Onward to the new semester!

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