The best MOOC ever just ended


This week marks the end of a massive open online course called Introduction to Biology: The Secret of Life. This course, an adaption of human genome unwraveler Eric Lander’s Bio 101 class at MIT, was offered (and may be offered again) by all-star online education platform edX. And as it happened, it consumed my life for three whole months.

I am going to miss it so much.

The principle joy of taking this course was Dr. Lander’s feisty, creative teaching style. I’m sure that I missed out on some things experiencing it on video only, but the elitists who snub MOOCs on this basis forget that most of us are never going to know what it’s like to attend an MIT lecture in person – the effect of a charismatic hologram professor on the student is diluted, but still valuable. I admired Dr. Lander’s manner of structuring the material, which involved tying the textbook material to the historical progress of genetics, biochemistry, and molecular biology. The few MIT chemistry lectures I watched before accepting that I needed to take calculus first followed a similar multidisciplinary-historical approach, suggesting that this may be part of the MIT model of education in general. If so, MIT is awesome.

English: Professor Eric Lander teaching the fi...

Platonic crush ahoy!

I loved how current some of the material was. At one point, Dr. Lander was discussing RNA-induced silencing complexes, and he said “This isn’t in your textbook, but it’s in your body.” That’s how fast the discipline of biology is moving, and that’s the value of having MOOCs in STEM fields. A rockstar prof involved with cutting-edge research is going to have access to the most recent advances and know how to teach about them. S/he will also have amazing stories to tell – this year, Dr. Lander wrote a brief to the Supreme Court regarding the pitfalls of gene patents, and it was cited at the hearing!

Please grant me one more paragraph of shameless gushing: some of the software available with the course was incredibly cool. It allowed students to solve problems involving actual protein structures and genome sequences. Now, there were a few bugs that drove us all crazy in the beginning, but all in all it was a good system – there is nothing like solving a biology problem with a real genome. There is nothing like knowing that one’s homework is real.

I came within five points of earning a full certificate in this course as opposed to an auditor’s certificate, but I didn’t make it. This is only, and I mean only, because I went through a disorganized period in May where I missed the second half of the midterm exam. I guess I learned some lessons about writing things down on my calendar. Depressing, certainly, but I cannot consider it an outright failure, as it is not going to be carved in stone on any transcript. The point of most MOOCs, as they currently exist, is what knowledge one can take away from them; 7.00x was stellar in this regard. I’m happy to take the auditor’s certificate as a souvenir/physical token.

Earlier this year I took a MOOC called Introduction to Genetics and Evolution, courtesy of Dr. Mohammad Noor of Duke University in partnership with Coursera. I did earn a full certificate in that one, as well as two hours of college credit and a distinction badge. When I was banging out Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium problems as part of Introduction to Genetics and Evolution, I remembered thinking, “Wow, I could do this every day for the rest of my life!” Normally statements like this are just hyperbole (“Mmmm, Miss Carrie, I could eat this cornbread every day for the rest of my life!”), but when they concern things like biology, computer programming, sewing, writing, or fixing cars, that’s an inner voice to which one should pay heed. It reminds me of being that little girl who would only listen to fairy tales if her mother replaced all the characters with anthropomorphic viruses and bacteria. Seems I’m still that little girl.

To close with a quote from Dr. Lander’s lecture on gene patents:

There are choices we have to make as a society, and different societies make different choices. It’s done in different ways in different places, and they may value things in different ways. But it’s important that as much as we may focus on alpha helices and proteins and telomerase and things like that, we recognize that what we’re doing does spill out and affect the rest of society, and as scientists, or people just learning about science, it’s important to think about bringing that knowledge to these social questions…That’s what we want people to be able to do, to be able to take knowledge from science and then go apply it to different social situations, combining with real human values. In the end, the values make a big difference to where you’re going to come out. But if you’re not informed by good science, values alone aren’t going to be enough to get you to a good answer.

Indeed, indeed.


Once Were Warblers


It’s Thursday, May 16, and I feel like I’m backsliding into nothingness, into a bog of scatterbrained depression where I fear I may spend the rest of my life. Because of my disorganization I managed to miss the second half of my midterm in MITx biology, putting me in danger of not earning a certificate of completion. Who cares about a certificate of completion? I don’t know. It may be spiritual. Any faltering in an online course, especially if it’s my own fault, seems to me proof that I don’t deserve a second chance and will never amount to anything.

When Primo Levi (one of my favorite writers) was in Auschwitz, he volunteered to take an oral chemistry exam so he could work in a factory and get better rations. After being kept waiting on his feet for ten hours, he was taken into a room with a calm, banal German officer who could easily have condemned him to die. And he, nervous, literally starving, out-of-practice, exhausted, embarrassed of his appearance, and working outside his native language, passed that exam. In chemistry. Which is hard. This is the sort of anecdote that is either inspiring or unbearable depending on one’s situation. Right now it makes me feel like a nematode.

My solace, as is often the case, has avian sources. This past Sunday I went up into the Cumberland Mountains with my family to look for nesting birds. It was a clear, sunny day, surely one of the last cool days of an unusually cool spring, and wildflowers were in bloom all across the forest floor. The leaves on the trees at that altitude were not yet completely unfurled; they glowed light green in the sun. I confess that I separated myself from my family so that I could absorb this bit of Appalachian quietude into my own skin, accompanied by my own thoughts. I heard Northern Parulas buzzing in the treetops, but I could not get a look at them – which is normal, because they are tiny and prefer to stay hidden in the canopy.

After I had absorbed enough Appalachian quietude, I intercepted my search party on the gravel mining trail. My timing was lucky. We ran into a cell of neotropical migrant birds, including a black-and-white warbler (like the one in the photo), a rose-breasted grosbeak, a hooded warbler, a blue-winged warbler, and some Eastern wood-pewees. Our most impressive find in birder’s terms was a blue-headed vireo yelping from the branches of a tuliptree. It was my first blue-headed vireo: life bird #139. Stephen has already blogged the vireo.

There is no failure in birding, except perhaps in the most competitive circles. Finding all the warblers made ours a fruitful outing indeed, yet even if we’d come up empty we could have still wandered among the wild rhododendrons and called it a victorious nature walk. How ironic that bearing close witness to the trials, travails, and little chirping results of evolution is the one thing that frees me from the idea that everything is about fighting and judging and winning and clawing one’s way to the increasingly unattainable American dream and being hard on oneself because that’s what winners do. It’s not that birds are an excuse to be lazy so much as an excuse not to collapse into suicidal depressions over mistakes and obstacles. To both the prophets of old and the secularized geeks of the 21st century, they are a constant reminder that the petty, psychotic social world of human beings is not all that exists in the universe.

First Post: The Python Tightens His Grip

This? Oh, this happened because my Facebook posts were getting too long. Facebook couldn’t handle my realness.

This is not to say that I’m serving any extraordinary amount of realness in regards to my life with technology; in fact, my life with technology has hit a considerable snag in the past two weeks. I am taking an introductory computer science class via Coursera, and I’m finding it almost impossible to get my assignments in on time even though I’m using Python (allegedly the easiest programming language on earth.) It’s mostly the event handlers. Damn you, event handlers! 

It is disquieting to sit down after a lifetime of using computers and be unable to write a simple text-based game. I guess it’s a weakness of my generation: our parents saw how smooth our mouse-handling was in elementary school and decided that we were these savants who didn’t need to be taught anything about how computers actually work. It’s a pity, because computers are extraordinary machines. I recently discovered that the fastest computer in the world, the Cray Titan Supercomputer, is located just a few miles from my hometown. The Cray Titan was not built by 21-year-olds who were content to know how to use Google. I hope I will not have to be content knowing how to use Google. For someone like me, accepting that I don’t know how to handle a computer is much more difficult than accepting that I don’t know how to fix a car.

But if I practiced what I preached, I wouldn’t be on social media right now. I would be on Coursera, romancing the Python.