Pitt Bio Blog
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
Biological Sciences Senior
As a student in science, choosing gen-eds can be a risky business. On top of dense textbook readings, never-ending practice problems to tackle, and lengthy lab reports, no one is looking to spend their free time stressing over gen-ed classes. However, gen-ed courses can often turn into some of the best classes you will take at Pitt! And what’s better? If you choose wisely, you can maximize the reward you get from a course while still directing most of your focus on your science courses.
The obvious advice I can give with regard to choosing gen-eds is to choose something that interests you! However, if you are really stumped as to what to take, look no further! These are some of the best courses that I and other friends have taken to fulfill gen-eds.
Course: ENGLIT 0310: The Dramatic Imagination
Instructor: Dr. Curtis Breight
Gen-eds: BOTH Literature (LIT) and Writing-Intensive (W)
The dreaded W requirement. I think I speak for many in saying that very few people are thrilled about taking a W course. Any W course is going to require a substantial amount of work, however, the Dramatic Imagination was a very painless way to check off this requirement! Every instructor likely has a slightly different take on the course, however, I really enjoyed this course with Dr. Breight. The class consisted of reading five total plays: 2 Shakespearian plays, “Henry VI Parts 2 and 3”, “The Rover” by Aphra Behn, and 2 plays by Pittsburgh-native August Wilson, “Fences” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”. There were three 7-page papers analyzing different aspects of plays that fulfilled the 21 page requirement for W courses.
The course was primarily discussion-based and focused on analysis of the plays. There are also classes where you watch movies which is a perk in my book! The best part about this course is the opportunity to gain an appreciation for literature from Pittsburgh. August Wilson is one of the best-known modern playwrights and, from the Hill District of Pittsburgh, sets many of his plays in Pittsburgh with a focus on life as an African American in different decades of the 1900s. Pittsburgh is rich with culture and history and the opportunity to see some of that history in this course can embellish your education in the city!
Course: HPS 0613: Morality and Medicine
Instructor: Haixin Dang
Gen-Ed: Philosophy (PH)
This course has been one of the most interesting and thought-provoking classes I have taken at Pitt, possibly my favorite ever! This course draws many students interested in medicine and focuses primarily on bioethical arguments in medicine. The course consists of one 4-page paper, a short presentation, a few short-answer quizzes, and an essay-based midterm and final. Each week a different topic in bioethics is covered and students present different ethically rich cases in each of these subjects.
The greatest part about this course is that it challenges you to form your own opinions about difficult topics. An argument for and against each bioethical concern is presented, allowing you to really analyze which aspects of an arguments you agree with and which you disagree. Additionally, the material is presented apolitically, avoiding any biases. This course is also very helpful for students planning to take the MCAT, as some of the critical reading passages on the exam focus on ethics, and having a background in general ethical frameworks can help to more thoroughly grasp the material presented in the passages. All-in-all, I highly recommend Morality and Medicine to anyone looking for a philosophy gen-ed, you won’t regret taking this course!
Bonus: this course counts as one of the requirements for the Conceptual Foundations of Medicine Certificate.
Course: PSY 0105: Social Psychology
Instructor: Edward Orehek
Gen-Ed: Social Science (SS)
Note: this class has a pre-requisite of PSY 0010: Introduction to Psychology
Social psych was another very enjoyable course! Dr. Orehek presented the material in a way that was very interesting, relevant, and made it very easy to learn. This course is the ideal gen-ed, as there is minimal assignments and work outside of class, however, the material is very interesting and even applicable! The course consisted of 3 multiple choice exams (no final!), one 1-page essay, and an optional extra credit assignment. Most of the exams were based on material covered in class - and paying attention in class was the best way to prepare!
This is another great course for students thinking about taking the MCAT, as the class introduces many of the concepts that are sure to show up on the psychology and sociology sections of the test. Even if the MCAT is not in your future, the class is still great and worth taking! You’ll learn a lot about social interactions as it pertains to learning, identity formation, prejudice, and even love and relationships. So if you’re wondering how to ask your lab partner out to dinner, this is the class for you! ;)
Course: MUSIC 1340/AFRCNA 1334: Music in Africa
Instructor: Dr. Eric Beeko
Gen-Eds: International Foreign Culture Non-Western (IFN) & IFC Regional
I have always been very involved with music, so this class was of particular interest to me as I was eager to gain exposure to non-western music through this course. More than simply music, however, this course focuses on African culture and the ways that music is engrained in their life styles. It requires NO prior background in music, so if you aren’t a piano prodigy, no worries, you are still welcome! The class consists of 1 presentation, a multiple choice midterm and final, and an 8-page final paper. Participation is also a large chunk of the grade, and you can get a lot of extra credit by participating in African drumming during class!
Dr. Beeko is very passionate about African culture and music, and his passion makes the class very engaging. Overall, the course is a great opportunity to learn something new and experience the lifestyle of another culture. This course is a great way to get a taste of Africana studies and the course counts as an elective in the Africana studies certificate. After taking this course, some students will go on to pursue this certificate which gives students the opportunity to learn an African foreign language and even study abroad in Ghana, Tanzania, or South Africa! You can learn more about this certificate here.
Check back next semester for more gen-ed recommendations in our blog, or stop by the bio peer advising office hours for questions about scheduling gen-eds that can maximize your experience at Pitt and minimize your workload!
You can check if a course satisfies a specific gen-ed on the Course Descriptions page!
There are (slightly) new gen-ed requirements for students starting Fall 2018 or after – check here.
Sophomore Microbiology Major & Pitt Diver
Look, don't get me wrong. Rosalind Franklin, Jane Goodall, and Florence Nightingale are all great and made tremendous contributions to their respective fields. Truly. But, for this blog posting, I want to shed the light on some biologists who are likely mentioned in your textbook (that you probably don't read all that closely) but seem to be skipped over in lecture.
1. If you're a biology major of any flavor at Pitt, I'm sure you know that phage research is a huge part of our department. We've come a long way, thanks to people like Graham Hatfull, but who pioneered that research? Esther Lederberg is one person. She discovered the lambda bacteriophage, and along with it, the process of the lysogenic cycle. Additionally, she and her husband developed the replica plating technique. It was her husband who won the Nobel Prize in 1958, the year the award was split in half with Beadle and Tatum, but it’s safe to say that the award should have also been shared with her.
2. Many of you are also probably pre-med, pre-PA, or have some other plan that involves being in a clinical setting. More likely than not, you've already spent or plan on spending a decent amount of time volunteering in such a setting. That means you’ll have to be tested for tuberculosis. The reason we are able to test for the deadly infection is because of Florence Seibert, who purified tuberculin. The isolation of this protein allowed for the standardization of TB testing. So next time you get a TB test, you can thank Florence Seibert.
3. I’m sure you’re aware of a neat little tool called CRISPR/Cas9; but, what you may not know is that it was discovered by a woman named Jennifer Doudna, and mechanistically characterized by another woman, Emmanuelle Charpentier. Because of the discovery these two women and their research teams made, we can now very specifically edit genomes. They’ve opened up a whole new world of genetics, and we should give them the recognition they deserve.
4. Of course you know about the work of Mendel, and you probably learned that there are a few significant exceptions to Mendel’s Postulates. Processes such as crossing-over, which isn’t all that rare of an occurrence, produce results that don’t follow Mendel’s rules. In the field of genetics, before Jennifer Doudna, came Barbara McClintock, who began to unravel (ha) genetic recombination by crossing-over. She also uncovered the roles of telomeres and centromeres. Oh, and, one more thing—she discovered transposition in maize. She was rightfully awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1983, and—bonus—it was unshared.
5. To bring this back to viruses, it’s pretty common knowledge that Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) causes AIDS (even your non-bio friends know that). But that knowledge was not always there, and it was only somewhat recently determined by French biologist Françoise Barré-Sinoussi in 1983. Stemming from that initial discovery came many more studies involving HIV, ranging from the immune response to the virus to transmission from parent to child. She’s contributed to over 240 scientific papers and is the co-winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.
So with that, happy Women’s History Month. And to the women who are biology majors, keep it up. We may eventually find your names in textbooks.
Junior Biological Sciences Major
In my “About Me” blog post I briefly touched on my experiences here at Pitt - one of them being my experience with undergraduate research. I decided to reflect on my research experience and hopefully along the way I can give some insight to those of you reading this blog post and thinking about getting involved in research.
The first step to beginning research is making connections with PIs, lab managers, lab owners, or related staff. This can be a tedious and seemingly unrewarding process, but it usually ends up paying off. I will say, however, that you can put yourself on the fast-track into research if you work with the FE-R (First Experiences in Research) office. I never contacted the FE-R office or got involved with them, so I cannot say anything about the process and application to FE-R, but all my friends who have worked with the office have very positive things to say about their experience. If you’re a first year or a sophomore, I would totally reach out to the FE-R office next semester, if possible. I chose not to reach out to the FE-R, and instead I contacted labs by myself – which involved some uncertainty and a good bit of time.
When I went to search and apply for research positions I aimed for one lab: the Vieira Lab in the Salk Pavilion. I found out about this opportunity through the Dental Science Club and began to contact the lab manager in the spring semester of my sophomore year; I was eager to reach out to her. I sent her an email describing my interest in the lab and its publications and inquired about the possibility of working in the lab as an undergraduate researcher. When I hit the send button, the email bounced right back and displayed an error message to the likes of: “The email address you are trying to contact has been suspended from the University of Pittsburgh database”. At this point, I was confused but I decided to try once more. Again, the error message appeared. I thought that perhaps my email client was having issues, so I tried to send the email from my phone and even a different computer. I saw the error message again and again. My attempts at sending emails to the lab manager were useless, so I called the phone number listed on the Vieira Lab webpage. I called once every other day, around 10 AM for four days and never got an answer. On the fifth try, someone answered the phone! I exchanged greetings with the man on the phone and asked about the responsibilities and duties of undergrads in the lab. Then, during the middle of our conversation, the call disconnected. At this point, I was very discouraged and decided it was time to look for a different research opportunity. Still I got no answers for the rest of spring semester.
It was not until the summer that I finally got an email from the Vieira Lab. The email instructed me to call the lab phone once again, so I did. A woman named Elaine picked up and told me all I needed to know about the lab, my responsibilities, and set up an interview with me. She then explained to me why all my emails were rejected and why my phone calls went unanswered. The Vieira lab was going through some serious staff changes. People were coming and going out of the lab, including the lab manager. All that time in the spring semester I was contacting an email address and phone number of an employee that had left with no replacement.
Once summer ended and the fall semester of my junior year began, I started to research with the Vieira lab. I was trained in HIPAA policy, chemical spills, and lab safety and gained UPMC clearance to work with blood-borne pathogens,. Shortly after that I was trained in actual lab procedure. In the Vieira Lab, you can work in a clinical setting, or with various data entry projects. I was trained in both very quickly and effectively. I would also like to add that the Vieira Lab works on multiple projects at once. If I had to estimate, there are 8+ studies/projects being worked on right now in the lab, which creates a really cool environment because everyone is working on something different. One newer project that caught my attention was a collaborative project between the Vieira Lab and some Scandinavian Labs. The project focused on a population (~1000 people) in Sweden and attempted to find the genetic causes of some of the population’s health trends (enamel quality, obesity, etc) when compared to other neighboring populations. With the introduction of this new project, there was talk of training the undergraduates in DNA extraction, isolation, and purification techniques.
As an undergrad working in this lab, I did not lead or assist in one study being done in the lab. Rather, I contributed to all of them. Though every study being done in the Vieira lab is unique, they all require two things: the health records and the DNA of the subjects involved in the study. The undergraduate researchers are responsible for the collection and handling of the biological samples, and for keeping subject databases up-to-date. So, the work of the undergraduates in the Vieira lab help the lab’s PhDs, grad students, and lab aides to work more efficiently. Moreover, when new samples are collected the genomic and health record databases are expanded, it allows for new potential research. This is a unique aspect of the Viera lab. Undergraduate researchers in the lab may not be performing individual research tasks benefiting one research study, like constructing an assay or culturing bacteria. Instead, undergrads perform tasks necessary to the lab, which facilitates the progress of all the research done in the Vieira Lab. The samples and database management my peers and I did enabled research to be done on the relation of smoking habits and dental decay, genetic markers for certain dental conditions and much more.
I have nothing but positive things to say about my lab experience, despite the bumpy start. Unfortunately, I couldn’t work at the Vieira Lab this semester due to schedule conflicts, but I will resume my work there this summer. If there is anything I learned because of this experience, it is that persistence and patience are key with getting started in a research lab as an undergrad. If I had not continued to contact the Vieira lab, I would have never heard back and I would have never seen the exciting work in the Lab or had the chance to meet the wonderful staff in the lab. So, for those of you reading this, if you’re looking for research, keep your head up and contact labs as much as possible. I’m sure you have heard that a bunch, but I cannot stress it enough. It does work! With persistence, confidence, and a genuine interest in the research projects you’re applying to, something will fall into place for you.
Pitt Bio Blog
The Pitt Bio Blog is maintained by the Department of Biological Sciences Advising Office. Posts are authored by our students