Microbiology Class Puts Students Under the Microscope

Bacteria: Friend or foe? 

A little of both, and students in the new interdisciplinary course “Microbiology,” offered this semester for the first time, are learning just where the lines are drawn.
“The premise of the class,” says science faculty member Carina Chittim, who designed the course and teaches it, “is that we’re learning the basics of how bacteria work—how they interact with humans, how they live on humans and inside of humans, and how they help keep us healthy but can sometimes also cause disease.” 

The students’ newfound understanding of bacteria leads them to the course’s other crux: antibiotic resistance and the broader implications of antibiotic overuse. “We’re investigating how the widespread use of antibiotics can lead to larger global health crises—both the access and lack of access to antibiotics, and how those two work together to govern global health,” says Chittim. 

Students are starting their studies on the personal level—indeed, on the most personal level possible. To gain insight into the human microbiome, they are beginning by swabbing their own skin and growing what they find in petri dishes. Then it’s on to the microscopes, where the teeming world of common bacteria is revealed. 

“I think the students were very surprised at what they found,” says Chittim. “You can actually see the diversity of bacteria, the different colors and shapes.” 

Chittim herself was unsurprised, having earned a doctorate in human microbiology at Harvard. (Though she did acknowledge that she was “excited that it worked as well as it did,” given our current approach to sanitation.) What makes the whole undertaking possible, she says, is the new laboratory space and equipment in The Revers Center.

“The new research space allowed us to look at more practical applications,” says Chittim. “It allows us to have more specific instrumentation, to be able to do these microbiology labs. We have different tools, such as incubators that allow us to grow bacteria under specific conditions, and new instrumentation that allows us to pour our own petri dishes and create all our tools from scratch.” 

The upshot of that, she says, is that students are “really excited and really engaged with the content, and they’re picking up on techniques really quickly.” And they’re mastering high-level skills: “Creating their own petri dishes—I didn’t do that until grad school,” says Chittim. 

Beyond equipment, the new labs offer the luxury of space. “Although we were able to participate in labs in the old building, the new classrooms allow more of us to work at once,” says Emily Stoller ’21. Says Maggie Leeming ’21, “Overall, there is more room and more access to the necessary material and equipment.” 

An important component of the class is taking that lab work and placing it in a broader context. Thus, the course draws on primary scientific literature as students explore the role of antibiotics in global health. They are also required to digest that information and translate it into plain English. “One part of the final project is communicating, in both written and oral form,” says Chittim. “That’s an important part of scientific research—communicating to those who do not have the same background you have.” 

Stoller says she was drawn to the class because she’s always been interested in science and hopes one day to pursue a career in medicine and public health. “The course offers a deeper look into the field of public health, and microbiology itself, different from any other class I’ve taken,” says Stoller. “Dr. Chittim is the perfect teacher for this course, as she has found ways to connect her microbiology knowledge to the real world.” 

The appeal of the microbiology elective isn’t limited to future scientists. Leeming says she’s “more of a humanities person,” but she saw the course as an opportunity to learn something new—and that seems to have panned out as hoped. “One really cool thing I’ve learned in class is that our bodies have more microbial cells than human cells,” she says. The conclusion, as important as it is inescapable, points toward the value of studying our microbiomes: “Humans are more bacteria than human.”