Classroom lessons on contagion couldn’t have been more timely

Professor Paula Kavathas (top row, center) teaches “Immunity and Contagion” over Zoom.
Class is in session: Professor Paula Kavathas (top row, center) teaches “Immunity and Contagion” over Zoom.

Thanks to a course on “Immunity and Contagion,” Yale sophomore Philena Sun knows about the function of antibodies in the human body, making many of the news stories she is reading about recovery from COVID-19 more comprehensible.

It’s been really helpful to understand how COVID-19 is triggering the body’s immune response,” says Sun. “It’s also been useful to understand what antibody tests mean, as well as some of the jargon that has been going on in the news.”

For a decade, Paula Kavathas, professor of laboratory medicine and immunobiology, has taught “Immunity and Contagion” for first- and second-year undergraduates who are not majoring in sciences. This spring, with the world in the grips of the pandemic, many of her students related more deeply to the course material, she said.

I combined immunology and microbiology in one course because non-science majors don’t take many science courses, and I wanted them to learn both about infectious diseases and the immune system that has evolved to fight pathogens,” said Kavathas, who is also professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology. “How the immune system develops a way to fight different types of microbes never seen before and develops memory of a previous microbe in order to make a stronger response upon reinfection is fascinating.”

Paula Kavathas
Paula Kavathas

Kavathas entered the field of immunology as a graduate student in the 1970s at a time when it was not yet even a defined area of study. She was at Stanford University as a postdoctoral fellow during the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and was among the scientists trying to determine the causative agent of the disease and how to keep the blood supply safe. She saw the devastation of AIDS firsthand and the breakthrough in immunology that allowed HIV to be identified and then managed. Ever since, Kavathas has actively promoted education in immunology and infectious diseases.

Kavathas spends the first half of her course examining how the immune system works; in the second half she discusses a different microbe each week and its immune system response, covering those responsible for the 1918 flu epidemic, polio, HIV/AIDS, and human papillomavirus, among others.

Some of my students are a little afraid of science, so while I teach from the perspective of biology, I also incorporate relevant art and literature in order to provide cultural and historical perspectives on infectious disease,” said Kavathas.

To illustrate the impact of HIV/AIDS, for example, Kavathas typically takes her students to the Yale University Art Gallery to see Hunter Reynold’s 1990s photo quilts from his “Blood Spot” series, featuring newspaper clippings from the epidemic’s height, along with other artists’ works. A board member of the Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, she regularly employs active learning techniques, such as having groups of students act out a scientific principle such as how the immune system recognizes a cell infected with a virus from a non-infected cell.

For her current class of 45 students now meeting on Zoom, Kavathas adapted some of her teaching to align with what is most on her students’ minds: COVID-19 and its impact.

This very quickly became my most urgent class,” said Hero Magnus ’22. “On the first day of ‘Zoom University,’ all 45 of us reported on how COVID-19 was progressing in our respective cities, which was an incredible map-drawing of the epidemic. I am grateful to be studying this topic right now and to have such immediate access to information … even when that information is scary.”

Class readings included selections from “I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life,” about the symbiotic relationship many organisms have with microbes, and “Polio: An American Story,” which documents the epidemic in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s and the production of a vaccine for the disease.

It gave me a lot of insight into the scientific process with regards to producing a vaccine — which is insanely relevant today,” Jacob Alvarado ’23 said of the book about polio. “We read that book before COVID-19 had altered our lives really, so I thought it was crazy to read that entire towns were shutting down because of polio. But that is what is happening now.”

The course has helped David Hou ’22 calm some of the worries of his immigrant parents, who “are more prone to misinformation” and “have often reacted with irrational fear with regards to the virus,” he said. “[W]ith the knowledge of this course, I’ve been able to help my family and myself understand what is fact and fiction, and what is or isn’t a reasonable course of action.”

Toward the end of the course students made small-group presentations on topics they chose, such as Ebola, the bubonic plague, food allergies, autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, vitamins and the immune system, and sexually transmitted infections.

James Barringer ’22 and I gave a presentation on art and infectious disease,” said Hero Magnus ’22. “He researched contemporary art about COVID — what people are doing right now — and I researched the way that infectious disease has been portrayed in art throughout history. Most art, from the Black Plague to the 1918 pandemic, focuses so much less on the physical symptoms of what is happening to individuals and bodies than on the social consequences: isolation, grief, blame, scapegoating, societal breakdown, stigma, government action. [T]hese diseases … are experienced collectively. It makes me feel less alone.”

Since many of her students have experienced isolation and grief since the campus shutdown, Kavathas hoped to brighten their day during the twice-weekly Zoom classroom sessions. She asked student musicians in the class to offer short virtual performances and polled the class members on what they might have done to help someone else during the week, for example. Sophomore Sam Pekats described the class as “a ray of sunshine during cloudy times.”

In addition to confirming the importance of vaccinations, Alvarado said the most important course takeaway for him is that good science takes time.

While we may want to instantly know everything about COVID-19, this is impossible,” he said. “Like with anything related to science, we need to go about our discoveries in a methodical, calm fashion to ensure their validity.”

Kavathas hopes that the teachings of her class will stay with students long after the pandemic subsides.

Yale students,” she said, “need to be scientifically literate not only to help them personally but also because as future leaders they will be making decisions that affect all of us.”

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Part of the In Focus Collection: Yale responds to COVID-19

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Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324