It’s important to recognize the biological underpinnings of big killers like AIDS, malaria, and influenza, but it’s also vital to understand the economic, political, and social aspects of these public health threats.
That’s what biology professor Devavani Chatterjea’s first-year course AIDS, Malaria, Influenza: Ancient Pathogens in a Brave New World is all about. This semester marks the first time she’s taught the class; previously she’d presented some of the same information in a community and global health course. “This class uses the lens of AIDS, flu and malaria to focus on the globalization of health,” says Chatterjea. Global and community health is a newly popular concentration among Macalester students.
By having her twenty-some first-year students work with Open Arms Minnesota, an HIV/AIDS food program, she also brings a community engagement component into the classroom. Students work in Open Arms’ farm fields, kitchen, and delivery areas before the semester is over. “This work puts a face on the issues we’ve been talking about in class,” says Lucy Westerfield ’15 (Denver). “These issues can get really abstract and disconnected sometimes, so the direct personal connection is important.”
The fact that the course combines the public health aspects of infectious disease with the biology has been key for Lucas Smith ’15 (Lawrence, Kansas). “My main takeaway is that the science is really important,” says the political science major. “As a policymaker you have to be able to look at the science and understand it to see what the most effective policies would be and where the money should go.”
The opportunity to read compelling mainstream literature has been a fun part of the class for Jyothi Dhanwada ’15 (Cedar Falls, Iowa). Students have read (and performed group skits from) AIDS Sutra: Untold Stories from India and also have read Flu by Gina Kolata, The Fever by Sonia Shah, and Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl Wu Dunn.
As they’ve had class discussions, performed skits, and prepared meals together, the group has grown closer. It also helps that theirs is a residential first-year course, meaning that they live together on the same dorm floor. “Residential first-year courses provide a sense of community that’s really tangible,” notes Chatterjea. “They come from a wide range of experiences and backgrounds but as they live and work and adjust to college together, they weave that into learning in the classroom in a unique way.”
Closeness also lends to deeper and more honest classroom discussions, says Westerfield. “It’s nice to be in an environment where you can offer a different opinion from the majority,” she says. “I really believe in the importance of having your views challenged and learning to think about things in a different way.”