“Working with your hands is a very powerful way of learning and internalizing things,” says biology professor Robin Shields-Cutler. That’s why students in his upper-level microbiology class spend a couple sessions in the Idea Lab crafting pathogens by hand. Working in teams, students use felt, fabric, and other materials to create pathogens like the Zika virus and Ebola. This semester, he expects coronavirus will be a popular craft choice.

“My only real requirement is that this model somehow depicts something about what makes it a pathogen,” says Shields-Cutler. “It’s often something that’s sticking on the outside of the cell that can let it infect the host, or a toxin that it sends out to wreak havoc on the system. A lot of the viruses have spikes on the outside targeted to a specific type of cell—I’ve heard a lot about that mechanism with this coronavirus.”

Students then teach the class about their particular pathogen. “One of the broader reasons I do this is to emphasize that microbes are good,” says Shields-Cutler. “We’re raised in terms of germs and disinfecting everything, especially in times like this, when in reality, the immense, overwhelming majority of microbes are harmless, if not beneficial, and we would not exist without them.”

Shields-Cutler worked with Eric Carroll, an assistant professor of art and art history, to photograph students’ work.

August 6 2020

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