Exploration of Genetics and Genomics


Discoveries of the genomes of literally thousands of organisms inhabiting this planet have facilitated renewed emphasis on the study of life and its meaning in the social sciences and humanities as well as in the life sciences. For every individual, experiencing and living the implications of such scientific discoveries depends on understanding the social and personal complexity embedded within the many contexts and filters applied to genomic information – in research labs, computer science and data management, quantitative biology, ethics debates dealing with emerging technological capabilities, genome databases, social interactions, and policy deliberations. The goal of this cluster is to introduce and explore areas of genome research and analysis. Specifically, students will explore the computational, environmental, microbial, and ethical issues, respectively.  In the courses, students will devote significant time to reading and discussing the primary scientific literature, as well as interacting via small group activities, including computer programming and journal club-style presentations. This cluster is designed for students with widely varied interests to potential STEM majors who want to incorporate basic science, biomedical, computational sciences, and ethical/societal implications into their future academic and career plan.


Molecular Genetics and Microbiology 120FS/Public Policy 186FS — Ethics of Genome Research (EI, STS, SS)

Susanne Haga

Susanne Haga, Associate Professor at Duke University School of Medicine, Center for Applied Genomics and Precision Medicine

This course will examine the ethical implications raised by genetic and genomic research.  Students will gain an understanding of historical basis of human subjects protections in the U.S., the ethical pillars of research, and the issues that arise from genetics and genomics research. Case studies in genomics research will be used to illustrate various ethical implications. Reading will consist of review papers of the history of human subjects protections, federal regulations of human subjects protections, actual informed consent documents, and scientific papers from the primary scientific literature to illustrate the nature of modern research in this field. 

Environ 148FS/ Science and Society 138FS — Genomics of Host-Microbe Interactions: The Symbiotic Web (NS, R, STS)

Jennifer Wernegreen

Jennifer Wernegreen, Lee Hill Snowdon Associate Professor, Environmental Sciences and Policy, Nicholas School of the Environment 

Genomic approaches have uncovered a microbial world of astonishing diversity, including numerous microbes that interact with hosts.  Our own bodies contain 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells and 150 times more bacterial genes than human genes.  A deeper appreciation of microbial interactions is revolutionizing our understanding of life’s history, ecology, and human health.  This course will explore how hosts and microbes affect each other’s genomes, trajectories of parasitism and mutualism, ecological significance of microbial symbionts of plants, fungi, and animals, as well as molecular and cellular mechanisms of homeostasis.

Chemistry 190FS - Microscopic Phenomena in the Macroscopic World (NS, STS, W)

David N. Beratan
Jonathan Schultz

David N. Beratan, R.J. Reynolds Distinguished Professor of Chemistry

Jonathan Schultz, Postdoctoral Fellow, Chemistry

In this Focus course, we will explore how the macroscopic world emerges from the quirky nature of the microscopic realm. We will employ a bottom-up approach to learn how both natural (i.e. photosynthesis, enzymatic activity) and artificial (i.e. energy harvesting, quantum computers) technologies rely on properties on the molecular level. Through group discussions, research projects, and debates, we will collaboratively engage with topics and critically assess fundamental questions that have continued to baffle humanity for over a century. This concept- and idea-based course is inclusive of students from all backgrounds and prior educational experiences. Students are not expected to major in chemistry (or even STEM), but rather they should have an interest in how the universe works and how the microscopic realm can have nearly unimaginable impacts on the macroscopic world.

Biology 128FS - Evolutionary Genomics: Who are we, where have we been, and where are we going? (NS, STS)

Anne Yoder

Anne Yoder, Braxton Craven Distinguished Professor of Evolutionary Biology; Professor of Biology; Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology

The genomics revolution has generated huge datasets that allow us to gaze into our past, present, and future in ways that were beyond imagining when Darwin's theory of Natural Selection was introduced to the world more than 150 years ago.  The unification of genomic data, bioinformatic analysis, and evolutionary theory has transformed our understanding of human history, our place within the Tree of Life, and the impact that our species is having on those with whom we share the planet.  Evolutionary genomics has also allowed powerful new insights into human vulnerabilities to disease pandemics, their origins, and their likely trajectories.  This course will draw from the primary literature to familiarize students with the multifaceted power of genomics, with a slant towards examining human history and disease from an evolutionary perspective.  When possible, published studies will be read along with reports from the popular press in order to provoke discussion of science communication strategies. Readings will be drawn from a wide variety of sources, from some published more than a century ago, up through the contemporary popular press.  As 50% of your grade, students will be responsible for choosing a relevant topic for scholarly exploration and evaluation.  The results of this project will be presented in both written (a critical essay) and verbal (a class presentation) formats.