#FEMSmicroBlog: Learning about microbes from popular fiction


Integrative learning is a key component in a successful strategy for teaching microbiology to undergraduate students. For many years, Larry Aaronson has employed a fun and diversionary tactic in his courses, requiring the students to read a contemporary novel involving microbiologists and microorganisms as key plot points, and having them tie their learning from the novel to what they learn in class and labs. Read more on this #FEMSmicroBlog post why the author refers to this intervention as “The Novel Approach.” #MicrobiologyInArt

Since the publication of Jurassic Park in 1990, Larry Aaronson found that the incorporation of popular fiction novels in his courses provided students with a new and creative outlet for development of critical thinking skills and integrative learning.

Germ fiction

Over the years, the author of this blog has amassed a considerable library of novels that can be considered as “germ fiction,” and used selected titles effectively in his undergraduate microbiology, virology and immunology courses. These books often involve the intentional release of a pathogen into the population by a microbiologist with an axe to grind whose efforts are generally thwarted by a clinicians or scientists putting their lives in peril for a noble cause. Some of the story lines are unintentionally comical, but that aspect usually keeps the students’ interest as they read about 300 pages of fiction.

Fiction involving pathogenic microbes: good, bad, or ugly ways to incorporate microbiology.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The author of this blog sorted his “germ fiction” library into three categories: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. The Good novels realistically depict microorganisms, their mode of transmission and pathogenesis, while Bad stories may have some valuable microbiological elements, but there are too many implausible aspects of the science to be useful in my courses.  Finally, the Ugly novels describe entirely fictitious microbes or infectious situations, rendering the book completely useless for students. Any story involving a germ that turns someone into a zombie falls into this category.

Reading the novel is just the beginning of the integrative learning process. Early on, students wrote a reflective paper on what they learned from the books and identify any inconsistencies or errors. That worked for a while, but then the author of this blog wanted to find a way to evaluate what the students were learning and thinking about in real time as they read the novels. Having students submit posts to a MicroBlog as they read parts of the book did the trick.

Posts would involve a short synopsis of the story, with a focus on elements of microbiology included in the plot. Students were encouraged to make connections to material they had learned in the lecture and lab parts of the course and discuss any issues they had with the microbiological content. To enhance integrative learning, students were required to search the scientific literature for at least two primary research articles relating to the microbiology in the novel and discuss how the research informed their learning of this topic.

Examples of Good literary work involving microorganisms according to the author of this blog:

  • The Plague Tales (1998) by Anne Benson
  • Contagion (1996) by Robin Cook
  • Vector (1999) Robin Cook
  • Petroplague (2011) by Amy Rogers

Examples of Bad literary work involving microorganisms according to the author of this blog:

  • The Andromeda Strain (1969) by Michael Crichto
  • The Cobra Event (1997) by Richard Preston
  • Darwin’s Radio (2000) by Greg Bear
  • The Han Agent (2017) by Amy Rogers

Examples of Ugly literary work involving microorganisms according to the author of this blog:

  • I Am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson
  • World War Z (2006) by Max Brooks
A personal involvement

One of the unexpected outcomes of this exercise was the way the students got personally invested in the stories. In one instance, some students felt a kinship with a young female graduate student who was doing her best to reverse an environmental cataclysm caused by the unintentional release of a recombinant bacterial strain she created. In other cases they became indignant about the antagonistic behavior of biotech executives and hospital administrators in the stories.

The icing on the cake, however, comes when students comment in their blogs or final course evaluations that they had not read a novel in years and thought this was going to be tedious and boring, but they really enjoyed the stories and learned a lot about microbiology from the experience. Others commented that they were “tricked into learning” through reading the novels.

Coming #MicrobiologyInArt posts will elaborate on the educational value of some of Larry Aaronson’s favorite “Good” recent titles including Petroplague by Amy Rogers (2011; Syntrophus sp.), Vector by Robin Cook (2000; Bacillus anthracis and Clostridium botulinum) and The Cobra Event by Richard Preston (1997; a recombinant viral bioweapon).

About the author

Larry Aaronson is Distinguished Professor of Biology and Harold T. Clark Professor of Microbiology at Utica University in Utica, NY (USA). He earned a BS in Biological Science at Florida State University and a PhD in Microbiology at Rutgers University. He had a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Genetics at the Yale University School of Medicine before joining the faculty at Utica in 1987. Larry has been active with the American Society for Microbiology for 35 years, and served on their Committee for Undergraduate Education for 9 years. Larry was honored with the ASM Carski Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award in 2007.

About this blog section

The section #MicrobiologyInArt will present examples of microbiology in literature, cinema, comic books, songs, graphic art, modern/contemporary art, video(games), photography, dance, and others. A particular focus is on what could people learn from those examples, or how they can raise awareness on microbiology topics, issues, and potentials.

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