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My First MOOC Course from MIT

Certificate of Mastery

I recently completed my first online course and because the course has relevance to my day job, recruiting for biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, I thought I would relate my experiences here in this blog. The course was one of those MOOC courses that everyone is talking about now. A good article about these online courses can be found in the NewYorker Magazine by Nathan Heller,” Laptop U- Has the Future of College Moved Online?” The course I took was put together by edX and was called MITx 7.00 Introduction to Biology- The Secret of Life taught by Professor Eric Lander of MIT, Harvard and The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Lander was one of the principal leaders of the Human Genome Project. In this post I will explain my motive for taking the course, what the course covered, my experience of taking an online course, and what I got out of the course.

I took the course for several reasons. Most importantly I wanted to update myself on a lot of biology and biochemistry that has been discovered since I graduated with a BS in Biology from the University of Minnesota 40 years ago exactly this month. This update would help me do a better job understanding the positions I recruit for in the life sciences and it would help me to communicate with my science candidates. Also, as Professor Lander mentioned in his introduction to the course, we are all blasted with medical news everyday and we need to understand and interpret this news. But I especially am involved with the latest news in the field in order to stay current. I read many industry newsletters that flow into my inbox several times a day. I follow scientists, doctors and medical news on Twitter and Google +, and I attend as many life science conferences my time and budget will allow. So if I can better understand all this news it would be a good thing. Lastly, I took the course because I like to challenge my brain. But when I started the course I never dreamed it would be quite such a challenge. More on that later.

The course was very broad and had to cover a lot of material in three months timeframe. Although called an introduction to biology, it really was more a molecular biology, biochemistry, genetics and genomics introduction. Perhaps if those words were used in the title, it would have scared people away. At any rate, this was fine with me as I didn’t need to relearn the taxonomy of fishes or ecology that I covered in my youthful college days. This information wasn’t what was in the news like genomics is. Professor Lander wanted us to understand the Principals of biology and indeed there was very little rote memory of terms involved, like when I was a student. He gave us a quick course in chemistry bonds, proteins, amino acids, DNA, genetics and how these all functioned together under the canvas of genomics. Besides understanding the latest medical news, Prof Lander taught us about DNA fingerprinting and how this is used in forensics to help release prisoners wrongfully incarcerated. He taught us about migration patterns and ancestry, about other human beings, like Neanderthals, and genetic engineering. We learned about the recent gene patent case being reviewed by the Supreme Court right now involving Myriad Genetics.  Some of what he taught us, like about CRSPR (Clustered Regular Short Palindromic Repeats) was only discovered in the last 12 months. Professor Lander made all this easy to understand by giving a good foundation and offering clear explanations in his lectures. His love of genomics flowed from every thing he said and even through his body movements. To have such a renowned scientist in the field of genomics giving his time to lowly undergrads and the masses online was a great gift indeed. He made learning fun.

My personal experience taking the course can be summed up with two words: hard and time-consuming. When I signed up, I never dreamed it would be so hard and take so many hours of my day. The course listed no prerequisites and I thought with a bachelor’s degree in biology I wouldn’t have any trouble keeping up. Ha! Forty years since I graduated means I forgot a lot and had to relearn such things as ionic, covalent, polar and non-polar bonds. Was a molecule hydrophobic or hydrophilic?  The fruit fly genetics brought back my memories of counting thousands of crosses in genetics lab years ago. But was something autosomal dominant or recessive? What about X-linked dominant or recessive? There was so much to remember. Then there was all the new stuff. Professor Lander would always say, “In the ancient days of the 80’s such and such was only known.” Well, my degree in 1973 was prehistoric by comparison. But I was learning cutting edge stuff like already mentioned CRSPRs, or TALENs. The course was structured well to be sure we were retaining all the new knowledge. During a lecture we would stop briefly after a particular segment, and have a question asked in test form, but this didn’t count towards our grade. I found these questions were helpful as they zeroed in on what the instructor thought was important to understand. I should add that running parallel to the video of the lecture was a transcript of the video. This was extremely helpful to be sure you got the proper terminology or meaning. In the old days I had to take handwritten notes and sometimes if the Professor was too quick it was hard to get everything down accurately. I still took hand written notes because I think this helps one retain material better. Accompanying the lectures there were labs with real postdoc students delving in some subjects more deeply or demonstrating some lab technique, like gel electrophoresis. And after lectures there were problem sets that were not just multiple-choice tests asking us to spew back memorized material. These problems made us apply what we learned in lecture. Some of them used software we downloaded to zero in on protein structures and answer questions about them. Or there was software that allowed us to figure out a protein sequence by manipulating the DNA sequence. I even made a fusion protein online. Cool! These problem sets counted toward our grade and had some really challenging questions. Sometimes I spent hours on a problem or two even though I know we were supposed to finish much sooner. I guess my older brain takes a while longer now. But when I clicked “submit” for my answer and I got a check mark that it was correct, I felt elated and was ready for the next problem. Never was I bored. We had two tests, including a midterm as well as a final. One could audit the course by simply listening to the lectures and doing the questions that didn’t count. But I was striving for a Certificate of Mastery, which required one to take all the exams. For a certificate I had to pass with at least 60%. Every time we completed a test you could instantly know your current grade. This motivated me to make sure I kept above the 60% line. Lastly I want to mention the active discussion group we had to turn to whenever we had a question about a test question or the course material. It was helpful when I was stuck on a problem to learn others were too and all I had to do was think about the problem in a certain way. We would get helpful hints, but never the answers.

So what did I get out of the course? Did I accomplish what I set out to do? For one thing, I passed the course and will be receiving my Certificate of Mastery. I really feel this was quite an accomplishment and I am proud of myself. I learned so much and already when I see some piece of news or tweet involving DNA or genetics or whatever I can say, “aha! I get it now”. I realized that when I was looking for a DNA Polymerase expert for a sequencing company I really didn’t understand DNA Replication. In fairness, how could I as so much of the material happened after my college days? Most importantly the course renewed my love of learning and especially biology.  Frankly, I didn’t want the course to end even though it disrupted my work schedule and life with the time needed to complete the course. Will I take more online courses? Most certainly. In fact, I just downloaded one of those Great Courses on the Symphony. This I can take at my leisure and so I will not have to disrupt my life quite so much as this course did.  Oh and I am also actively learning Portuguese using the Pimsleur method as well as Rosetta Stone. I am learning Portuguese because my son married a Brazilian native and my grandchildren are bilingual. I want to be able to be sure they are saying nice things about their grandmother! No seriously, to learn a language you need a native to practice with and I have that built in to my new family members.  But I won’t be taking a online course like the one just completed for awhile because most of my time is used to run my executive search business. But this was a wonderful experience and gave me that taste of learning again. I live a hundred miles from the nearest University and to be able to take a course from a Harvard professor right in my own home was a treat I couldn’t otherwise have experienced without the modern technology of computers and the generosity of these great universities. So no more courses, but I can’t wait for my next exciting recruitment assignment from a biotech, pharma or diagnostics company for a scientist or doctor who needs to be current with the latest discoveries, so I can utilize some of my new found learning.

07/31/13 Update: Finally received my class picture : 7.00x DNA photomosaic. There are over 2,000 pictures of the instructors, including Professor Eric Lander, and all those who passed the course. I am in row 30, 14 from the left  sort of within the DNA lower full unit, between the first and second bar or upper right. It is the same picture I use on my web site on my about page.

06/18/13 Update: I just got my Certificate of Mastery ( see above) . I was one of the 3,291 students to earn a certificate out of the 35,014 students!