COOL CLASSES: “Perspectives in Biology: Poisons, Plagues, Pollution, and Progress”

A biology course for non-majors that focuses on the various nodes of intersection between poisons—found in nature and man-made—and the history of human misery, including contemporary issues, such as the Ebola outbreak in western Africa.

Class name: “Perspectives in Biology: Poisons, Plagues, Pollution, and Progress”

Taught by: Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology Justine Melo


Here’s what Melo has to say about the course:

This class focuses on the various nodes of intersection between poisons—found in nature and man-made—and the history of human misery. We review the catastrophic effects on human physiology of the plagues that have cycled through our population every few decades, often decimating our numbers as a species. We also discuss the modes of poisoning contrived of our own making—such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010 and its subsequent mop-up effort. We envisage future scenarios in which our species will have to face the action of poisons and plagues, and the various defense strategies our bodies (and our technology) will deploy in hopes of survival.

This semester we are mainly focusing on contemporary issues, such the current Ebola outbreak in western Africa, what we understand about Ebola on a basic molecular level, and our very restricted medical powers to combat it, the meningitis “outbreak” that caused a scare among college campuses last year, and how typical U.S. vaccine approval procedures were circumnavigated in the urgency to stem its spread. I want students, who are all non-majors in biology, to gain some molecular understanding of the modes of warfare between pathogenic microorganisms and ourselves, both our natural immune defenses and our medical technology. I also want them to gain some understanding of how medicines are made and approved for use in America society—what the process is and some of its successes and missteps.

I study the related topic of how dangerous pathogens and poisons are detected by our bodies and defended against. Our bodies can’t see such minuscule, but potent, dangers in the traditional sense—yet our cells have developed methods of detection of environmental hazards both living and inert through millennia of evolution surrounded by them. The nature of molecular warfare between competing organisms in the effort for survival is both complex and extremely clever. I want students to develop some general understanding of these processes that we never see.


See what other courses the Biology Department is offering this semester.


Photo of scanning electron microscopic image of Ebola virions courtesy of Wikimedia Commons from Charting the Path of the Deadly Ebola Virus in Central Africa. PLoS Biol 3/11/2005: e403 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030403.

  Cool Classes is a recurring series on the Haverblog that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford College experience.