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Sit in on Plant and Microbial Biology 24: Microbes Make the World Go Round

Although it is designed for biology majors, Professor Loy Volkman’s freshman seminar Microbes Make the World Go Round is hardly a standard science class. A fusion of biology, philosophy, and history, the course’s curriculum spans from scientific papers to the poetry of Dylan Thomas. Students find themselves building mental bridges between areas that once seemed to exist as stand-alone disciplines.

Volkman’s own experience as a student gave her insight into this idea of interdisciplinary education: “When I went to school, it seemed like every subject was independent of the other. I try not to do this in my own teaching. Biology is a continuum—everything is interrelated.”

Microbes, it turns out, are an especially good model for demonstrating interconnectedness. And they are closer than most of us think, as Volkman’s students learn. Microbes are five times more plentiful in our bodies than human cells. They are the direct ancestors of the mitochondria in our cells and of chloroplasts in plants. By far the most abundant forms of life on the planet, microbes play fundamental roles in maintaining the health of the biosphere. Because of their incredible array of metabolic capabilities, they are at once formidable pathogens, producers of fine wines and cheeses, and humankind’s best hope for pollution remediation.

The class, tailored specifically for freshmen, is an introduction to the world of microbiology and also to some microbial biologists on the faculty at Cal. Over 15 weeks, five professors give lectures, demonstrate lab techniques, and host field trips. In addition, the students tour the campus electron microscope facility and visit Volkman’s research lab to see how reporter genes track viral pathogenesis.

Volkman’s goals are to help freshmen settle into their Berkeley education and, more importantly, to help them “recognize how fundamental scientific thinking is to everyday life.”

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do coming into Cal, until this class,” says junior Alexis Rovner. “I had no idea there were so many fields of biology, so many career paths I could take. But PMB 24 solidified my decision to major in microbial biology. I mean, who wouldn’t want to study about bacteria that can instantly change water into ice?

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-Stephanie Tran

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