Eric Wieschaus — Teaching

(Image from MPI-CBG Dresden)

LC: You mentioned that at EMBL you had no teaching responsibilities. Coming to Princeton, I don’t know if they made you but you definitely started teaching, and I think now you’re involved in a class called An Integrative Quantitative Introduction to the Natural Sciences. 

EFW: Right, that’s me. 

LC: I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about how your teaching career has developed. 

EFW: I think often what happens when you’re an assistant professor is they’ll hire you and the senior people in the department want to take care of you and want you to be successful so they either will try to protect you from teaching or they will give you upper level teaching courses where you are able to teach the latest, hottest, new stuff to upperclassmen or graduate students. That’s something that happens, and it happened to me. 

It was a little more complicated, not quite like that, but I think around twenty years ago, I got involved in two teaching efforts and both of them were at the early undergraduate level–freshmen. I do two courses: in the fall I teach in the integrated program, and I was one of the founders and the original faculty of the integrated program here, and in the spring I teach Molecular Biology 101 which fulfills the Princeton science credit for non-science majors. I and another professor Bonnie Bassler built this course that is “from DNA to human complexity” (laughs). So we do basic molecular biology and try to relate it to things that matter as humans–your personality, your immune system, viruses, behavior, things like that. And then the integrated program, I teach kind of the biologist’s perspective on things. 

And in both those courses I end up teaching lots of stuff that I don’t know, or that I kind of know but that I have to teach myself. But it’s also because I’m not teaching to the majors in our department and I’m not teaching to med school exams. I basically have to decide what is the most interesting thing about the immune system that I can tell somebody about. Or what’s the most interesting thing about human behavior and aggression, you know, how do scientists think about that? So that aspect is the good side of having to teach stuff that you don’t know and you have to train yourself to know. 

And so I do both of those things. It’s interesting–there’s not a lot of difference between deciding what you’re going to tell future physics or computer science majors about what’s the interesting things in biology and what you’re going to tell a history or religion major what are the interesting things in biology. There’s a certain overlap in the lectures that I do in those two courses. I’m very conscious of that, it’s kind of funny. Because you think future physics majors must be really smart and humanities majors may be smart but they’re probably not terribly interested in what you’re trying to do. You’d think that they’d be two different populations but they’re not. When you teach, they’re not so different. 

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