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Stanford undergraduate class authors paper on Zika

Last spring quarter, Erin Moredcai, PhD, taught her first class at Stanford, an introductory seminar on infectious disease. If anyone assumed Mordecai, an assistant professor of biology and member of Stanford Bio-X, would play it safe the first time around, she proved them spectacularly wrong.

In February, she and her students – mostly first years – co-authored a paper, published in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, based on the research they did in class. Their findings blended several disciplines and included direct correlations between the spread of the virus and poverty, deforestation and natural disasters.

From the very beginning, Mordecai said the students were extremely enthusiastic about their research. As she explained in a recent Stanford News article:

I was really pleasantly surprised by the level of student buy-in and focus. It was never a struggle to generate discussion or get people to participate. In fact, a couple of students did additional projects to contribute to the class beyond what was required.

(This video from Jenny Kim, Stanford ’19, is an example of one such project.)

Although it wasn’t presented as an inevitability, Mordecai made sure the students understood that publication was possible. The topic of the class was the spread of Zika. This subject was still being covered as breaking news but had a fairly small amount of background literature, which meant the students could quickly develop expertise while also learning how to work with new research.

Mordecai optimized class time by assigning comprehension quizzes and conducting a mid-quarter evaluation, with guidance from the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning. At the end of the course, the class’s top writers were invited to apply for lead authorship of the final publication. Sofia Ali, a first year in the class, was eventually chosen for the job. Ali and Mordecai spent the entire summer getting the paper just right. It was a special opportunity for Ali, who said:

It was intense but also very formative. Mordecai was really great at explaining why her suggested changes were necessary or important. She also let me have a say in how I thought the paper should be structured.

This spring, Mordecai will teach the seminar again, this time using mathematical modeling to study how climate change affects mosquito-borne diseases.

Previously: Keeping mosquitoes in check to prevent widespread disease and Talking about the Zika virus
Photo by L.A. Cicero

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