New MIT Class: “COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, and the Pandemic”

New MIT Class: “COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, and the Pandemic”

Sep 21

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Ragon Institute Associate Director Facundo Batista and MIT Professor Richard Young create new MIT Biology public access COVID-19 course.


Image courtesy of MIT Biology and NIAID/Wikimedia Commons


With COVID-19 sweeping the nation and the world, biomedical science simultaneously paused and accelerated in unprecedented ways. Many labs were required to shut down during the first wave, while other labs sprang into COVID-19 research, producing massive amounts of data as quickly as possible in an effort to combat and contain the virus. Researchers have been collaborating as never before, sharing data as soon as they generate it. Trying to wade through and understand the information has been, to quote an oft-used MIT saying, like drinking water from a fire hose—a hose on full blast trying to put out a global pandemic.


Understanding this data is a formidable task, but Richard Young, PhD, Professor at MIT Biology and member of the Whitehead Institute and Facundo Batista, PhD, Professor at Harvard and Associate Director of the Ragon Institute, are here to help. Together, they have created MIT Biology’s new “COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, and the Pandemic” class, with the goal of deciphering and disseminating the best and most promising COVID-19 research and advancements. Each week, a top COVID-19 expert gives a lecture to a class of MIT and Harvard students – and to thousands of others joining the public-access virtual lectures from around the world. 


“When Alan Grossman, head of the Biology Department at MIT, asked me to join Richard Young in developing this undergraduate class for MIT’s fall semester, we realized we could use it as a platform to make the best COVID-19 science and research more accessible – not just to our undergrads, but, given the virtual platform, to anybody with an internet connection,” said Batista. 


“COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, and the Pandemic,” lectures are freely available by livestream (Tuesdays, 11:30 am, EST), and on YouTube. The class is specifically created for non-scientists seeking a deep dive into COVID-19 research. 


Each lecture features a COVID-19 expert speaking on a different topic, ranging from the biology of COVID to the epidemiology of the pandemic to vaccines and treatment. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most difficult part of the class was determining, mid-pandemic, which were the most important advances to include. 


“We knew that the class should include relevant scientific topics like virology and immunology, but with the avalanche of new information on this subject, the challenge was to figure out how to compile the most valuable and up-to-date information on each topic,” said Young. “Well, there are leading experts who we could consult, and that would be the standard approach. But what if we could convince the world’s top scientists in each of these topic areas to do the teaching themselves?”   


After careful consideration, Young and Batista began inviting potential speakers. Would Anthony Fauci be available for an hour-long lecture to a class full of undergraduates and virtual learners? Would Bruce Walker and Eric Lander, directors of the Ragon Institute and the Broad Institute, respectively, two institutes that were leading scientific charges against COVID-19, be able to find the time to contribute in the middle of a pandemic? 


The answer, from all thirteen invited speakers, was a resounding yes. 


 “I was honored to be able to give the opening lecture,” said Bruce Walker, MD, Director of the Ragon Institute. “It was an opportunity to share the incredible work done by our research community, and more importantly, it allowed me to help people everywhere make sense of this new virus.” 


Herbet “Skip” Virgin, MD, PhD, Executive Vice President of Research at Vir Biotechnology, added, “This pandemic is a singular event in human history. I feel a duty to work hard to educate the next generation of scientists and policy-makers. Perhaps some in the audience will shape our world and, hopefully, better prepare us for what is to come with the best science, the best medicines, and the most innovative policies.” Virgin will joining the class as a guest lecturer on December 1st, speaking on “Therapeutics discovery.” 


The course quickly became a smash hit, with thousands of people tuning in weekly and even more watching on YouTube. The first lecture, Walker’s “The Biology of COVID,” had over 7,000 attendees, with another 8,000 watching it on YouTube during its first week online. Requests for the supplemental reading list flooded in, and the link to the virtual classroom was widely shared through traditional and social media. Tomorrow’s class, featuring Anthony Fauci speaking on “Insights from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” is expecting an even larger audience. 


More important than the media attention, though, is that each view represents another person who has the chance to learn from world-class experts and to gain information from trusted sources in this time of crisis. 


“Every time I see someone join our class,” Batista said, “I know that we’ve helped another person start to understand this virus, where it came from, how it causes disease, how it spreads. Our goal is to open up the world of research on viruses and immunology. We are here to answer people’s questions, small and large, and hopefully to inspire them to ask new ones.”  


The next class features Dr. Anthony Fauci, lecturing on “Insights from the COVID-19 Pandemic” on Tuesday, September 22, 11:30 a.m. The class can be accessed via this link. Close captioned lectures are made available on YouTube within 3 days of the class.