New interdisciplinary course brings biology and African American history together

Matthew Trainor

matrainor@ursinus.edu

Ursinus is offering a new course entitled “Biology and the African Diaspora in America.” The course, taught by Dr. Simara Price, brings together the study of biology, and the study of African American history. It will be offered to students with majors outside of the sciences, providing an opportunity for students to experience a scientific course while learning medical social history.

Biology and the African Diaspora offers non-majors an opportunity study biology in a way they can use in their fields. “This has been a personal project for me,” says Price. “The historical context of how science has affected the experience of black people in America has been something I have been passionate about since undergrad.”

Price has always wanted to teach a course that pulls students from fields outside of her direct department, and Ursinus has provided this opportunity. The class will cover evolution, natural selection, and genetics, focusing on concepts such as skin pigmentation. The course will not go as in-depth, however, as standard biology courses would. Instead, Price designed the work to give students information that is pertinent to them.

When designing the course, she asked the following questions: “Do students really need to know all the enzymes in this pathway? Or do they just have to understand how external influences affect this pathway?” Some of the social science and historical aspects will include scientific racism, social race, slavery and its lasting effects on African Americans in the United States. Two of the more specific cases that will be covered are
the Tuskegee Experiment, a government-sponsored clinical study that gave 600 African American sharecroppers syphilis, and Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose cervical cancer cells had an immortal cell line and were surgically removed without her consent. The roots of racism in the United States run deep, and Price hopes to teach students the role of scientists in that history.

Many students hope that classes like these will be offered more frequently for non-majors. The intimidation factor of entry-level biology or chemistry courses is very real, and that impacts decisions of non-major students when choosing their classes. Senior Matt Hartigan, a Media and Communications major, had always been nervous to take science courses at Ursinus over his 4 years. “I waited until my last semester to fulfill my lab science credit because I was so intimidated. This left me with fewer options than I would have liked,” he said.

One other useful feature about the course is that it fulfills the coveted and feared Ursinus lab science credit. For many social studies and humanities majors, popular lab science requirement courses include astronomy and geology, courses taken by second semester seniors for a graduation requirement. This course aims to bring valuable skills as well as a new topic to the lab science requirement, expanding the offering to the Ursinus community. For example, Matt is currently taking a course in the Physics department, Introduction to Astronomy, but said that he wished there were other offerings that he could better integrate with his own studies and experience. He believes that many students on campus have an interest in the sciences but are fearful of trying out the coursework. Offerings like Biology and the African Diaspora offer a crossover between the social sciences and the hard sciences.

Price hopes students learn a number of things from taking
her class. “Of course the social aspects of how biology and science has played a role in the social structures of America, but another thing I want students to take from my course is the ability to identify reputable sources and utilize web sites for research,” she said. “I want students to be able to pull from their experience in this class years down the line, and to have an understand- ing of their own experiences.”

Students outside of the science departments should definitely take a look at what Biology and the African Diaspora can offer. If you have interest in biology, history, African American studies, or anything related, this course may be for you.

Course registration this year is from, April 8-21. Check the UC website for more information.