Human biology class reflects on COVID-19 from social, cultural, biological perspectives

May 31, 2020, 10:43 p.m.

This article is the first installment in a series examining how classes are responding to COVID-19.

Amid COVID-19, Stanford course HUMBIO 114: “Global Change and Emerging Infectious Disease” has seen an abundance of students suddenly take interest; enrollment has nearly tripled in size since last year to 121 students this spring, according to ExploreCourses. Associate earth systems science professor James Holland Jones, teaching assistants (TAs) and students reflected on what it means to study infectious diseases during the time of a global pandemic. 

The course aims to have students pursue varying outlooks on infectious diseases. Students are challenged to think about infectious diseases from perspectives of history, culture and ecology, in addition to analyzing the data itself. 

Jones, a biological and ecological anthropologist, describes his course as “equal parts ecology, evolutionary biology and anthropology, with a healthy dose of reasoning from mathematical models of infectious diseases thrown in.” 

Jones and human biology professor Bill Durham came up with the course in 2004, and began teaching the course together in 2005. After Durham retired in 2018, Jones brought on professor and senior fellow John Openshaw from the division of infectious disease. 

Due to the circumstances, Jones has shifted the focus of the course even more. While still holding an emphasis on the social ecology of the situation, Jones said, “John and I built in multiple COVID-19 updates throughout the term, where we present the state of the pandemic to the class … we also have a class Slack, with multiple channels dedicated to COVID-19.” 

Jones said that while the Zoom format has made teaching more difficult on the whole, the course’s TAs are enthusiastic about helping students learn about infectious diseases. 

Emilia Ling M.D. ’21, a TA for the course, told The Daily that “medical students typically don’t have the flexibility to teach while on hospital rotations, because of the pandemic, I’ve been fortunate to teach this course.”

Ling — who previously studied infectious disease epidemiology at Harvard, then worked on research related to Ebola —  enjoys adding a new perspective to the course through her real-world experience. 

“I’m passionate about the intersection between health disparities, infectious diseases and health systems.” Ling said. “My drive, and perspective, comes from my family’s history emerging out of poverty and infectious diseases in rural Malaysia.”

Like Ling, fellow TA Yi-Lin Tsai, a third-year civil and environmental engineering Ph.D. candidate, is interested in studying the intersection of natural disasters and behavioral science.

“It’s interesting to see that we have a relatively large enrollment and students have very diverse backgrounds, which might not be related to epidemiology, environmental science or medicine,” Tsai said.

Tsai describes the course as a “living lab,” with students directly engaging with the concepts they study in class through the news and their communities each day. 

“What they learn from this class will amplify and integrate into their domain of knowledge, which might bring us innovative solutions to current COVID-19 and future emerging infectious diseases,” Tsai said. 

As a whole, the course aims to inform students about the conditions and circumstances that lead to infectious diseases, as well as the effects these diseases disproportionately have on certain communities. 

“I think this course is incredibly relevant to the current pandemic because it concerns not only where diseases come from but how they spread, which informs our mask-wearing and social distancing,” said Julie Keipp ’23, a student in the course. 

Keipp said the course is helping her understand the measures currently being taken around the world in response to COVID-19. She added that the course is even giving her a sense of hope surrounding the pandemic. 

“The diseases we learn about also place COVID-19 in a context that is oddly reassuring, that eventually this will end as other pandemics did, and to be a bit grateful that it is not as grotesque as some other pandemics and boasts a much lower mortality rate,” Keipp said. 

COVID-19 is not our first global pandemic, and “likely will not be our last” Jones said. “We have inadvertently engineered a world that is ripe for the emergence, amplification, and dissemination of diseases of pandemic potential.”

Jones has shifted the course over the past two years to reflect topics that aren’t strictly ecological —  including the growing socioeconomic inequality and the social and economic conditions that drive the evolution of infectious diseases. 

As an underlying message to students, Jones told The Daily, “I really hope that we can inspire some students to continue on, pursuing careers that help alleviate global inequality in health and undoing some of the engineering for continued pandemics.” 

This article has been corrected to reflect the accurate number of students in the class. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Jenna Ruzekowicz at jruzekow ‘at’

Jenna Ruzekowicz is a staff writer in the sports section. She is a sophomore from Syracuse, New York majoring in Computer Science. Her teams include: Portland Thorns, Arsenal and Man City. Contact her at jruzekowicz 'at'

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