April 2012

Are we doing a good job of teaching the groundbreaking research of our predecessors?


To read the Journal of Biological Chemistry Classic article “The Biosynthetic Pathway for Cholesterol” about Konrad Bloch, visit http://bit.ly/ys2FKN

Some time ago, I was presenting a lecture on cholesterol biosynthesis in an advanced course on lipid and lipoprotein biochemistry. I mentioned that Konrad Bloch did key research from the 1940s to the 1970s. “Have any of you ever heard of Konrad Bloch?” I asked. I was rather surprised that the students did not know about Bloch or his contributions.

Of course, it is possible that Bloch’s fundamental contributions were taught and the students simply forgot. Alternatively, they may never have been taught about his important discoveries. In either case, this is very unfortunate. In my view, as teachers of biochemistry, we are not instructing our students properly.

Some will argue that there is already too much to cover when we teach biochemistry and we don’t have time to provide a historical perspective. I don’t buy this argument. We need to bring lipid biochemistry to life for our students. The students should appreciate the key scientists who laid the foundations for the current developments in the subject. It is also instructive to describe some of the experiments these scientists did. Bloch conducted very elegant experiments using heavy isotopes and radioisotopes to delineate the pathways of cholesterol biosynthesis. If one or two of these experiments were described, it would help the students understand how tracers are used in biochemistry.

In the last millennium, I contributed the lipid chapters to the textbook “Biochemistry” edited by Geoffrey Zubay. We made an effort to present a historical perspective. A unique feature of the textbook was a companion paperback collection of key papers in biochemistry. Thus, it was easy for students to read and digest the experiments that led to key findings. In 2012, such a collection of papers is not necessary. All we need to do is provide the references, and students will be able to access most of these papers on the Internet. Most students probably will not bother to review these original papers. However, shouldn’t we provide guidance to those students who do care?

While we need to teach the basic language of lipid research (i.e., structures, pathways, enzymes, genes, regulation), one of our major objectives should be to convey to the students the sense of discovery and awe in lipid biochemistry and expose students to how we know what we know. We need to reiterate the scientific method for testing hypotheses. It seems to me the best way to start the teaching process is to introduce the stars of the past. Who were these scientists? What questions did they ask? How did they obtain the answers?

If this teaching approach were introduced, we might be pleasantly surprised the next time we asked students, “Who was Konrad Bloch and what did he do?”

Watch Bloch receive his Nobel Prize award here.
Read the transcript of Bloch's Nobel Prize lecture here. 

lipid_news_authorDennis Vance (dennis.vance@ualberta.ca) is a distinguished university professor at the department of biochemistry at the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Alberta.

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It is unfortunate that there seems to be little time to relate what we know to how we got to know what we know. Students get stuffed with facts and abstractions that they have difficulty relating to living cells and organisms. As James Bryant Conant said, we need to stimulate curiosity and students will learn on their own. Stories can do that. When Nathan Kaplan was chair of Biochemistry at Brandeis in the 1960's, the History of Biochemistry was a required course. As his students learned, many classic experiments and stories lie hidden in the literature and never make it to the textbook or lecture. Having worked as a postdoc in Konrad Bloch's lab, I have many stories about KB. (That is not kilobases.) Hal White, University of Delaware. P.S. Even Linus Pauling is a name students don't recognize any more. [BAMBED 34(4), 305 (2006)]


I think it is very helpful to know some of the story around the facts; it helps me to remember.


A grand idea (that I have been pushing for years) that should not be limited to the teaching of lipid biochemistry. All Science should be taught from an historical perspective. Otherwise, as I fear often occurs, Science appears as an ever-increasing and unapproachable body of facts. We would all be better served to teach Science as "Method", as an ever-simplifying body of explanations. Teach how scientists practically got from knowing a little to knowing a little more. Emphasize that they did not know the answer before they actually designed and performed the experiment! Tim Clair (biochemist, NIH, ret.)


There being only 24 hours in our days, there is a first-things-first outlook, that says history is very nice, but sorry I have experiments to do, and grants to write. However, there are still enormous lessons of great practical importance to be learned from biohistory, which currently, like war-history, tends to get written by the victors, with corresponding bias. Occasionally, the victors admit there errors. Here the tell-all account by Klaus Eichmann (Birkhauser 2008) is insightful. It is entitled, "The Network Collective. The Rise and Fall of a Scientific Paradigm." Unfortunately, professional biohistorians are thin on the ground. We need to encourage both the agencies to fund biohistory research, and our students to consider it as an early career option. Donald Forsdyke, Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, Queen's University, Canada


Fantastic article! George Carman



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