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Swarthmore Students Use Stem Cells in New Biology Class

Swarthmore Students Use
Stem Cells in New Biology Class

by Alisa Giardinelli

In a new biology class at Swarthmore College this fall, students are able to conduct research using embryonic stem cells (ESCs) from mice. "Stem Cells and Cloning" is taught by Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology William Anderson. 

"Given all of the attention stem cell biology receives, it's important that students learn to think critically about the science behind it," Anderson says. "My goals are for them to be able to provide a scientifically accurate description of what a stem cell is, the differences between embryonic and adult stem cells, and what is currently known about both."

"The students are bright and enthusiastic," he adds. "It's been extremely fun so far."


William Anderson (right) wants students to not just 
read about stem cells, but work with them firsthand .

"There's no textbook - the course is that current and that new," says class member Maryanne Tomazic '10. "I've learned firsthand about the fragility of ESCs. You really have to stay vigilant in how you care for them."

Throughout the course, students are able to conduct two types of experiments: those in which the answer is known, and those in which it is unknown. While the first provides students an opportunity to hone their experimental skills, Anderson says the latter is especially exciting.

"By performing novel experiments, the students are just as curious as I am about the result," Anderson says. "It allows them to take more ownership over their work." If the data warrant it, Anderson hopes to present results from the class at an annual stem cell meeting in Philadelphia next June.

For Tomazic, who is also taking "Bioethics: A Sociological Perspective" this semester, Anderson's class has been especially helpful. "Learning and practicing the science behind the issue adds that much more to my understanding about it," she says. "It also helps you appreciate the complexity of stem cell research as a whole and how there is no black and white quality to it."

"I've learned firsthand about the fragility
of ESCs," says Maryanne Tomazic '10 (left).

"Stem cells are of great current scientific and ethical interest," says Associate Professor and Chair of Biology Sara Hiebert Burch. "We feel it's important to educate ourselves and our students about the biology behind the subject."

Anderson earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees from Rutgers University and recently completed his Ph.D. at Harvard University. At Harvard, Anderson helped develop an earlier incarnation of this course with Doug Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, albeit one without a laboratory component. "Many of the experiments we are doing this semester were inspired by him," Anderson says, "and he was gracious enough to provide some of the cells and reagents we are using this semester."


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