Students learn the science, politics of stem cells in new GE course

As stem cell research begins to yield new therapies, members of the public will need to be ready to make informed choices -- both at the ballot box and as consumers of health care. SF State has launched a new course to introduce non-science majors to the science and politics of stem cell biology.

Photos of five students taking part in a discussion around a table.

Students in a new general education course take part in small group discussions about stem cell research.

Offered this semester, BIOL 176 is the University's first general education course on stem cell biology and the only undergraduate course dedicated to this field.

"We're dealing with sophisticated scientific material but we've designed the course so that students don't need any biology background at all," said Professor of Biology Carmen Domingo, who devised the curriculum with Tatiane Russo-Tait, a biology lecturer who teaches the new course.  

Eleven weeks into the class, the students have already had a crash course in cell and molecular biology, and are sitting in small groups discussing what happens to fertilized eggs that are left over after couples undergo in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment.

Student Chris Arreola talking to Biology Lecturer Tatiane Russo-Tait.

Student Chris Arreola stays after class to talk with Biology Lecturer Tatiane Russo-Tait. Arreola hopes to use what he has learned about stem cells to write an informative speech for his forensics class.

"Understanding exactly what happens in stem cell research is helping me with my critical thinking," said Chris Arreola, a freshman majoring in English and gender studies. "It's helping us to be informed and confident in our views on stem cells. These issues are only going to become more politically relevant as time goes on."

Business management major Avery Cimino chose the class for personal reasons.

"I have an autoimmune disease and I know people with chronic conditions so I'm interested in the potential for new therapies," Cimino said. "It's good to be completely informed, especially as a voter."

As the semester progresses, the class of 35 students will discuss the ethical, moral, social and political dilemmas associated with stem cell research.

"We'll look at issues that most people don't think of," said Russo-Tait. "For example, women selling their eggs or stem cell tourism where patients travel abroad to take part in treatments that haven't been tested for safety or effectiveness"

The course also focuses on social justice issues, such as clinical trials held among vulnerable populations and questions concerning which communities will have access to the novel therapies arising from stem cell research.

"When we designed the course, we kept in mind that our students have a strong sense of social justice," Domingo said. "The curriculum looks at whether developments in stem cell research provide equal access to science and technology for minority communities. We knew this would resonate with our diverse student population."

Start-up funding for the course was provided by the same grant that established SF State's graduate stem cell training program in 2009. This six-year,  $3.5 million grant from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) funded SF State's Bridges to Stem Cell Research master's program, which is preparing skilled workers for California's growing stem cell industry.

--Elaine Bible