Seminar focuses on evolutionary medicine

A new graduate-level evolutionary medicine course that will be open to juniors next semester is unique in its field, according to eight professors at Yale and other universities.

“Studies in Evolutionary Medicine,” a two-term seminar beginning in January, will provide students who plan to enter the fields of medicine or scientific research with a foundation in evolutionary science, which applies the theory of evolution to medical research.

“A course which combines intense classroom discussion of the material plus the opportunity to conduct research in the laboratory of an expert in the field of evolutionary medicine, is unique,” said ecology and evolutionary biology professor Paul Turner, who will teach the class with fellow ecology and evolutionary biology professor Stephen Stearns and School of Public Health professors Alison Galvani and Durland Fish. “I haven’t seen this offered in any other university in the world.”

The course will give students the chance to meet with experts in evolutionary medicine from across the world, Stearns said. Each student, he added, will receive a full stipend to conduct summer research.

The instructors will select 15 to 19 students — 10 to 12 juniors and five to seven graduate and professional school students — through an application process on the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department’s Web site, Turner said. Applications are due Dec. 1.

The number of students will be limited because providing stipends for summer research is expensive, Galvani said. She added that the small class size will facilitate better class discussions.

Students will discuss research papers at two 75-minute seminars each week, Stearns said. In addition, four evolutionary medicine experts from other universities, such as Stanford, Harvard, and Oxford, will give a lecture each semester. After each lecture, Stearns added, the students will have dinner with the visiting speaker at one of Yale’s residential college dining halls.

Anyone in the class will be given a stipend to conduct research at Yale or another research institution over the summer. The challenge, Turner said, is to find an experiment that can be completed in about two months, which is a relatively short amount of time.

In the fall, students will write research papers based on their summer experiments. While the main goal is to teach students how to collect, analyze and present data, Turner said, the professors may submit some of the students’ papers to research journals.

Five professors at other universities who have taught evolutionary medicine courses said the Yale course’s comprehensiveness is unique.

“All the elements — courses in evolutionary medicine, teaching from the primary literature and independent research — are offered at many universities,” said Michael Bell, a professor from the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. “But this progression of linked activities is certainly unusual and possibly unique to Yale.”

While more universities than before have evolutionary medicine courses, Yale may be among the few institutions in the world that have multiple experts working in this field, said Ronald Mumme, a biology professor at Allegheny College in Meadville, Penn.

Mumme praised the Yale instructors for creating the evolutionary medicine course. And Turner and Stearns said they have high hopes for the students who take the course.

“We literally believe we will be grooming future experts of the field of evolutionary medicine,” Turner said.

Over the past several decades, evolutionary medicine has provided insight into various diseases, such as autoimmune disorders, Stearns said. For example, evolutionary medicine has shown that some parasitic worms that evolved with humans reduce the risk of developing allergies because they dampen a person’s immune system.

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