Coursera’s Useful Genetics Wows

If you haven’t yet heard, college is expensive. Darn expensive.

Thankfully, there are now free online universities for those of us daunted by the hefty price tag attached to traditional university courses. These online universities, such as Coursera and Udacity, provide quality courses taught by experienced instructors.  You don’t need to pay a cent or leave the comforts of home.

Last week I enrolled in a genetics course offered by Coursera. The course I chose was Useful Genetics, taught by Dr. Rosemary Redfield, a professor of Zoology at the University of British Columbia. I can sum up my experience so far in one word: Wow.

If you’re writing about genetics, you really can’t beat the ringing endorsement George Church offers for the book “Exploring Personal Genomics”by Joel Dudley and Konrad Karczewski.

With the flood of genetic information washing over us, understanding that information and all that comes with it is vital, said Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard and a member of 23andMe’s scientific advisory board.

“This book will light our path – it is highly supportive (and even required) reading for so many of us,” he writes in the introduction to the book.

And indeed the authors, Dudley, director of biomedical informatics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and Karczewski, a doctoral student in biomedical informatics at Stanford University, have condensed a huge amount of useful information into their book.

 Dudley recently said he hoped that the book would “demystify personal genomics so that instead of doctors and patients just saying, ‘”This is confusing,”’ they’ll think, ‘”I can get a handle on this.”’

And because the book encompasses so many different aspects of personal genomics, it’s easy to see how it could be used as a reference. But this isn’t “The Cartoon Guide to Genetics.” Although Dudley and Karczewski try to make their book accessible to all, having a background in biology or genomics sure does help. Even their beginning chapter, “A Gentle Introduction to Genomics,” pretty quickly gets dense.

That said, the book is one of the first of its kind and   a great resource to anyone studying genetics or wanting to take their understanding to the next level.

This course, with its focus on “useful” genetics (as opposed to esoteric research), is a great opportunity for 23andMe customers wanting to better understand their genetic data. The course website states that Dr. Redfield’s goal for this course is “to provide a solid understanding of the genetics principles and issues that affect us all.” Genetics, after all, is playing an ever-increasing role in the way we think about ourselves, our ancestry, and our health. This course aims to teach the scientific background necessary for facing this new genetic age without fear and confusion.

Dr. Redfield, an enthusiastic woman with spiky purple hair, has so far proved the perfect guide. A 23andMe customer herself, she is also a dedicated educator of others. Through a series of short (about 15 minutes) video lectures, she has already walked me through several complex topics.

Her initial talks have covered varied subjects ranging from DNA replication and ploidy to evolution and genetic variation. She spends extra time on the more tricky points, and even had an entire lecture dedicated to why the processes of DNA replication, translation, and transcription are so often confused.

In addition to footage of the spunky Dr. Redfield speaking directly into the camera, these short videos also include numerous slides and animations created to clarify confusing points and a few interactive questions that test the students’ understanding.

Just because the course is online doesn’t mean no work or studying. Genetics is rigorous material, the course treats it as such. To help students gauge their understanding, there is a quiz for every modular (ten modulars covered over the 12-week course), as well as a midterm and a final exam. For those wanting even more in-depth coverage, there is a free genetics textbook available for download on the course resource page. Other cool features of the course include a discussion forum for interacting with your other fellow students (all 25,000+ of them!) and practice questions reviewed by the course’s teaching assistant, Alana Schick, a graduate student at UCB.

Wondering if this course is for you? Chances are that, regardless of your genetics background, you could gain something from taking Useful Genetics. I have a fairly strong science background, and I’m learning new things. However, motivated students without a previous college-level biology course needn’t fear; the lectures are quite accessible, and there are background resources on the course website for those wanting to brush-up. Don’t let the timing keep you away, either. Although the course officially began May 1st, it isn’t too late for you to join.

I hope to meet you in the student forum soon!

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