Whether I have taught introductory biology for non-science students, genetics, human genetics, or the biology of human reproduction, I have attempted to relate the abstract or technical biology that is in the scientific journals or the monographs I have read and turned them into a comprehensible form for undergraduates. I did so because I realized early in my academic career that with learning comes understanding. New knowledge can be applied to our lives for our health, for our world view, for our aesthetic pleasure, and for practical usage.
I learned that a lot of illness is directly experienced at a cellular level. Since we cannot see cells without a microscope, that means it is neither seen nor felt when a biological event occurs like a loss of a chromosome, a mutation in a gene, or a shift from a normal functioning cell cycle to a cancerous cell cycle. I learned that there are agents in our world that are harmful to cells. Some act as toxic agents and they can kill by disrupting cell division, preventing cell respiration, preventing cell metabolism, or causing the molecules that make our cell membranes fall apart. Some act as mutagens and can change the nucleotide sequence of a gene. Some act as agents that can break a chromosome and when it divides it can enter an abnormal cell cycle and kill that cell or its immediate descendants. Some act on the embryonic processes and can lead to birth defects. While we defend ourselves from what we know to be toxic (we feel the pain), we usually are unaware of what is mutagenic (alters genes or breaks chromosomes), carcinogenic (causes tumors), or teratogenic (interferes with normal embryonic development).
I learned that an organism is like a three ring circus. There are activities going on at the cellular level. There are activities going on at the tissue level. There are activities going on at the organ level. We are hierarchies of smaller components of our bodies. We have no conscious connections to the individual activities of our cells but we do experience events taking place at the level of tissues (e.g., sunburn or a muscle cramp) or organs (a heart attack).
I learned, too, that we humans are rarely solitary beings. We need nurturing by parents. We acquire knowledge gradually and have to be taught. We identify loyalties through our family, our schools, our peers, our neighborhoods, and our national identity, religions, or class status. At that adult level we become very aware of how our lives can be changed by war, revolution, financial hard times, or legislation that provides opportunities for health, education, and service to one’s country. But I learned that ignorance of our cellular and molecular basis of life (the most vulnerable because we don’t see things at this level) is costly to us and society. For this reason those who raise concern about what goes into our air, water, food, and the buildings we live in find a lot of resistance because the effects often show up decades after chronic or acute exposure to these cell-harming agents. I learned that segments of society and their legislators prefer to ignore such concerns, either because they only believe what they can feel or they only respond to immediate toxic effects where the cause and effect is rapid and dramatic like Bhopal with its chemical explosion releasing toxic gasses that killed thousands or Chernobyl that forced the evacuation of a sizable area around the Pripyat failed nuclear reactors.