How to teach about a rapidly changing topic like Ebola?
With the Ebola virus grabbing headlines, we sat down to talk with UW Pharmacy professor Dr. Doug Black, an infectious-disease specialist, to learn more about how he teaches students about a topic that changes so fast.
Q. When the students return in a couple of weeks, how do you plan to talk with them about Ebola?
A. We have been living with different hemorrhagic fevers for a long time. Ebola has been a known virus with various outbreak periods since the 1970s. What appears to be different is this experimental drug, Zmapp, that has been used to treat some patients. The challenge in teaching about Ebola is that we are teaching about a disease we still don’t know much about. Unfortunately, the media has been high on alarm and low on facts. As scientific faculty, we have to keep it in perspective.
Q. How do you keep perspective for your students?
A. The best way is to look at the big picture and do your research. It can be hard for people not to lose perspective with Ebola. We saw this media hype with MRSA, flesh-eating bacteria, bird flu and others. When bird flu was in the headlines a few years ago, many tried to hoard medications. You can be sure people are asking their local pharmacists about Zmapp. We want to be sure our pharmacist graduates are prepared for these types of questions so they can help their patients.
Q. How do you prepare them?
A. My recommendation to students is to look to the research and be thoughtful about their sources. Start with the facts; if you get the facts straight, it’s much easier to separate embellishment from accurate reporting. The Centers for Disease Control website has very reliable information about the Ebola virus that’s easy to understand.
Q. How can you tell if a source is reliable?
A. I still believe in the value of peer-reviewed medical literature. You want to be sure that you are hearing the same data consistently from a variety of sources. If blogs and Wikipedia point back to one article in a lesser-known journal, I’d look at it with skepticism. But if I saw consistent findings in the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA or a specialty publication such as Clinical Infectious Diseases, I’d say that’s much more reliable.
Q. What does it mean that an article has been peer-reviewed?
A. The term has changed over the years. In the past, after years of research, you wrote and submitted a paper that was then sent to experts for critical analysis. They would submit their opinions to the journal: good science, needs tweaking or not good science. When an article was published, you knew someone qualified had reviewed it. However, as the number of journals has increased, substantive peer review can be more challenging. That’s why I teach my students not to react to a single data point or lab value. Look for consistency and corroboration by other studies.
Q. What’s been the most challenging infectious disease topic to teach?
A. Without question, it is HIV. When it was first identified in the 1980s, it was a death sentence. In the 30 years since, we are treating it with one pill a day. There was a period of time in the late 1990s and early 2000s that the science was changing monthly. That was the most challenging time to teach. No one likes to learn stuff that you know won’t be true in a year, but medicine has always been like that.
I try to appeal to student’s curiosity and get them engaged with the process of discovery. Curiosity is crucial for good science. We live in an age when you don’t have to spend four hours in the library to find an answer; it’s just a click away. With that increased efficiency, students have tremendous opportunities for discovery. It’s an exciting time for science.