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2002 Mini-Med School
NIH Educates Public on the Science of Life

By Cynthia Delgado

With fears heightened by Sept. 11 events and daily news headlines about bioterrorist threats, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases, the Office of Science Education introduced a new theme for its Spring 2002 NIH Mini-Med School program: Dangerous Microbes: Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases and Bioterrorism. The 6- to 8-week program is offered each spring to the public, and gives participants an idea of what it's like to be a medical student. A science background is not required, so lectures progressively build upon one another, beginning with the basic sciences and culminating in more advanced topics.

More motivated than ever before to understand the basic scientific principles that shape the modern world, people rushed to sign up for the program. The school's registration quota of 500 students was met within 2 weeks of its announcement. Mini-Med students agreed that the theme was both timely and important, and the major reason they signed up for the course.

Mini-med student Kellie Campbell loved the course.

"I have a tremendous innate curiosity, and here is a world-class institute offering the opportunity to learn about microbiology," said Bruce Morton, a senior manager at Lockheed Martin in Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Washington University. He explained that his interest stems from his early work as a rocket scientist when he studied the ability of microbes to survive re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. "I appreciate the time and resources the NIH provides for this program," he added. One discovery for Morton was the striking similarity between the structure and replication of a virus and how a computer "virus" infects and replicates itself within a system.

Mini-med classes satisfy Bruce Morton's innate curiosity about nature.

Diana Mukitarian, who works in the NIH Small Business Office, says Mini-Med school brings science to the public on both a "personal and professional level." With an education in behavioral science, she was able to revisit the basic sciences and also gain a better perspective of the new frontiers of science. She likes to take advantage of NIH resources, and believes it keeps her in touch with NIH's mission — a goal important to her work. She tries to portray this mission accurately when communicating with small businesses that wish to work with NIH. Before taking the course, she says she was scared of infectious diseases, but now she is also comforted. "I better understand the challenge this nation is facing in biodefense."

Mini-Med student Noreene Wells has degrees in both microbiology and zoology. This is her second year in the program. Because science is so fast-moving, she finds it an excellent way to "lightly touch base with what's happening in the field." Of particular interest this year was the continuity that ran throughout the courses. She said many issues relating to infectious diseases were clarified for her in each lecture.

Noreene Wells is a repeat customer at the school.

"People should be beating down the doors to attend these classes," noted Mini-Med student Kellie Campbell. She thought all the lectures were "phenomenal," especially OSE director Dr. Bruce Fuch's class activity on herd immunity. Students were given an assignment to determine what percentage of the population should be immunized to prevent the spread of disease. She found the answer, 77 percent, startling. "It was an epiphany for everyone there. We understood how quickly disease can spread," she said. Regarding vaccination, Campbell learned that "we do have weapons to fight the problems...not only are we a part of the solution, but a very important part."

Many prominent NIH scientists serve as Mini-Med school lecturers, despite their responsibilities and busy schedules. Patrick Murray, chief of clinical microbiology at the Clinical Center, is also an adjunct professor of pediatrics and pathology at the University of Maryland; a three-time winner of the Teacher of the Year award from Washington University in St. Louis, and author of the bestselling textbook, Medical Microbiology. Using his extensive background in academics as well as the laboratory, he gave students a glimpse into the role a clinical microbiology laboratory plays in the diagnosis, control and treatment of infectious diseases.

Patrick Murray
Murray's successful style of teaching may stem from his ability to relate to the audience, while limiting excess information and dispelling commonly held misconceptions. He said, "I try to take what's mysterious about the laboratory and make it relevant."

For example, he talked about how bacteria's strange names often come from the names of microbiologists discovering them. "The real skill," he explained, "whether in writing or teaching is to understand your audience and what they need to know. You don't tell an audience everything you know."

Murray likes to start by giving a broad view of a subject, and then narrowing the focus. In this case, he gave Mini-Med students a look at the specialty areas of pathology and then the microbiology that underlies the field. "Most people think of pathology as autopsies when, actually, a major component is diagnostics."

The much-anticipated lecture "Understanding the Bio in Bioterrorism," presented by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of NIAID, marked the culmination of the 2002 Mini-Med school program. He discussed the biological agents associated with bioterrorism; gave an overview of the recent terrorist-initiated outbreak of anthrax, its etiology and transmission; and explained how NIH works with other government agencies to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, including the NIH strategic plan for biodefense research.

He also spoke about his recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine wherein he expresses the urgent need for dialogue between the public and government leaders on the debate about a nationwide smallpox vaccination. The variola virus, the microbe responsible for smallpox, is of most concern because it is easily transmitted, has a high mortality rate, and the population lacks sufficient immunity. Proponents of mass vaccination believe it would eliminate the threat of smallpox as an agent of bioterrorism. Opponents are concerned with vaccination's associated adverse effects.

The NIH Mini-Med School serves the local community. However, there are more than 70 Mini-Med schools in the United States. Use the Mini-Med locator at to find other schools.

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