Ill-fated: Tech-savvy biologist makes an ideal host of epidemics MOOC

Marcel Salathé is an assistant professor of biology, but you won’t find him in a laboratory. And he’s got some news for you: “You are most likely illiterate.”

That’s what he plans to speak about on Friday (Nov. 8) at the student-organized Discovery-U talks where he will share his solution.

Salathé believes that it is important to teach students — particularly science majors — computer programing skills, something he uses in his research at Penn State’s University Park campus.

Salathé works in the emerging field of digital epidemiology, where the traditional sciences intersect with computational technology to track health and the spread of disease.

“I feel like once you know how to do these things — once you know how to hook into all these data sources on the Web, once you know how to write a Web page, once you know how to develop an app for an iPhone or Android — suddenly it’s like you’re almost in a different dimension,” Salathé said. “We often think of science as this traditional activity in the lab, and there is a ton of that going on — it’ll always be going on — but there’s this entirely new dimension of how we do science.”

Salathé works in the emerging field of digital epidemiology, where the traditional sciences intersect with computational technology to track health and the spread of disease.

“We’re mostly working with Twitter data right now,” he said. “We’re interested to see whether the fact that hundreds of millions of people are sharing all kinds of aspects of their lives on social media can be harnessed for disease surveillance.”

“It’s so fascinating, so I feel like we’re not doing anyone a service when we teach them to be a scientist, but not the ability to program,” he said. “Science majors should be able to do these things as well.”

Timing is everything

For Salathé, the marriage of the two interests came at an opportune time.

He was studying science as an undergraduate student in Switzerland when he decided to leave school to build his first online business.

“There was just no way that I would not be part of this,” he said of the emerging Web work in the late 1990s. “To me this stuff is interesting because you can connect so many people.”

Salathé wanted Penn State's first science-themed massive online open course, or MOOC, to reflect exactly the reason why he was so attracted to Penn State — the University’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, which he calls one of the world’s top three centers. “There are all these great infectious disease scientists here,” he said. “Why not showcase that and give people the ability to interact with all these people.”

Salathé found success, but he missed the challenges of school.

He returned to finish his undergraduate work and ended up staying to earn a master’s degree and a doctorate. He then spent two years as a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University studying the spread of infectious disease before deciding to move to Penn State in 2010.

“Stanford is a great place, but when it comes to infectious diseases, there are a few people here and there, but there isn’t that kind of density,” he said. “The Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State is really one of the world’s top three centers. Here you can basically just reach out and grab a random person, and that person is working on infectious diseases. That’s what I found so attractive here.”

Salathé has engineered projects like PlantVillage — a user-moderated online platform that helps people grow their own food and monitor plant disease — and CrowdBreaks — an online crowdsourced disease surveillance system that uses data from Twitter.

“On my way from a student to a faculty member, I realized that because I knew a fair bit of programing and because I actually dropped out of college for two years to do a Web-based start-up, I felt like these programming skills have always given me a bit of an edge,” Salathé said. “So, when these new things like social media came around, I could just very quickly and painlessly embrace them, and it gave me a competitive edge.”

Engaging online learners

Salathé’s most recent online project is spreading around the world.

The online Moocdemic game — a location-based simulation game of a real-world epidemic — was simultaneously launched in October at the start of Salathé’s first Penn State massive open online course (MOOC) called “Epidemics – the Dynamics of Infectious Diseases.”

The “Epidemics” course is the first science-related MOOC offered by Penn State, and Salathé designed it with a specific type of learner in mind: himself.

“I signed up for a bunch of MOOCs in the past and never ended up taking any of those very seriously because it was always such a huge time commitment,” he said. “If you have somebody just putting a camera in a classroom, that’s not online education, that’s not the future of education.”

To make the course more engaging, Salathé incorporated short “Ask Us Anything” videos, animations, public forums and the sister Moocdemic game.

He got others involved, too.

“To some extent, I wanted to reflect exactly the reason why I was so attracted to Penn State on the MOOC,” he said. “There are all these great infectious disease scientists here. Why not make use of that. Why not showcase that and give people the ability to interact with all these people.”

Matt Ferrari, an assistant professor of biology and statistics and a member of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, is one of eight professors contributing to the course.

“Our hope is that students will be exposed to a lot of things. We’re not going into deep depth, we’re not necessarily teaching students how to solve the problems. That’s a hard thing to do in a format like this. Interestingly, though, I think as a consequence of this, we’re learning how maybe we could do that in the future.”

– Matt Ferrari, assistant professor of biology and statistics, "Epidemics" MOOC contributor

Ferrari said some faculty members were skeptical when Salathé first pitched the idea as “the wave of the future.” But, for Ferrari, the course has been eye-opening.

“The scale of it actually, I think to some extent, is enhancing the level of discussion and the level of engagement by the different students,” he said. “They’re responding to each other as much as they are responding to us.”

Within the first three minutes of the course opening, many of more than 34,000 registered students started participating on the forums.

“It’s undoubtedly a new way to interact with students, and I think that we have a group here that’s really uniquely suited to teaching this kind of broad, interdisciplinary topic,” he said.

The course is set up to give students a basic understanding of how and why epidemics happen and how disease can be controlled.

“Our hope is that students will be exposed to a lot of things,” Ferrari added. “We’re not going into deep depth, we’re not providing a lot of methodology, we’re not necessarily teaching students how to solve the problems. That’s a hard thing to do in a format like this. Interestingly, though, I think as a consequence of this, we’re learning how maybe we could do that in the future.”

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Last Updated November 13, 2013