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The Integrated Approach: Studying Science Without Borders

Since its formation, Integrated Science Curriculum has undergone several subtle changes, the most notable being the elimination of the two-year sequence and the addition of two 300-level courses for upperclassmen, according to Professor of Physics Joshua Shaevitz.


ISC Curriculum Changes

The change in curriculum largely came about in response to student comments, Shaevitz said.

The original two-year sequence consisted of an intensive double course in physics and chemistry in the first year with a bit of biology motivation, and then a single, less intensive course in the second year covering molecular biology, biochemistry and organic chemistry, using tools developed in the first year, he explained.

For the students who completed the two-year track, it was very successful, he said. However, the main complaint from students for many years was that the first year did not seem very integrated, because there was essentially no biology until the second year.

Additionally, a two-year track was not very compatible with some majors, he added. It locked in students in the AB program and was also difficult to schedule for engineers.

Given this feedback, for the 2014-2015 school year, the biology component was incorporated into the freshman year courses, Shaevitz said. This was in part challenging, he noted, since the curriculum now became four semesters worth instead of six, and the material had to be even more compressed than before.


As of last year, students who take both semesters of the freshman year courses — ISC 231/232 in the fall and ISC 233/234 in the spring — will receive credit for two semesters of introductory chemistry, two semesters of physics, one semester of molecular biology and one semester of computer science.

This new curriculum is now more engineer-friendly and the addition of biology into the first year has overall been a positive change, Shaevitz said.

To that end, starting in the fall of 2015, the sophomore courses in the sequence were also removed and instead replaced by two semesters of 300-level ISC courses, ISC 335/CHM 335: Organic Chemistry of Metabolism in the Fall and ISC 326: The Past, Present, and Future of the Human Genome in the Spring.

These courses are not limited to sophomores or students who have taken ISC previously, he added.

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ISC 326 is co-taught by Associate Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics Peter Andolfatto, Professor of Computer Science Mona Singh and Assistant Professor of EEB and the Lewis-Sigler Institute Julien Ayroles.

Andolfatto and Singh did not respond to requests for comment.

“I love the idea of ISC classes. This is my field — I’m a quantitative geneticist, so the integrated approach is how my field works; there’s no other way to do it. You have to be a very good statistician, you have to have a good bit of math, some genetics, some biology,” said Ayroles.

To have a curriculum that feeds on this principle is very exciting, he added.

Since it is Ayroles’s first semester teaching at Princeton, he said that his view of everything is still very fresh and naïve. He said he could not tell from talking to his students during his lectures who took freshman ISC or not, and his classes are quite interactive.

He noted that there might be a correlation between those who previously took ISC and those who are more quantitative, having a good grasp of statistical and mathematical concepts. Overall, a heterogeneous group of people can bring in different perspectives and backgrounds, so as an instructor, it is an interesting challenge, he added.

Ayroles said that he thinks more courses on campus should be integrated.

“I’m advocating very strongly for such a curriculum to be developed in EEB, because I think this is the way science should be taught now instead of a divide between fields,” he said.

Mallika Viswanath ’17 said she took ISC 326: Human Genomics because it satisfied one of the EEB department requirements and counted towards the Global Health and Health Policy certificate program.

Viswanath said that from talking with ISC freshmen, she was under the impression that they were very stressed and the material went over their head. However, ISC 326 is really not like that, she said.

“It’s easier than I thought it would be; having said that, a lot of the concepts we learn are really hard… it’s not as crazy as I thought it would be, given that it’s an ISC class,” Viswanath noted.

ISC 326 is co-taught by three professors from various departments.

“I think the topic itself warrants different professors, because it is computer science and biology — I don’t think it’s because it’s an ISC class; I think it’s because that’s how research is being done these days,” Viswanath said.

She said she feels that all the students are on equal footing, regardless of ISC background.

“It’s a really cool class. I’m really glad I wasn’t scared away by the ISC title, and I’m glad I’m taking it,” she said.

Lessons Learned in Second-Year ISC

Students who took the second year of ISC were given credit for two Molecular Biology departmentals, MOL 342: Genetics and MOL 345: Biochemistry, and the first course in the neuroscience program prerequisite.

“For me, it was really nice because I could go through a lot of the required courses in this alternative curriculum, which… offered a much more varied and math-based introduction to all the different fields,” said David Mazumder ’17 , a molecular biology major.

He noted that the second-year course was especially beneficial for him, because it was a nice way for him to complete a couple of MOL departmental courses in a fun and satisfying way.

“I think that the character of the ISC program is extremely important for science,” Mazumder said.

ISC trains students in quantitative approaches to studying science, he added. It is for students who want to study biological problems with an emphasis on the solid understanding of the physical sciences and rigorous mathematical processes behind the biology, he added.

“The math that I learned there was very applicable to many things,” Ben Lee ’16, a student in the Electrical Engineering Department, said.

“I think that the ISC program is really, really important and I think the faculty who are involved with the ISC program believe that as well. I think it will stay around for a while,” Mazumder said.

Mazumder was in the last class that went through the two-year sequence format of ISC.

“It’s such a dynamic program and this revision of the sophomore year sequence is just one more example of that,” Mazumder said.

Vishank Jain-Sharma ’18 was one of the students who took only the freshman-year ISC courses last year, and he is now enrolled in ISC 326.

“I have had an excellent experience in ISC 326 so far. The course stands very well on its own as an introduction to the numerous, novel methods and algorithms geneticists use to analyze the human genome, methods which also generalize to all other organisms,” Jain-Sharma said.

Jain-Sharma remarked that the material learned and efforts spent in freshman year ISC have benefited him this semester, especially in coding projects, running simulations and performing computations.

ISC as a Vision for the Sciences

The Integrated Science Program was established in 2004 by professor emeritus David Botstein, then director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, and now chief scientific officer at Google’s Calico Labs.

Botstein was not available for comment.

“The vision has always been to provide an introduction to the sciences that doesn’t focus on the boundaries between disciplines, that instead more focuses on what’s common to all the different sciences and how they’re related to each other,” Shaevitz explained.

What we call “physics,” “chemistry” or “biology” is largely historical, he said, adding that the division between these fields has more to do with tradition than anything intellectual.

The purpose and motivation of ISC was to create a course that allowed students to see that there are no boundaries, Shaevitz explained. He noted that ISC gives students the freedom and curiosity to explore outside of the traditional framework of science education.

“When you learn about these sciences in separate buildings, in separate classes, with separate terminology and language, you lose track of the commonalities between the different fields, how they relate to each other and how you can use information and techniques from one field to study another field,” Shaevitz said.

A lot of modern, cutting-edge research comes from the boundaries between these different disciplines, he said.

“Another motivation for the program was getting students involved in research and providing them with experiences throughout the course that are much more like real science,” Shaevitz said.

ISC strives to provide a more inquiry-based education system, he said. The labs resemble much more like what one would do in a real research lab, with students analyzing data with MATLAB, writing up scientific reports and generating graphs, he added.

Shaevitz said that the program values the fact that it generates both biology-minded majors who have a much more quantitative background than their peers, and that students who are naturally more quantitative and interested in physics or chemistry are given foundation in the life sciences. This is reflected in the research that ISC students end up performing, in biophysics, neuroscience or somewhere in the boundaries, he said.

“No one teaches a course like this,” Shaevitz said.

Shaevitz said that he has a very broad view of science, and that having the opportunity to teach ISC courses was one the reasons why he came to Princeton.

Major Changes

The majority of students in the ISC program have selected majors related to biology, though there are also students who study physics and computer science, Shaevitz said. Sometimes, ISC ends up switching students’ minds about their majors, he added.

From 2004 to 2013, 25 out of 292 students, or 8.6 percent, were enrolled in non-science, math or engineering majors, according to Shaevitz. These majors include Anthropology, Politics, Woodrow Wilson School, Philosophy, Independent Concentration, Slavic Languages and Culture, Religion, English and Economics.

Between 2009 and 2014, 41 out of 190 ISC students, or 21.6 percent, declared as Molecular Biology majors. Every year, the majority of ISC students chose to major in MOL, with the exception of the 2011-2012 school year, in which 10 out of 36 students declared majors in Computer Science and only 3 students declared as MOL majors.

The most students who finished the first year was in 2010, with 46 students, and the lowest being this 2015-2016 academic year with 16 students completing the sequence. In 2014-2015, there were 30 students in ISC, with 29 students in 2013-2014 and 36 students in 2012-2013.

Overall, Shaevitz said that he thinks the ISC program has been a big success.

“For students who are willing to put in the time, there’s a huge amount of gain,” Shaevitz said.

Associate Professor of Physics Thomas Gregor was not available for comment.

Squibb Professor in Molecular Biology Eric Wieschaus did not respond to a request for comment.