Teaching biology using video games, comic books and tattoos – Michael Pyne

Perhaps one of the most challenging and often overlooked qualities of a great university teacher is their ability to get students excited about their chosen discipline. As a teaching assistant for a fundamental first-year chemical engineering course called Engineering Biology, I take it upon myself to try and draw chemical engineering students toward the bio side of the discipline. I want to show to them that chemical engineering can entail more than polymers and petroleum. The problem is that many undergraduate engineers tend to think of biology and bioengineering as easy, strictly memorization-based and a break from their more challenging, heavy mathematical engineering courses. “Bioengineering isn’t actually engineering.” “Dude, bio is all memorization.” “Engineering biology is a bird course.” In the classroom I am continually trying to break down this seemingly preprogrammed and perpetuated ideal. But standing at the front of the class declaring “Genetic engineering is cool!” or “Biology is infinitely complex!” just doesn’t do it for them. They’re not sold. Of course I think it’s all a thrill; grad students become so encompassed in their fields that they cannot fathom another human being not sharing their same level of excitement. What I found does work is making biology more appealing to 20-something-year-olds’ core interests and hobbies. Especially this day in age, there are a slew of unique and fascinating books, games, even movements that will prove irresistible to the young chemical engineer who is only mildly biocurious. Below are some of my go-to biotricks:

Video games. I’m going to kick off the list with video games for obvious reasons. Somewhere several years ago someone asked, “Is there a way to trick people into collecting biological data by playing a video game?” Fast forward to yesterday and you will find me at my desk. Playing a game called Phylo. Trying to beat my high score. For several hours. When I should have been in the lab. Picture the addictiveness of Angry Birds and Bejeweled coupled with the magnificent monotony of Tetris. Now, for the best part: strip away all feelings of guilt associated with hour upon hour of wasteful, mindless unproductiveness. In essence, the purpose of the game is to match a series of coloured blocks with another series possessing some degree of similarity. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Well, each block actually represents a specific nucleotide, the building blocks of DNA, and each series represents a DNA or gene sequence from a distinct species. Even the game’s name, Phylo, comes from the field of phylogenetics, the study of evolutionary relatedness as determined by DNA sequence analysis. Phylo relies on gaming power, rather than fancy shmancy computational biology and bioinformatics, to manually align and compare gene sequences from distantly related species. Don’t believe me that Phylo could ever lead to any scientific achievements of value? Well, Phylo actually arose from the successes of a similar bio video game, Foldit, designed to figure out the complex 3D structures of proteins. Like Phylo, Foldit does not require gamers to possess any prior knowledge of biochemistry or protein structure. The developers of Foldit issued to gamers around the globe a challenge to attempt to solve the 3D structure of a complex AIDS protein. Traditional structural efforts prior to the development of Foldit had proven unsuccessful. The result? An extraordinary paper published in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology (impact factor >12) entitled, “Crystal structure of a monomeric retroviral protease solved by protein folding game players.” Now, I’m aware that my high scores in Phylo and Foldit are no substitute for genuine grad-student-generated laboratory results. “Sorry Dr. Supervisor but I don’t have any experimental results to update you on this week; on the other hand, I did beat the high score on the Myxoid Liposarcoma 3 level in Phylo!” For the undergrad new to biology, however, this game, if properly explained and supplemented with relevant course concepts, can be really effective at getting students excited about phylogenetics, bioinformatics and DNA sequencing. If nothing else, it is pretty addictive.

Tattoos. What’s cooler: a prof with a DNA tattoo up their sleeve or one with the molecular structure of caffeine tattooed on their back? Trick question – they’re both equally cool. Or what’s more romantically nerdy than having your wife’s initials represented as amino acids on a protein chain and tattooed on your arm? Tricked you again – nothing! Yes, these tattoos are ultra-nerdy. But they have become an obsession for many. Just see for yourself – check out Carl Zimmer’s brand-spanking-new book entitled, “Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science-Obsessed”. The book comprises a stunning visual collection of the world’s best, uber-nerdy science tattoos. Although I’ve never been much into body art, as I have never brandished a single tattoo or piercing, I must admit, when I saw my first DNA tattoo I thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Although I still remain tattooless, Science Ink has definitely got me scheming. Even my brother, who previously shared my just-not-for-me tattoo policy, recently joined forces with the uber-nerdy. The tattoo, pictured above and complete with signature calculator typeface, is an ode to his unique name and (entirely self-proclaimed) greatness. You see, his name is Lonnie, pronounced “Law-nee”, which in mathematics is phonetically equivalent to ln (e). ln (“lawn”) is the symbol for the natural logarithm. e is a constant, or Euler’s number, which is roughly equal to 2.718. Now here’s the rub: when you take the ln of e (ln (e)/Lonnie), you get 1. And there you have it. Ever since he studied grade 12 calculus, this is the logic my brother has used to show the world how he is #1. Although I have meandered off track, I hope it is not too hard to see how uber-nerdy science tattoos can resonate so deeply with a gaggle of impressionable, creative and expressive young scientists and engineers.

Comic books. I had another why-didn’t-I-think-of-that moment recently when I stumbled upon a book detailing the history, gloriousness and technical advancements involving DNA. I left out the coolest part though – it is written entirely as a comic book! Despite my joy at finding this little gem, I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated. One of my best friends, Bryce Huffman, is a vastly talented illustrator and tattoo/graffiti artist in Hamilton, ON. Although we were beat to the punch by a long shot, I like to think that we could have whipped up a little comic book/molecular bio bible of this caliber. Nevertheless, back to the book. The beauty is in its creativity and graphic nature. Bacteria aren’t represented as boring ovals – they have faces and feelings. Our forefathers of molecular biology – Avery, Watson, Crick, Pauling, Sanger and crew – aren’t boring scientists – they’re hilarious caricatures. DNA replication machinery isn’t a bunch of proteinaceous pac-men – they’re literally molecular machines depicted as bulldozers, cranes and trucks. The book, “A Graphic Guide to the DNA Molecule that Shook the World” is one of the best and most creative approaches to the subject that I have come across. When perched atop my tower of scientific books and literature on my desk, this graphic gem strikes up comments from my fellow grad students not far off from, “Seriously Mike? You should really know this stuff by now.” But they’ve missed the point. It’s less about the information, regardless of how superficial, fundamental or trivial it may be, and more about expressing it in a unique, creative and highly appealing medium. This medium, the graphic novel, is highly attractive to the young, aspiring twenty-something. What would you rather read: one of the dozens (hundreds?) of introductory molecular biology textbooks housed within the Davis Centre library or a comic book with essentially all the same information? If you went with the former, you probably haven’t been a twenty-something for a very, very long time.

So there you have it – teaching biology using video games, comic books and tattoos. You could start class by playing and explaining 5-10 minutes of Phylo or Foldit. You could have students find the chiral carbon atoms in the caffeine tattoo (or does it even have any at all?), the peptide bonds in a protein chain tattoo or the phosphodiester bonds in a DNA tattoo. As for homework? Read the section on gene expression in your comic book. If these resources still don’t unveil some closet bionerds in your class, well, I cannot fathom what else would.


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

Leave a Reply