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Teaching the Chemistry of Life Using Lessons from COVID

The COVID pandemic is one of the greatest scientific challenges of our time. This seminar will use the science of COVID as an engaging framework for teaching the chemistry of life. We will analyze COVID using the principles of chemical biology, an interdisciplinary field that combines chemical, biological, and computational strategies to analyze the molecular foundations of biological systems. By applying chemical biology to studying the structure, replication, mutation and therapeutic treatment of the coronavirus, we will show how COVID can be used to illustrate foundational topics in the undergraduate science curriculum.

The seminar begins with an overview of the life cycle of the coronavirus and the important enzyme families involved in viral replication. We explore the origin of mutations in the viral genome, plus the evolution of variants and their implications for COVID vaccine development. We also examine examples of antiviral drugs that have been repurposed or designed de novo as new COVID therapeutics.

Faculty members in chemical biology from New York University will present recent progress in antiviral research, including the prevention of viral entry into cells using synthetic peptides, and drug design approaches to halt viral protein maturation. A guest speaker from industry will provide insight into current pharmaceutical efforts in this field.

During the afternoon sessions, participants will engage in hands-on lab activities that use inexpensive reagents and equipment, as well as publicly accessible software. One lab activity uses a bioinformatics database to examine mutations of the coronavirus genome. A second activity guides participants through molecular visualization software that can be used to examine viral protein structures and drug targets. We will also present experimental-based laboratory modules, such as biochemical assays for studying the inhibition of viral proteins.

Throughout the week, participants will work in a team to develop a teaching module on COVID that can be used in undergraduate courses in their home institutions. For example, mRNA vaccines illustrate the foundational principles of gene expression. In addition, using computational tools to analyze the coronavirus spike protein illustrates the principles of protein structure and the presence of amino acid mutations in coronavirus variants. We will provide a collection of instructional resources that can be used for developing these projects.

This seminar is suitable for faculty participants with a background and interest in chemistry, biology, biochemistry, chemical biology, and infectious disease.

Seminar Schedule. Seminars run Monday to Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with a midday communal lunch. Seminar conveners may adjust the class schedule in response to participant needs. Special events may also be held during the week. Participants are required to attend the full week of seminar meetings and maintain 90% attendance overall.

Seminar Materials. Eligible participants are provided with all required seminar materials (books, articles, laboratory equipment, and entrance fees).

Accommodations & Meals. Limited housing accommodations are provided to participants who live more than 50 miles from the program site. All admitted participants are provided with some meals during the program period.

Application Procedure. Applicants should submit the completed application along with all of the following:

  • A statement of intent that indicates how the seminar participant will apply what is learned at the home institution
  • A current CV
  • A letter of support from either the division dean or department head, who is well-acquainted with the applicant’s area of research
  • Their institutional liaison officer’s approval