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Prof. Wessner's New "Microbiology" Textbook Presents Microbes in Their Environmental Context

by Bill Giduz

Professor of Biology David Wessner has teamed with two colleagues at the University of Waterloo to coauthor the new textbook Microbiology. Over six years in the making, the textbook takes a holistic approach towards teaching microbiology. It focuses on the interactions of microbes with each other and their environment, while also introducing undergraduates to the large world of scientific literature and experimentation.

Wessner, a teacher at Davidson since 1998, became interested in microbiology in the late 1980s as a graduate student at Harvard. "I became fascinated with how viruses in particular can basically reprogram our cells to do their bidding for them, even though viruses have such a minimal size and genome," Wessner said.

The scientific research surrounding the advent of HIV/AIDS, which occurred during his own research on viruses at Harvard, further propelled his interest in microbiology. "I was able to watch something that scientifically interested me, while witnessing the social implications of HIV/AIDS unfold at the same time," said Wessner.

Wessner and coauthors Trevor Charles and Christine Dupont integrated the effects of viruses and microorganisms on their surroundings into the new textbook. "We started working on this book because students often become too fixated on the details of microbiology," Wessner said. "They lose sight of the interactions between microbes and interactions between microbes and our daily lives."

He continued, "A lot of microbiology textbooks will focus on specific kinds of bacteria individually, but we make the case that you can only learn so much about a bacterium in isolation. We try to not simply describe the facts about a microbe, but to show how the facts influence how the microbe lives, where it lives, and how it influences its environment."

Microbiology is also distinguished from previous textbooks by introducing undergraduates to the complex system of scientific research and publication. Scientific "mini-papers," describing real scientific research distilled and simplified for undergraduates, are found throughout the book. They show the experimental basis and research that goes into microbiology. "It's a nice way to introduce undergraduates to the scientific literature, so when they eventually read a real scientific journal article it won't seem as daunting," said Wessner.

"Microbiology is not just a set of known facts," said Wessner. "There were questions asked, experiments conducted, data analyzed, conclusions reached, and remaining questions. That's the exciting thing about any science -- it's not a done deal."

Wessner believes that the textbook's comprehensive approach to understanding microbiology will resonate with other teachers in the field. "Hopefully the book's message will speak to faculty members at a large number of institutions," said Wessner.