Iowa State Class Introduces Students to the Science of Predicting Pandemics

September 14th, 2020

by Ann Y. Robinson


Assistant Professor Nancy Boury. Photo pre-pandemic, by Chris Gannon, ISU. 

Nancy Boury introduced her class, Predicting the Next Pandemic, in fall 2019. She had no way to foresee how timely the topic would become just a few months later.

Boury, assistant professor of plant pathology and microbiology at Iowa State University, first envisioned the course several years ago, when her interest was piqued by a presentation at an American Society for Microbiology (ASMCUE) educators meeting.

“The idea stuck in my mind,” she said.

When she had the opportunity to pitch an idea for a short, introductory course to students interested in STEM fields, it seemed like the right time. She worked with graduate students, Chloe Wasendorf and Brian Macias-Musco, to plan the two-credit, half-semester course, Micro 265X, that launched in person last fall. In the spring, the class migrated online in response to a real-time, full-blown pandemic spreading over the globe. It will be taught again remotely later this fall. 

How can the next pandemic be predicted? The course’s subtitle, “Living in a One Health World” explains a lot. Boury designs her class around the interdisciplinary One Health paradigm, endorsed by national and international health organizations, ranging from the American Veterinary Medical Association to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.


One Health Infographic, courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“The concepts I’m teaching are both new and really old,” Boury said. “While the paradigm is fairly new, it is based on more than a century of experience and data that show the interconnectedness of human health with animal and environmental health.”  

The course begins with readings about disease outbreaks and the scientific detective work to identify and overcome them. Texts include trade nonfiction, including “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic” by David Quammen. Boury presents case studies of different types of viral and bacterial diseases that have plagued humans over time, including Parrot Fever in the 1920s, Q Fever, Lyme Disease, and malaria, caused by a single-celled parasite known as “protist” transmitted by mosquitoes.

The trajectory of the course was modified in Spring 2020 to include discussion of a new emerging disease, the novel coronavirus, COVID 19. When the course is taught this fall, the current pandemic will get even more attention.

“This topic provides excellent opportunities to help students think about how science happens,” Boury said. “It’s kind of exciting -- there is a lot of mystery involved. Students learn that the process of microbiology is not as easy and straightforward as people might think. We talk about how the work of a microbiologist changes in different situations, as scientists go through the steps to identify a disease, look for its means of transmission, develop and test a vaccine, and devise other measures for prevention or treatment.”  

The course also brings in issues of communications and policy, which are important to the whole process of addressing disease threats and managing risks, according to Boury.

“A lot of the class is focused on thinking about how to systematically and objectively ask good questions,” she said.

In addition, she works with the class on habits that lead to success in college. This research interest of Boury’s shows up in all her courses as lessons in time management, writing skills, working together in groups and how to look for credible references.

The last assignment requires students to write a mini-grant proposal, posed as if they were going to research a current health problem and conduct a project that would contribute to a solution.

“Someday, one or more of these students could be in a position to make decisions related to a future pandemic, and they will be a little more prepared,” Boury said. “In the meantime, I hope it helps them become better students who are more excited about the nature of science.”