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First-Year Biology Course Studies the Effects of Aging

How do we age and what can we do about it? Montserrat students dig in
July 29th, 2019 by 

Michelle Mondoux, associate professor of biology, with her Biology of Aging class
Michelle Mondoux, associate professor of biology, and her Biology of Aging class. Photo by Avanell Brock

There’s something poetic about the youngest members of the Holy Cross community spending an entire year learning about the oldest members of society. That’s the scientific quest students undertake in Biology of Aging: Understanding and Combating Aging, a Montserrat class in the Self cluster taught by Michelle Mondoux, associate professor of biology.

Mondoux breaks the yearlong course into two essential questions: How do we age (the fall) and what can we do about it (the spring)?

“We talk about what it means to age and then discuss how scientists think about that — and how scientists should think about that,” Mondoux says. “The first question on the first quiz is also the first question on the midterms and both final exams: What are the two factors that influence aging and diseases of age? And the answer is the same every time — genetics and the environment. That’s all there is.”

And while the course description reads like a 300-level biology class, Mondoux makes a persuasive case that it’s a perfect fit for students fresh to campus.

“We don’t have a textbook, and I use very little in terms of actual scientific texts because that’s not how students will encounter science in their future,” she says. “We work hard on reading something like a New York Times article about a recent discovery in aging and then ask critical questions: What did the scientists actually do? What was their experiment? What were their results? What are the things this article is not telling us? Did they test men and women? All of these different factors.”

Peter Oliver ’22 says the most interesting part of the course was that it wasn’t just memorizing and regurgitating facts. “Instead,” he notes, “we used information that we learned to apply to real-world situations. This was a really important step for me academically because it taught me how to apply things that I learn in the classroom to real life.”

Mondoux’s hope is that the course is a model for how to approach science — and, really, everything — in the media with a critical lens. “We ask: How do we approach a problem? And how do we think about the information we need to decide how we think about that problem? In that sense, I think it’s a really good fit for Montserrat.”

One of Mondoux’s favorite aspects of the course is that students can bring their own experiences and interests.

“I had a student who wrote a research paper about music therapy and Alzheimer’s,” she says. “Student-athletes may want to look at exercise and aging. One of my students is really interested in economics, so he’s researching whether or not biologically it would make sense to raise the Social Security age. People can take something meaningful to them and find there’s meaning in this course as well.”

The syllabus covers a range of topics, drawing heavily on Mondoux’s background as a molecular biologist.

“In the fall, we talk intensely about the cellular and molecular biology that you’re going to need to understand the things that come later. In the spring, we’re really thinking about how scientists study aging. And scientists study people who are really good at aging – very – which means centenarians, people who’ve made it to 100. Now you can study super centenarians: People who have made it to 110. There are 77 super centenarians in the world; that’s a small but pretty amazing number.”

Julia Zepernick ’22 thought the course was a great introduction to college classes, from class participation to writing assignments: “It acted as a ‘home base,’ providing stability during all the changes I encountered during my first year as a college student. Not only that, I really appreciated having the same professor all year. Professor Mondoux was someone I could turn to for both my academic and social needs.”

Given that first-year students are eons away from their elder years, what keeps them engaged?

“Students are always interested in aging because it’s an issue that’s affecting people they love, and at some point, they’re going to need to make decisions about their own health, about their parents’ health. And that’s going to be true as we get more and more into finding out about our own genetic information. And then the question is, do you have any ability to interpret that information? I think that’s going to be important in everyone’s health care.”

As Mondoux points out, “God willing, none of us are going to escape aging, right?”

Course Catalog

Michelle Mondoux with her students

Mont 100/101S: Biology of Aging: Understanding and Combating Aging

Professor: Michelle Mondoux

Department: Montserrat

Description: In this course, students will explore the different evolutionary, physiological and molecular theories of aging and how they apply to modern human societies. They will also consider the diseases of age, including Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes. They will discuss how scientists conduct studies on aging and analyze how citizens make health care choices based on media reports or scientific discoveries. Students will also evaluate the therapies that are being developed to combat aging and the research that led to those discoveries, the business of science, and how research funding and pharmaceutical profit margins drive discovery.

Meeting Times: Monday, Wednesday, Friday | 10 a.m. – 10:50 a.m. and 11 a.m. – 11:50 a.m.

Classroom: Swords 227

Required Reading
Various articles from sources such as Time Magazine, The New York Times and Course Catalog medical journals

Assignments

  • Short writing assignments
  • Research article
  • Research presentation
  • Poster presentation
  • Midterm and final exam
  • Various quizzes and in-class activities

Grades: Writing assignments, scientific comprehension and analysis, attendance and in-class participation

About the Professor
Michelle A. Mondoux is an associate professor in the biology department. She earned her Ph.D. in molecular biology from Princeton University and was a post-doctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health before coming to Holy Cross in 2010.

As part of her post-doctoral work, she used the model organism Caenorhabditis elegans, a small nematode worm, to study the effects of a high-glucose diet and a glucose-responsive enzyme on aging. She actively engages undergraduates in her research lab at Holy Cross, where she continues to use C. elegans to understand the cellular and molecular responses to a high-glucose diet.

Her recent interests include sex-specific responses to glucose. C. elegans come in two sexes, male and hermaphrodite: The lab is currently testing how a high-glucose diet affects fertility in both sexes.


Written by Jane Carlton for the Summer 2019 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

About Holy Cross Magazine
Holy Cross Magazine (HCM) is the quarterly alumni publication of the College of the Holy Cross. The award-winning publication is mailed to alumni and friends of the College and includes intriguing profiles, make-you-think features, alumni news, exclusive photos and more. Visit magazine.holycross.edu/about to contact HCM, submit alumni class notes, milestones, or letters to the editor.

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