Perhaps it’s just the American in me, but why does everything seem more appealing when told in an Australian accent? Ok, that wasn’t entirely the reason why I stuck it out for nearly eight weeks to take an online course about epigenetics offered by the University of Melbourne. The truth is, it was interesting, I learned a lot, and despite the fact that it crept into my summer free time, I actually liked it.
I’ve never taken any online course, so I was unsure what to expect at first. I should also point out that I’ve never taken a “formal” epigenetics course. But, I was up for the challenge and, what the heck, it was free. The course, Epigenetic Control of Gene Expression, was offered through the massive open online course (MOOC) provider, Coursera and taught by Dr. Marnie Blewitt from the University of Melbourne (there’s the accent). Longer than a normal summer session, the course gave a detailed overview of the “principles of epigenetic control of gene expression”. It explained some interesting phenomena, like how cell types vary despite having the same DNA, why identical twins can have differences, and even how your grandparents’ diet can affect your health, and more. The later sessions on how epigenetic control influences disease, particularly cancer, were very fascinating, especially since more and more epigenetic biomarkers and therapies are being increasingly explored to possibly prevent and even cure some of the most challenging diseases. There was also an extended video session on aging — optional, but worth listening to as aging affects pretty much all major health issues and, of course, we all want to know how to live longer.
So why take an epigenetics course? I suppose like the thousands (over 15,000 actually) of people signed up to take this course, I wanted to have a better understanding of the subject. Epigenetics is the study of the genome and the tiny chemical tags added to the DNA that, in effect, switch genes on or off and basically tell the cells what to do, or what to become. If you’re not familiar with this area of research, I encourage you to read A Super Brief and Basic Explanation of Epigenetics for Total Beginners.
First established in the early part of the last century, epigenetics more recently has become one of the fastest-growing areas of science and is now a key issue in studies concerning development and disease. Researchers are continuously making advances in this field, building upon their understanding of various epigenetic mechanisms, like histone modification, DNA methylation, small non-coding RNAs and chromatin architecture. And, these epigenetic mechanisms regulate nearly all biological processes from conception to death, including genome reprogramming and cell differentiation in early development, to maintenance of gene activity states, as well as in response to environmental stimuli. Epigenetic modifications can either be inherited or accumulated throughout a lifetime. However, unlike alterations of the genome, epigenetic modifications are potentially reversible, making them attractive targets for therapeutic intervention. What’s more, studies have suggested epigenetic modifications are also influenced by certain lifestyle changes and other environmental factors. Meaning, we are not entirely subject to the DNA we are born with and presumably we should be able to influence our own health and well-being.
So how did the course go? As expected, the course started out nicely in the first week with an introduction to epigenetics, briefly explaining some of the different epigenetic modifications and their function. If you have some background in biology, more specifically genetics, this was pretty straightforward. However, I think Dr. Blewitt simplified it enough and included some great reference materials and suggested pre-reading that even a non-scientific person could follow along. But, the following weeks were a bit more challenging. The course went into more specifics covering histone modification, x-inactivation, epigenetic reprogramming, genomic imprinting and epigenetic deregulation in disease. Still, Dr. Blewitt did a great job explaining these and there were plenty of suggested websites and publications available online to reference. There was also a discussion forum available for students needing further clarification on a topic or assignment. With so many participants asking questions, simply reviewing this was very helpful.
The course itself was a series of short-video lectures, online reading assignments and weekly quizzes. The last requirement of the course was a writing assignment followed by a peer assessment — this is where you get to evaluate your fellow course takers. I have to say, I was impressed with the students I evaluated, making me think that either my peers were all brilliant PhDs or that, could it be, we all actually understood the course. And, that should be attributed to Dr. Blewitt and her team and Coursera who did a great job presenting the material.
My overall impression of the course — it was informative, interesting, higher level, and definitely worth taking, especially if you are new to the study of epigenetics. I wasn’t sure what to expect, like I said earlier, but I’m glad I had the experience. Some people may be disappointed in the fact that it’s not accredited by the university, but that’s ok with me. I just wanted to expand my understanding of epigenetics and see how well I could do in the course. I have to admit, I prefer the flexibility and convenience of the online format very much, compared to the traditional classroom. I also like that the course was free and I’m grateful that there are MOOCs like Coursera out there for all us eager learners to take advantage of. Their partnership with some of the world’s top universities and organizations allows anyone the opportunity to learn from expert educators like Dr. Blewitt. Not only was she able to take a complex subject like epigenetics and convey it to a broad audience, she more than likely inspired future epigenetic enthusiasts who will, I hope, accomplish some amazing things for us in the near future.
If you are interested in getting verification for taking the course, there is an option on Coursera that allows you to get an official course certificate, authenticating your accomplishment. The cost is very nominal, so it may be worth it for professional reasons. If you opt not to get the certificate, once you pass the course, you will receive an unofficial “statement of accomplishment” for your own personal record. Either way, you should be very proud to say you took the course. If you’re wondering how I did….well let’s say, I’ve posted my Coursera statement of accomplishment, with distinction, proudly to my cubicle wall.