Staff member Sophia Cheng interviewed Professor Hur about his time at Mudd and the Core curriculum’s newest change.
How did you end up at Mudd?
I was a postdoc at UCLA. When I started my postdoc, I told my advisor that I was not interested in running research-heavy labs. At research-heavy labs, the primary investigators didn’t really get to spend any time in the lab – and they were fantastic scientists. It’s kind of sad because they were really interested in doing research, but they couldn’t really do anything by themselves anymore because they had to spend all their time behind their desks writing grants, and actually doing the really fun research was taken over by postdocs. A mix of teaching and researching is the kind of life I wanted, so I told my postdoc advisor. And when this [position at Mudd] opportunity came up, he was the one who told me about it. I officially started the tenure track position in 2015. I really like this sort of job where there is a balance between hands-on research, writing, and teaching. It’s a unique thing to do – to talk about interesting stuff with really brilliant people. And I get paid for that, right? It’s amazing.
What academic subjects do you enjoy?
When I first started undergrad, being a beta tester for video games was actually pretty high on my list. I was totally into CS and coding and I still enjoy it. I started off as a CS major. I really like thinking about coding, like algorithms and data structures.
I still enjoyed working with living things more though, so I switched to bio at the end of my sophomore year and have been hooked on biology since.
There’s a long list of things I wish I had studied more though, which is why I think liberal arts is such a great environment in many ways. I don’t have too many regrets going to a research-focused technical undergraduate college, but I don’t think the experience was nearly as well-rounded as it could have been. I was interested in American literature, art history, psychology… When I first took cognitive psychology and social psychology, it blew my mind! If I had the chance to do it again, I would certainly take more classes in those areas. It [Mudd] kind of has everything. It’s more well-rounded. The students here are much more exposed to multiple disciplines. It’s very interdisciplinary here.
What are some of your favorite classes to teach?
I would characterize myself as a molecular biologist but I really enjoy teaching cell biology. Actually, Bio 52 is very fun too. Again, I enjoy coding but I don’t know that much about coding, so it is kind of at the right level for me. Every year I try coding with the students. Professor Bush makes really good coding problems that are both intuitive and include things covered in class that are approachable and useful. I guess it isn’t fair for me to say teaching 52 is fun because Prof. Bush is the one that does all the work. Hahaha… I just go in there and teach recitation. But yeah, maybe that’s what makes it fun.
I used to teach synthetic biology and that was a ton of fun. It was a core lab and it got phased out, but it is kind of integrated into the new bio lab. The first half of the class was learning how to make a specific bacterium that has a sodium sensitive plasmid that allows it to express a color protein based on how much sodium is in their environment. During the second half of the class, students were asked to think about what kind of bioreporters they want to make and tried to make their own novel bioreporters.
Could you tell us more about Bio 23? How did the professors come up with the structure and the projects?
A part of it [Bio 23] is synthetic biology and a part of it is genotype screening to look at the population frequency of an allele that is used by HIV virus to enter cells and infect humans. I can’t take much credit for the development of this class. That was mostly Professor McFadden.
I was most involved with the second part of the course which focuses on synthetic biology. The core lab was going away and being replaced by this lab, so we kind of already had a structure and an idea of what things to do each week for the second part of the course. In designing the course, we were looking for methods to deliver biological ideas and concepts more effectively. A lot of what makes biology interesting, at least to me, is that I can get myself as a test subject. So it is interesting to figure out my biology too. It is a nice way to introduce many topics that are important to molecular biology, like PCR and DNA separation based on size. We wanted some components of that for the first part of the course and Bio 52 has that nice HIV unit, so it was a great fit for it –an introductory step to an interesting topic that looks at ourselves using tools that are very important to biology, and then moving on to more advanced but still fundamentally important techniques for molecular biology like recombinant DNA. The new frosh lab gives us the opportunity to cover a lot of topics in biology. The faculty really try to teach a class that we thought was interesting, worthwhile, and not teaching you techniques that you will only see once in your life.
What do you hope students get out of this lab?
I would hope that you would get how broad biology is: it covers everything from bioengineering all the way to physiological phenotype screening. I tell my students that biology is essentially a big list of questions and you approach it differently to try to answer them, but as long as you’re answering a biological question, you’re doing a type of biology. Hopefully, the students leave bio lab with a better sense of what research biology actually is.
There is this untrue, false idea that biology is more about memorization. It’s really not. I’ve never told a student that you need to memorize this protein name or anything like that. Bio really gets a bad rep from stuff like that. That’s really not what biology is. There is certainly some jargon involved, but that’s true in every STEM field. It not like you could walk into CS without knowing what a list is, or a variable is, and do well. I hope that, with Bio 23, you can get a better sense of that: it’s not about memorizing, it’s about taking sound scientific approaches to interesting, important questions. That’s what we are trying to model: For example, we have this allele that affects susceptibility to this horrible disease, and we want to know what the frequency is in the population–how do we do that? Well, here is one approach using molecular biology. A more computational side of that question is covered in Bio 52, and hopefully students will get a sense of the broad range of different ways of approaching a biological question and the things you can learn by using each method.
In the future, there are really going to be a lot of big, important biological questions: global warming, population growth…Biology is very important and I think it’s very important for everyone to have some fundamental understanding of it. I hope that everyone who takes the class gets a more realistic idea of what biology is, which is solving important questions for society using a variety of tools and not just memorizing facts or limiting yourself to any one methodology.