Investigation of the molecular basis of cancer, environmental toxicants, and Chinese traditional medicine

COURSE DESCRIPTION: Lectures and research projects will explore the mechanisms involved in the principles of macromolecular structure and function.  We will gain an in-depth understanding of the role proteins play in the molecular function of cells.  To expand this basic understanding of proteins, we will investigate three research areas. 1) We will investigate how proteins can malfunction in cancer and how protein pathways can become perturbed by mutations in genes 2) We will also investigate how environmental toxicants can impact human health at the molecular level.  3) Lastly, we will investigate how human diseases can be studied by the molecular investigation of Chinese traditional medicine.



The primary goal of this course is to teach students fundamentals of biological sciences including biochemistry, cell biology and molecular biology and how to apply this fundamental knowledge to their research projects.  We will learn how to critically read and evaluate original research papers in the biological sciences as well as to learn how to effectively formulate and test scientific hypotheses, present primary data and integrate these data into an interpretative model.  The course will therefore:

  • convey to students the major advances in our understanding of basic cellular processes, including how they are altered in the diseased state
  • introduce a wide range of experimental techniques and their applications to modern biological analysis (see Lecture Schedule).
  • highlight the necessity for cross-validation in modern biological research and its importance to the concept of burden-of-proof
  • develop students’ ability to communicate science, both orally and in writing


Background Preparation (Prerequisites):

Students are required to review the class powerpoints before each class which will be provided by the professor ahead of time.


Required Text:

   All material will be provided in class in the form of powerpoints.



Course Requirements & AssignmentS

  • Attendance and participation in ALL lecture and discussion sections.
  • Students will be expected to review the course powerpoints before each class and to be ready to discuss in depth during class.
  • Students will be responsible for one oral presentation at the end of the course to describe the results of their research projects. Well-organized, well-prepared presentations are expected.
  • Students will be responsible for preparing a written report of their scientific findings in the format of a scientific research paper.



Each group will make one oral presentation at the end of the class. The talk should provide an in-depth introduction to the subject of the research project plus a thorough description of their hypotheses, methods, results, and conclusions in the form of a powerpoint presentation.


Research project:

The class will be divided into three groups.  Each group will select a unique research topic from the suggested list below or a topic of their own choosing with Professor approval.

Topic List:

  1. Investigation of the molecular basis of cancer
  2. Molecular investigation of a Chinese traditional medicine in the treatment of human disease
  3. Investigation of environmental toxins impact on human health

Each group will work collaboratively with the professor to select scientific journal articles within their topic area.  Based on this background reading, students will develop new hypotheses about their topic and design a series of experiments to test these hypotheses.   For example, students could propose to investigate the derivatization of a traditional Chinese medicine to increase its efficacy based on modifications to its chemical structure.  Or students could design a series of experiments that would test the molecular target of a newly discovered environmental toxicant. Or students could investigate the molecular details of proteins shown to regulate cancer. This work will be documented by a final written and oral report according to the schedule in the syllabus.



Research report:

Each student will be responsible for preparing a written report of their scientific findings in the format of a scientific research paper. The main sections are: Abstract (100 words), Background and Significance (1 page max), Methods (1 page max.), Results (2 pages max.), Conclusions (2 pages max). Each section should be prepared similarly to a scientific research paper as we will discuss in class.  The maximum length for your paper is 6 single-spaced pages, not including literature citations (the paper may be shorter).  Please use Arial or Helvetica typeface with a font size of at least 11 point, and 1-inch margins. Diagrams can be used to explain the experiments or the background science but inclusion of diagrams does not alter the page limits.





30% research oral presentation

40% written research report

30% class participation (including iClicker questions)





All due dates are clearly specified on the course schedule. Assignments must be turned in on time in the format specified to be eligible for full credit. For the written assignment, late submissions will lose points on the following scale: up to 24 hours, 15% of assignment value; 24 – 48 hours, 50% of assignment value; more than 48 hours, no credit. We encourage you to turn in your work on time.


Missed class/assignment makeup policy:


Any student unable to submit an assignment by the date indicated on the syllabus must provide documentation of the reason behind the absence to CIS prior to the due date.  Please forward the documentation to the CIS academic coordinator In case of medical illness, a doctor’s note will be required.  Any student that does not provide the necessary documentation BEFORE the due date for the assignment will not be able to makeup any work and will lose points according to the late policy.  All work must be completed by the end of the class on 5/9 at 7pm EST regardless of student absence or circumstance.


How assignments will be evaluated:


Oral presentations: Evaluation criteria for oral presentations are:

-organization of the presentation/slides

-quality of the slides

-oral delivery

-knowledge of the research project and background material and ability to answer questions from the audience.

Class participation: Students are expected to provide substantive answers to questions about the classroom material and be active participants in class activities. Students will also be given in-class, multiple choice electronic iClicker questions and participation in these questions will be an element of class participation score. Students will have thoroughly read, and be able to discuss, the required reading. Students with a thorough command of the material will receive an ‘A’, those that demonstrate knowledge, but not in-depth knowledge will receive a B and students that, on average, provide incomplete answers and demonstrate they do not fully understand the material will receive a C.


Written work: For the written research report, the scored criteria to be evaluated will include:

-background relevance

-focus / argument (Is there a central question or argument?)

-clarity of style and organization (This includes mechanics, clarity, organization, and appropriate citations)

-clear definition of hypothesis




A       Complete mastery of course material and additional insight beyond course material (Learning outcome: Insightful)


B       Complete mastery of course material (Learning outcome: Proficient)


C       Gaps in mastery of the course material; not at the level expected of a Brown University student (Learning outcome: Developing)


F       Inability to develop mastery of any course material

(Learning outcome: Ineffective)




All work that you do in this course must be your own.  Always cite those ideas of others.

If you ever have questions, feel free to contact the instructors.



Class schedule


Session Date Time (EST) In-class topic TA section
1 9/5 7-10 pm Introduction to class and amino acids Assignment into groups
2 9/12 7-10 pm Peptides, Protein Structure, and Function Selection of research and review paper
3 9/18 7-10 pm Intro to research presentation and Mass Spectrometry Final selection of research and review papers
4 9/19 7-10 pm Cellular Signaling Pathways in Disease and Cancer Selection of research question and statement of hypothesis
  9/26   Holiday, no class  
5 10/3 7-10 pm Research Project meetings (1 hour/group), first draft of introduction for written reports due Work on written and oral reports
6 10/10 7-10 pm Research Project meetings (1 hour/group), First draft of written

report due

Work on written and oral


7 10/17 7-10 pm Research Project meetings (1 hour/group), Final draft of written and first draft oral research reports due Work on oral reports
8 10/24 7-10 pm Oral Presentations In person discussion of performance in class