Ideas and languages of life sciences

Degree course: 
Corso di First cycle degree in Communication Sciences
Academic year when starting the degree: 
Academic year in which the course will be held: 
Course type: 
Supplementary compulsory subjects
First Semester
Standard lectures hours: 
Detail of lecture’s hours: 
Lesson (48 hours)

No special scientific or biological knowledge beyond the standard high school one is required.

Final Examination: 
Scritto e Orale Congiunti

Only a final examination will take place by means of two consecutive tests. In the first one (2/3 of the final grade), two questions will be posed in order to ascertain the acquisition of: 1) what are and how they have been shaped some of the most relevant concept of the modern and contemporary biological sciences and of the ability to insert them in a possibly narrative but in any case scientifically correct communication; 2) the ability to relate, whenever possible, the current debates in the media to the scientific and historical subjects dealt with in the course the controversies which have characterized the history of the life sciences. This will be followed by a second part (1/3 of the final grade) ascertaining the acquisition of the third expected ability, that is to be able to critically analyze a popular scientific article, video, podcast, blog entry of biological character chosen at the moment by the lecturer among a shortlist of at least five freely proposed by the student.
The final grade will be determined by the degree of acquisition of the expected knowledge and skills, according to the following criteria which include the expected communication skills characterizing the Degree course: knowledge of the subjects dealt with (40%; synthetic and analytic skills (30%); expression and language command, also with reference, whenever necessary, to general scientific specificities (30%).

Voto Finale

Our language, and consequently the media one, contains more and more terms and metaphors coming from Life Sciences, which in turn borrow as many of them from both exact and human sciences.
Chief aim of the course is thus primarily the acquisition of a basic vocabulary of contemporary biology according to a historical perspective, allowing to catch the essential lines of the many current scientific, ethical, social and political debates in biology. Special attention will be given to the reciprocal use, between biology and other disciplines, of metaphors and languages typical of each other. Attention will be paid to the visual language of biological scientific popularization, integral part of the communication act.

The student is expected to acquire, by the end of the course, the following skills:
1) to be aware of meaning and of the historical development of some of the most relevant concept of the modern and contemporary biological sciences (such as life, cell, fertilization, embryo, gene, epigenetics, clone, stem cell, editing, etc.) and of the metaphors as well as images used in the narratives which concern them; consequently, to be able to communicate, even narratively but nevertheless in a scientifically correct way, topics having an impact on the individual and on the society, where these ideas, as pointed out above, play a fundamental role;
2) to be able to relate, whenever possible, the current debates to the controversies which have characterized the history of the life sciences, then placing them in a wider cultural context in order to take part in them being able to communicate their content with enough awareness;
3) to critically analyze the mass media coverage, visual aspects included, of the advancements of some of the current biological debates in the media to possibly find useful patterns of communication.

It is expected as well that the acquisition of what described above would lead to a development of the abilities to rework and synthesize information and knowledge also coming from different sources as well as to correctly the language, including some of its specificities present in the scientific field.

The acquisition of the expected knowledge and skills will develop in parallel all along the course, which will have as a guiding theme the study of reproduction and heredity. In particular, the following subjects will be treated:

- What is life: distinctive features of living organisms: organization, metabolism, reproduction, evolution. (4h)
- The cell as the elementary life unit. Microscopy and biological illustration. Cell theory and its socio-political metaphors (6h)
- The chemistry of life and the origins of molecular biology. DNA and the information flux in organisms. Bacteria and viruses. Brief notes on vaccins: a problem of science communication? (6h)
- The development of pluricellular organisms: Epigenesis and preformism. (4h)
- Heredity between XIX and XX centuries: Mendel and classical genetics. Morgan and the chromosome theory. The gene-trait relationship. The gene as a cultural icon. (8 h)
- Developmental biology and cloning; stem cells. The notion of program in biology and its critical analysis. Epigenetics. (8 h)
- Biological Evolution: the ideas of Lamarck, Darwin and natural selection, neo-darwinisms. (4h)
- Genetics between XX and XXI centuries: recombinant DNA and genetically modified organisms; the Human Genome Project and the present post-genomic era; genome editing. Personalized medicine and cancer research. (8h)


Power Point presentations possibly showed in lectures, to be considered as an integral part of the exam subjects, will be made available during the course on the e-learning web site. For each lecture, a detailed specific bibliography will be published, on the e-learning site, referring to:

1) The following texts which must be studied in full:
- J.Waller – Heredity. A very short introduction – Oxford University Press, 2017;
- J.Slack – Genes. A very short introduction – Oxford University Press, 2014;
- C.Ennis, O.Pugh – Introducing Epigenetics: a graphic guide – Icon books, 2016.

2) to supplementary material such as journal articles and book excerpts are required reading as well that will be made available according to instructions specified by the teacher during the course and obtainable at any time upon contacting the teacher via e-mail.

The course formative goals will be reached by means of lectures for a total of 48 hours, 1/3 of which l be devoted to the critical analysis of short texts of popular biological science taken from the web and from dailies and magazines, proposed by both the lecturer and, in case, the students. Given the interdisciplinary character of the subject, in which science, history and ethical-philosophical-political (in a broad sense) ideas are intertwined, which is often hard to find in available texts, lecture attendance is strongly encouraged.

Students are welcome to come anytime, by appointment to fix via e-mail, to the teacher's office in the Departmental (DiSTA) building (via J.H.Dunant 3, Varese, third ("red") floor).