Biology Professor Writes in ‘Science’ Why He Invites Current Events Into Classroom

Dave Wessner in Lab

Professor of Biology and Interim Chair of Health & Human Values Dave Wessner

In a recent Science Magazine piece, Dave Wessner, biology professor and interim chair of Health & Human Values, reflected on the overlap of his classroom and the outside world.

As a biology student in the 1980s, Wessner studied HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, but found himself hesitant to talk about the disease and its social ramifications in the classroom.

“I thought my mission was clear: Help my students understand and appreciate this amazing science. Examining the lived experience of HIV/AIDS wasn't part of the plan.”

That changed when he encountered the AIDS Quilt sprawled across the National Mall in front of the Washington Monument.

“I realized that science can't be studied or taught from the confines of an ivory tower,” he writes. “Science needs to be studied holistically and taught with compassion and empathy.”

Since then, Wessner has embraced opportunities to bring the world into his classroom. He and English professor Ann Fox co-taught “Representations of HIV/AIDS,” spawning an online course and even an art exhibit at the Van Every/Smith Galleries.

Today, he has found that his students hunger to explore current social issues in STEM classes—and that those discussions enrich their studies.

“Science does not exist in a vacuum,” Wessner writes. “Our students do not live in a vacuum. Yes, I'm a scientist, but I'm also a person living in a complex world. So are my students.”


  • August 15, 2019