Syllabus 2018

Protein Portraits BB407H: Protein stories

What the student can expect to learn:

We will tell protein stories through three main activities.

  • Stories from the world of science. Our first activity will be to take each other on story-telling tours of the chemistry and structure of proteins, guiding ourselves through the meanings and definitions of science by referring to the wealth of materials that scientists commonly refer to in discussing protein molecules.  We will frequently turn to the Protein Data Bank and the associated Molecule of the Month for examples of such stories.  We will make heavy use of the axiom that one good picture is worth a thousand words.  Our stories will therefore borrow illustrations wherever we can find them.  For example, we may be guided by two wonderfully illustrated science books,  The Machinery of Life by David Goodsell and Introduction to Protein Structure by Branden and Tooze
  • Stories that include the perspective of art and speculative fiction. The second activity will be to enhance our storytelling by employing our artistic instincts.  We will bring into our stories any and all forms of metaphor and hyperbole, characters and, settings, motives and plots.  We will critique existing examples from the small but limitless genre of molecular science fiction (?).  We will share ideas and float trial balloons to carry ourselves to new levels of scientifically- and artistically inspired storytelling.
  • Group authorship.  In the third activity we will settle on a group composition that tells the story of a group of proteins.  Though vague at the outset, this mission will gain clarity as we work together.  To make the project more concrete, we will begin by inventing ourselves as five script writers tasked with the development an alternative ending to a world-famous science fiction film.  Take for example 2001 A Space Odyssey.  What if the ending were changed such that a new beginning of life were to transpire?  We tell the story of how the characters and movement in the film bring molecules into play to set in motion a new beginning of life, seeded from elsewhere, carrying the message forward to new settings.  We will write sketches and drafts, storyboard the action, and watch where our creativity takes us.

What is expected of the student:

  • Classroom participation is number one.  The best kind of participation stimulates discussion across the whole classroom.  If you are not talking, you are not participating.  But if you are the only one talking, you are not promoting discussion and need to work on your listening skills! At minimum you should supply a comment or question each day of the class.  Jump in!
  • Progress reports.  We will set various deadlines for our project, and you are expected to describe your progress.  Willingness to share personal progress at all stages will lend a team atmosphere to the course.  That is what we are after.
  • Design deadlines will be self-imposed.  We will distribute the work and stay realistically aware of the limited time that we can devote to this course.  Deadlines may include a) choosing a gene machine and offering a preliminary story of how it operates by week three or four, and b) a fictionalized story due about two weeks later. That would bring us to the final half of the course when the group activity takes over.  The final deadline will be week ten, marked by publication of our scriptwriting.
  • Attendance.  100% classroom attendance is expected (aside from excused absences). Please realize that your absences detrimentally affect the whole class, not simply you alone.  The easiest way to lower your letter grade is to miss class!


If a student comes to class, participates in our discussions, and meets each course deadline including the final deadline of producing a protein portrait artwork, that effort will be a sufficiently strong performance to merit the receipt of an A letter grade in this 2-credit colloquium course.

Learning resources

  • We will make heavy use of the Protein Data Bank and its affiliated Molecule of the Month.
  • The optional textbook (for your purchase) is The Machinery of Life by David Goodsell (2nd edition, 2009).

The Machinery of Life

  • Another optional book is Introduction to Protein Structure by Branden and Tooze (Second edition; 1999; ISBN 0815323050; about $70.)  If you find a used copy, grab it!  This is a great book.


  • I am also happy to lend you a biochemistry textbook if that will help.

Cost of materials

Art materials for storyboarding purposes will probably cost you around $10- $20 at most (glue, tape, wire, other cheap materials).  Let’s hold down the cost.  Try to use the stuff you find lying around in the back of your closet.  Save money.

Phil McFadden

Phil McFadden

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