New interdisciplinary course targets personalized health

© iStock

© iStock

A new bachelor’s course in the College of Humanities (CDH) Social and Human Sciences (SHS) program allows students to engage with the emerging field of personalized medicine through the joint work of social and life scientists. 

Last spring, SHS lecturers Luca Chiapperino and Francesco Panese introduced a pioneering new course, Personalized and Global Health (HUM-388), for EPFL students in the second semester of their third year (BA6). In spring 2022, the course will again be offered under the new title, Santé Personnalisée: un défi biomédical et social, and this time will also be open to students from the University of Lausanne (UNIL).

HUM-388 unites Chiapperino’s Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) Ambizione research project on the biosocial dimensions of epigenetics and genomics, and former CDH director Panese’s coordination of an SNSF Sinergia project on the social dimensions of personalized health. The two experts introduce students to “4Ps medicine” – medicine that is predictive, preventive, personalized, and participatory. They explain that this involves the application of genomics, information technologies, and computer science to tailor diagnosis and treatment individual patients, as well as the use of communication platforms to help patients engage directly with their own healthcare.

Societal considerations: “not just an add-on”

Students in the course are invited to explore the institutional and intellectual dimensions of 4Ps medicine, the intersection of healthcare with other areas of policy, and the push for greater citizen engagement in future biomedicine. Roughly a third of the sessions include joint presentations by social scientists and biomedical experts working in different areas of 4Ps medicine, including genomics, immunotherapy, epigenetics, health data, and environmental health. By describing the mismatches between the values, tools, practices, and economies found in different fields of medicine, all speakers are asked to situate the social and scientific challenges of their own domain using the common analytical framework of “alignment”. This is the idea, which has a long history in the field of science and technology studies (STS), that innovation and knowledge are obtained from the convergence of different technical, scientific, political, institutional, and ethical factors that play out in research.

Moreover, Chiapperino explains that the pairs of lecturers are already actively working together, which allows them to present alignment processes from their own complementary perspectives to produce an integrated socio-technical approach. “We have tried to show students that societal considerations are not just an add-on. These are conditions of possibility that run throughout the whole process of innovation.”

The STS concept of 'alignment' is central to the course
The STS concept of 'alignment' is central to the course © Luca Chiapperino

Emphasis on student engagement

Panese emphasizes that student engagement is an essential component of the course, both during the lectures and student discussions: “This was not a course based on the top-down transfer of knowledge. It was the exact opposite of an ex-cathedra course. The idea was really to help students cultivate skills so that they could conduct their own research autonomously.”

During the second half of the semester, students work in groups to produce a poster project. The groups select their own poster topic, in dialogue with the course coordinators, and develop an interdisciplinary analysis. Chiapperino reflects that it was very gratifying as a teacher to see the students “integrate and play with the style of reasoning of our discipline, with an attention for the mixed social and techno-scientific conditions of possibility of biomedical innovation.”

Last spring’s posters, developed by students across disciplines at EPFL, focused on topics ranging from machine learning and autism diagnosis to virtual reality as a medical tool. With the addition of UNIL students, the course organizers hope that next spring’s projects will bring interdisciplinarity from an analytical approach to a concrete, daily practice of integrative work among students from different fields.

“We are grateful for the opportunity EPFL and UNIL gave us to move interdisciplinarity one notch further in next year’s course,” concludes Chiapperino.