What is it like to join a renowned textbook team? When authoring a textbook or assessment, what is important to include? What do you want students to take away? Norton Biology recently sat down with Leslie Berg, chair of immunology and microbiology at Colorado University School of Medicine and new coauthor of Janeway’s Immunobiology to discuss her experience working on Janeway’s and how her teaching experience shaped the information she wanted to include in the text.
Norton Biology: You have worn a variety of hats throughout your career—from teaching and running a research laboratory to serving as president of the AAI. Now you are also a textbook author. What surprised you the most about authoring a textbook? Did your experience influence how you approached authoring?
Leslie Berg: I would say there were two things that were surprising and challenging: One is that the actual process of writing a textbook is much more involved than you would imagine if you never did it before. There are so many different versions of chapter files and edits and all the different people who send feedback that you then must address. I had no idea that it took over two years to produce an edition of a textbook. Janeway’s comes out every three years or so, and this is the second edition that I have been involved in. You get a little break between editions, but essentially it is a constant thing. So that was a bit surprising.
The other challenging part is trying to figure out what is the most important information that we need to convey. In three years, the field changes enormously, and you have to think about which of those new insights should be immortalized in a textbook. What really is essential? That is the part that requires a lot of thought and takes a lot of time because it is not just about learning all the details and information about the new insights, but also thinking about how it fits into the field. We also want to think about how solid the information is, and if that information will be true in a few years.
What I think helped me in terms of approaching those kinds of things is that I spent my whole professional career doing a lot of teaching. I used to teach undergraduate immunology for seven years, and I went on to teach medical school students for over 20 years. I taught graduate student immunology courses as well. The approach to each of those audiences is totally different. What you learn is that every course has to be geared toward the specific audience. For instance, teaching medical students is very different than teaching graduate students, since those two courses have very different goals. I think having all that teaching experience has really helped because in every one of those instances (especially when teaching medical school students), you spend a lot of time thinking about what you need them to know. There are nuances to every field, including immunology. There is a lot of jargon, a lot of nomenclature, that it is hard for a beginner to learn. Before we embellish with exceptions to the rules, we need to establish what the rules are, and you hope that you can convey the basics to people in a way that they can remember. Having all that teaching experience helped me with doing that. Of course, Janeway’s does contain a lot of the nuances, but you still need to do a good job explaining the basics so that people appreciate the nuances.
Norton Biology: How did you first get involved with authoring Janeway’s?
Leslie Berg: Ken Murphy called me one day and asked me if I would be interested. He knew that I did a lot of teaching, and we always had a mutual respect and admiration for each other. Ken’s approach to science and his papers are absolute tour de forces of research and clarity and insight. I figured that if Ken thinks I would be an asset to the book, who am I to argue with him? Anyway, I started with one or two chapters, and we went from there.
Norton Biology: You also worked on some of the assessment for the previous edition. Can you tell us a little about how you come up with assessment questions and why having good, difficult questions is important?
Leslie Berg: I wrote two separate sets of assessments. The first one was a set of exam questions that were meant to be used by instructors of the course. For each chapter of the book, there were essentially exam questions covering the chapter in a variety of different formats, some multiple choice, some short answer, and more. When I was done with that, I was asked to do a self-assessment quiz bank for students to test their knowledge after learning the material in a chapter. These were all multiple-choice questions, but the editors specifically indicated that they did not want memorization questions, but rather questions that asked students to put information together and apply basic information to a particular problem. What I did is that I read every section of every chapter, got the main points, and thought about how I would turn it into an exam question. For me, one of the easiest ways to do that was to think about if the pathway or mechanism was missing. What infections would people get, or what immune defects would there be? I would then look in the literature for papers where researchers knocked out a gene in that pathway to see what happened, and then I would turn that into some type of question. This way students would not just think about the pathway, but they would have to know why it was important. All of this is important for students to learn so that they know how to apply this information.
I think this is important because the goal of Janeway’s, and any good textbook, is not just to impart a bunch of facts to people which they can memorize for tests and then forget a month later, but to get them to retain enough of the information to apply it at some point in their careers. Everyone using Janeway’s will end up in science or in immunology, and you want them to recognize something when they see it in front of them—either in an experiment or another situation—and remember that they learned about it. You don’t expect everyone to remember every detail, but you want the application of this information to stick in their brain so they can resurrect it when needed.
Norton Biology: What are you most excited about in the new edition?
Leslie Berg: My own personal research interests are in T-cell signaling and T-cell activation, but we are really interested in signaling, especially T-cell receptor signaling. As many people know, much of that information is now being applied for therapeutic purposes. There are enormous numbers of people being treated with these drugs, which are basically antibodies that block inhibitory receptors. The whole category of these inhibitors is called checkpoint blockade inhibitors. This version of the chapter on antigen and receptor signaling has new information on these checkpoint blockade treatments and what the signaling mechanisms of the inhibitory receptors being targeted by those treatments do, how they impact antigen receptor signaling, and why they are an effective treatment to kill cancer cells. Another recent treatment of cancers are cell-based therapies, including CAR T-cells, which are T-cells that have been engineered to express a receptor that looks like a T-cell receptor, but instead is going to recognize something expressed on the surface of the cancer cells, and then kill the cancer cells. The CAR receptors that are engineered and expressed back into a patient’s T-cells are proteins that are made with various domains of signaling subunits of the T-cell receptor and the other important stimulatory receptors of T-cells. Understanding the signaling has been critical in the ability to make those receptors and know which domains of which signaling proteins are needed to get the best signaling. There is new information about those CAR receptors and there is a little history about the first version that was ever done as an experiment through the most recent versions of those chimeric receptors.
One of the other chapters that I am responsible for is Appendix I: The Immunologist’s Toolbox, which is a big description of a variety of techniques that are used in research in both human and animal immunology. The appendix has great figures that show how these techniques work, and with every edition that I have been involved in over the past three years, it is amazing how things change and the new techniques that have been developed in that time frame. The new edition has several sections on new techniques on cell-lineage tracing, descriptions of how single cell transcription and other omics techniques are done, and a few other new techniques that are common and important for students to understand.
Norton Biology: Janeway’s is such a beloved textbook and has been used by immunology students for decades. What does it mean to you to be part of this project?
Leslie Berg: It is a huge honor. As someone who used Janeway’s, read Janeway’s, and taught from Janeway’s, I know that it is clearly the premier immunology textbook. Being part of it is a huge honor and it is incredibly rewarding. When I teach, I hope to inspire a few people to be excited about immunology. Over the years, that has happened: I have had a few undergraduates who took my course and are now professional immunologists come back and tell me that it was my course that got them interested in immunology. That is incredibly rewarding. And being part of a textbook like Janeway’s makes that stage much bigger. The hope is that you inspire many more people—not just the few you have face-to-face teaching interactions with, but a whole generation of people that you want to get excited enough to work in a field that we all love.
It is such an exciting time to be part of the immunology field because so much is happening so quickly and having a lasting impact on the world. Just look at the last year and a half of our lives. Where would we be without immunology and the ability to make a vaccine in 11 months? It is remarkable. We are privileged to be part of that, and we want the textbook to inspire people to be immunologists.