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‘An interdisciplinary problem of world importance’

Senior Lecturer Beverly Sher teaches 100th section of emerging diseases class

Senior Lecturer of Chemistry, Beverly Sher. Photo by Stephen Salpukas.

Teaching a course titled “Emerging Diseases” one hundred times may not be everyone’s idea of fun, but for Beverly Sher, Senior Lecturer of Chemistry at William & Mary, it has been stimulating and inspiring. “Every time I teach it, it’s different,” she said. “What I love is when I look up at the clock and realize we should have stopped class 2 minutes ago and no one has noticed because our course discussion is going so well, students are so engaged. We talk about the sensation of flow – that’s what teaching this course is to me.”

Sher first taught the course at William & Mary in the fall of 1996. One hundred sections, nearly 1,500 students and two pandemics later, Sher’s interest in immunology and infectious disease is stronger than ever. From her students studying AIDS in the 1990s, SARS in 2003, the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic, Sher has seen the global importance of this problem. “It links to other big ones – political instability, climate change. So much depends on who happens to be in power when the bad thing comes. It’s a fundamentally human problem.”

Vishakha Shah, ’25, took Sher’s course in 2021-2022. “Dr. Sher constantly asked extremely thought-provoking questions, which taught me how to critically examine information and develop a confident argument for what I believe in,” said Shah, who is pursuing a major in kinesiology and health sciences on the public health track, and a minor in biochemistry. “Every step of the way, I felt like Dr. Sher shared my passion for medicine and really cared about helping me express it. Ultimately, this class helped me understand medicine better and encouraged me to really think about what kind of physician I want to be and how I want to contribute to the field.”

Graves Award winner Beverly Sher during Commencement 2017. Photo by Stephen Salpukas.Sher, a 2017 recipient of the Thomas Ashley Graves, Jr. Award for Sustained Excellence in Teaching, also taught the course for a semester at Richard Bland College as part of the Promise Scholars program. She emphasizes the interdisciplinarity of the study of new or reemerging infectious diseases. “This course shows the value of the liberal arts curriculum. There’s something for everyone and everyone takes something different from it.”

A key lesson Sher hopes students glean from her course is that science is a process, not a series of facts to learn. “It’s learning how to read in a critical, careful way; it’s new ways of learning and interpreting data. And it’s understanding that ambiguity is a part of it.”

Max Rackley, ’25, a neuroscience major, believes taking Emerging Diseases during freshman year set a strong foundation for future college classes. “This course not only offered a unique perspective into the world of public health but was also very relevant to life during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. I quickly noticed similarities between the COVID-19 pandemic and previous infectious diseases discussed in Dr. Sher’s carefully selected books, journal articles, and documentaries. I learned that when it comes to preventing or mitigating an infectious disease, mistakes continue to be made as if lessons from previous outbreaks were not learned. This makes it seem like history is repeating itself. Thus, one of the most impactful takeaways I took from Emerging Diseases was that if individuals, communities, and leaders do not collaborate, it's not a question of if, but when we will have another global pandemic.”

Sher hopes her students have been able to apply something from the course, “even if it’s just learning not to panic when they hear crazy things on the news.”

To Sher, teaching is planting seeds. “You don’t know how many are going to germinate, in whom and when. But when you teach, you touch the future.”

For students like Rackley and Shah, there is no question that the seeds planted during Dr. Sher’s course have taken root.

“There isn’t a more dedicated and knowledgeable professor to teach Emerging Diseases than Dr. Sher,” said Rackley. “I learned many skills from this class that have carried over to other classes. The skill I value the most is translating complex, scientific jargon to a language people can understand without distorting the message. As someone who is very interested in pursuing an MD-PhD program working directly with patients, the ability to communicate confusing, potentially frightening medical terms and circumstances to patients is invaluable. I’m so grateful I learned this skill early in Emerging Diseases.”