Using the Flu as an Educational Opportunity

Illustration from David Macaluay's "The Way We Work", showing visitors throwing paper airplanes down air passages through the trachea.
Illustration from David Macaluay’s “The Way We Work”, showing visitors throwing paper airplanes down air passages through the trachea.

I woke up this Monday feeling sore, with a bad cough. Tuesday I barely had the energy to drag myself to a laptop to write this. It’s a familiar story for a lot of people around the United States right now, if the map at the top of this article is to be believed.

Yep, flu season is upon us in full swing, and in order to explain to my eight-year-old son what this means, I turned to that most awesome of all my medical reference books: David Macaulay’s The Way We Work. As you can probably guess from the title, this book provides a tour through all the major systems – circulatory, gastrointestinal, nervous, etc – that make up a human being, and contains several additional sections on health and disease. Like other David Macaulay books, including its more famous predecessor, The Way Things Work, David has meticulously illustrated the entire text with his colorful and quirky style. Diagrams of cross sections of tissue are visited by tiny tourists on observation platforms, schematics of biological systems are represented as bustling factories and conveyor belts, and sometimes even disembodied skeletons or diagrams of circulatory systems converse wryly with one another. My son eats all this up, and that’s good, as Macaulay’s light and humorous style comes with a serving of serious and well-presented content. I’ve always had a thing for the marriage of art and science, and this book is as good an example of this happy union as I can think of.

The flu virus takes up two whole gorgeously illustrated pages of the book: The first is more of an introduction to viruses overall, but the second goes into more detail about the mechanism of infection at the cellular level. And while I was reading this page to my son, I realized that this was new information to me as well: The flu virus apparently carries strands of RNA that are complementary to the actual mRNA needed for producing the various viral proteins. These complementary strands can’t do any harm by themselves, so they first have to find their way into the nucleus. There, the virus’s own RNA Polymerase makes the necessary mRNA copies that then get translated into viral proteins by the cell’s normal mechanisms. In other words, the virus gets a pretty thorough tour of the cell before blowing it up. Nice.

While I was digging around the internet with my son to verify these details and get a bit more insight, I came across another site that taught us something else about diseases: Namely, a simplified model of the spread of infections across a population, and the effects of vaccines and quarantine on the spread of disease. The site, simply called Vax, starts out with a tutorial that explains the concept of modeling a population susceptible to a disease as a graph with variously connected nodes. The visitor is invited to learn and play a game whose goal is to stem an epidemic coursing through this graph by deploying vaccines and quarantines on selected nodes – each has the effect of breaking the connections around a vaccinated or quarantined node, thus preventing further spread of the disease. Finally, there’s a related educational section on herd immunity that uses the graphic conventions established earlier in the site.

Vax actually grabbed my attention since it relies on an ingenious Javascript library called D3 (See more examples of what can be done with it here) to help render and animate the various node networks. This allows the content to be beautifully presented and animated in a way that abstracts away all but the core concepts. The audience can thus easily internalize the reasons why vaccines are a critical part of public health: Not just to protect oneself, but to prevent epidemics from sweeping through vast, densely connected populations.

I don’t know how much my son will retain from this educational adventure, but I sure learned several interesting new things about the flu in the process.

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Maciek Smuga-Otto


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  1. But Maciek, what we really want is to know if you are feeling better?
    Was in grad. school studying cytokines the last time I had the flu–as fever spiked and waned I laid in bed imagining the coincident IL-1 and connected cytokine levels rising and falling. What a good distraction it was! Hope you are better.

  2. I had a blast over the last 6 months developing and launching Vax ( It warms my heart to read your anecdote of scientific exploration with your son!

    I’m in the midst of developing new scenarios, levels, and an unlock system (still entirely in D3.js, it really is a versatile DataViz tool)…so stay tuned!

    My department’s grad students maintain a WordPress blog over at so check us out!

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