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Growing “braaains”: New UGA seminar uses zombies to teach about infectious diseases

Athens Ga. – Ah, the humble zombie, bereft of all emotion save for an insatiable lust for human flesh. These nightmarish ghouls have recently gone from horror movie cannon fodder to virtual pop icons, shuffling and groaning their way onto television shows, novels, video games and toy markets. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have gotten in on the fun with its own tongue-in-cheek Web page dedicated to educating the public about zombie preparedness.

And now, the undead horde has invaded the University of Georgia. A new First-Year Odyssey Seminar taught by infectious disease expert John Maurer uses the myth of a zombie apocalypse to teach students about real-world diseases, plagues and pandemics that can be just as horrifying as the living dead.

“Zombies are the hot thing in the horror genre,” said Maurer, a professor in the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine’s department of population health. “I thought if I find something that is popular and that people are excited about, I could use that to teach students more about the real diseases that researchers work to combat every day.”

Students in the class are expected to develop a general understanding of infectious diseases, including how they are transmitted and controlled. Beginning each class with a clip from a popular zombie or horror film, Maurer explains how what is portrayed on screen relates to real illnesses caused by influenza, flesh-eating microbes, mad cow disease and other infectious agents.

It may seem like a stretch, but even the most outlandish horror movie plots are based in a certain degree of reality, Maurer said, and those that are particularly scary often imitate real life closely.

“Short of the reanimation of a corpse, there are many frightening diseases that have some similarities to the ones portrayed in a zombie film,” said Maurer, who is also a member of the UGA Faculty of Infectious Diseases. “But I think real life is much scarier.”

Maurer also introduces students to the basic principles of microbiology and the characteristics of pathogens like viruses, parasites, bacteria and fungi that cause many of the world’s diseases.

UGA’s First-Year Odyssey Seminar program consists of more than 300 one-credit-hour courses that allow new students to engage professors and other first-year students in a small class environment where faculty experts with a variety of research interests share their expertise and passion for learning.

“There are a bunch of freshman odyssey classes, and this one sounded really interesting,” said Aaron Klein, who signed up for the class as soon as it was available. “If I can talk about a bunch of science stuff in class, why not do it with zombies? That just makes it more fun.”

While Maurer expects his students to gain some valuable knowledge about the world, he ultimately wants them to approach every class with a light heart and eager mind.

“I hope my students walk away with an ability to approach any class they have with some fun,” he said. “If we professors don’t always do a very good job of making it entertaining, hopefully students can.”

For a video about the class, see

To learn more about the CDC’s zombie apocalypse preparedness, see

UGA Faculty of Infectious Diseases
The University of Georgia Faculty of Infectious Diseases was created in 2007 to address existing and emerging infectious disease threats more effectively by integrating multidisciplinary research in animal, human and ecosystem health. Researchers from across the university focus on epidemiology, host-pathogen interactions, the evolution of infectious diseases, disease surveillance and predictors and the development of countermeasures such as vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. For more information about the Faculty of Infectious Diseases, see