At first blush, a new undergraduate course called "The Future of Biology" seems to promise the impossible in its name alone. But the goal of the two professors who piloted the class may be even more ambitious - to give biology students the "big picture" of the fast-changing life sciences.
Evolutionary biologist Rick Grosberg and neuroscientist Martin Wilson say they offered the seminar-style class because they were concerned that biology majors were getting inundated with facts and rarely grappling with fundamental questions of biology.
"It was clear to both of us that our undergraduates don't understand what drives biological research, either historical or current, or what roles they might play," Grosberg said. "Instead most of these people saw their role in biological research as just sort of in-filling."
"That's not the way science works," Wilson said. "Really, science is motivated by ideas."
The course includes no lab but instead features a distinguished lineup of weekly guest speakers, a lot of reading and an essay assignment each week on topics with no right or wrong answer.
Essay topics include:
- Is it worthwhile to think about the definition of life or a waste of time?
- Describe how, as an expert witness in the child-abuse trial of Cinderella's stepmother, you would rebut defense testimony that the stepmother was programmed by evolution to favor her own daughters.
- Use two different biological approaches to explain why most babies in the United States weigh 6 to 9 pounds at birth.
Grosberg and Wilson, with financial support from the Division of Biological Sciences dean's office, hired three teaching assistants to help read and evaluate essays from the approximately 50 students. They hope the course someday will be required for all biology freshmen.
Course title aside, the professors make it clear in the syllabus that the class is hardly an exercise in fortune-telling. Rather, the key to biology's future - and to the students' future as life scientists - is not so much in divining the right answers but in asking good questions.
Guest lecturers - leading scholars from UC, Stanford University, Cornell University, the University of Washington and the University of Cambridge - drive that point home. "Don't get pigeonholed into thinking about the problems in a particular way," advised UC Berkeley biologist Michael Dickinson, who won a MacArthur "genius" fellowship last fall for his research on the aerodynamics of insect flight.
"There's an enormous richness at these interfaces between disciplines," Dickinson told students. "That is really the take-home message with which I'd like you to leave."
Giving a lecture on his 87th birthday, Theodore Bullock, a preeminent neuroscientist from UC San Diego, said that when he first started studying biology it was possible to be a generalist. Today, he said, life sciences have become so specialized that even within his own field many neuroscientists no longer speak the same language. When he goes to conferences, Bullock said, "I can't even understand the titles of their papers."
UC Davis philosophy of science professor Jim Griesemer told students that, if the past is an accurate indicator, everything they'll learn in biology would prove to be wrong. "In the future, we're going to look back on today and say, 'How could they think that? How could they do that?'"
Truc Vuong, a junior majoring in biological sciences, said he signed up for "Future of Biology" because "I don't really know the big picture of what science is."
"I want to be the next Mendel or Darwin and conquer the world and, on the way, make a little bit of money," he said. "I love biology. I just want to discover something."
Dorothy Kodzwa, a junior in biochemistry and molecular biology signed up for the five-unit course because: "I was curious to know where biology was going. It's a very changing field"
Conlin Reis, a freshman trying to decide between a genetics or neurobiology major, said the course is unlike any he's ever taken. The writing assignments were the most challenging he's ever had, but also the most enjoyable, he said, noting. "It's been my favorite class so far."
Grosberg and Wilson said they had wanted to teach such a course for a number of years. Longtime friends, they share a belief in biology as "a unified enterprise." Both were inspired in a big way by a slim book, The Problems in Biology, written by John Maynard Smith in 1986 about unsolved questions in the life sciences.
Products of distinctly different educational systems - Grosberg at UC Santa Cruz and Yale University, and Wilson at the University of Bris-tol and Cambridge - they are both strong advocates of helping students develop skills in writing, critical thinking and problem solving.
"Nobody is going to come out of our class knowing neurobiology forward and backwards, or evolution or genomics," Grosberg said. "All they're going to know is how to think about those different questions. Our hope is that these people will continue to ask really hard questions, inside the class and outside the class - really fundamental questions."
Kathleen Holder is communications manager for the Division of Biological Sciences.
Amy Agronis, Dateline, (530) 752-1932, firstname.lastname@example.org