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Writing Across the Curriculum


Holloway Hall

Successful Applicant Will Have Experience With…
Patti Erickson

“Why do I have to study this stupid cell biology? I’ll never use this stuff. I want to be a zookeeper!” I hear it at least once a semester, students moaning about the required coursework for a biology degree. They don’t realize that the skills they’re learning might genuinely prove useful in later life—no matter what field of biology they enter. It’s true that not everyone runs around everyday calculating the grams of NaCl needed to prepare one liter of a molar solution, but strong math skills can come in handy. Not being able to calculate the appropriate number of suppositories needed to treat a constipated cougar, based on dose per pound of body weight, could be problematic for both you and the cougar!

Some (OK, many students) suggest that we over-emphasize memorization of pathways and processes like signal transduction or transcription and translation. Details of the epidermal growth factor-stimulated, Ras-mediated signaling pathway and subsequent induction of gene expression may seem irrelevant to those not planning to work in a biomedical research laboratory. But realizing that by knocking over the first domino, you cause a cascade of interconnected, downstream effects and can predict what would happen if one of the steps were blocked or inadvertently activated—these are all general concepts that apply in “real life.” Put two rabbits together in a cage, and a year later your exhibit hall is overrun with bunnies. If you want to be the first to successfully breed the endangered Colorado cougar in captivity, you’d better be sure that you’re pairing a male with female and not another male.

Others imply that we spend too much time training students in research methods. Were the appropriate positive and negative controls included? Are there enough data points to see a statistically significant, reproducible response? Most, they argue, won’t pursue careers where research forms the core of their work. But the skills of deductive reasoning, based on careful observation and analyses, are applicable outside of research settings. If adding more substrate doesn’t increase the reaction rate, what can be concluded about the velocity of the enzyme? Too arcane? How about this: The delivery man can’t find room in the supply shed to store this month’s load of cougar chow. Recently, you’ve noticed that several of your prized peacocks are missing. And your newly hired animal care assistant, Aiden, has been despondent since his girlfriend dumped him via Facebook. Based on these observations, what’s your hypothesis, and how will you test it?

We need to help students see that attention to detail is a critical, transferable talent. Our laboratory manual describes in detail how to prepare a manuscript-style lab report. Yes, the figure legend goes on a separate page. No, you should not give your graphs titles. Yes, each journal specifies its reference style. Does it really matter whether you submit yours as a pdf file or a Word document? Only if you’re applying for a job, and the application requires a pdf file format. If the deadline for submission is Friday at 5 pm, it doesn’t matter if your Internet connection went down at 4:58 pm because of a lightning bolt. Plenty of well-qualified others got their pdf file applications in on time.

So, what about my training and career path? Where have my 24 semesters of biology, 10 of chemistry, 3 of calculus, and 2 of physics gotten me? As I juggle my Arabidopsis plants, C. elegans plates, and E. coli cultures in the lab, with the students in my classes, and my family and pets at home—I feel as if I’m running a zoo!

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