Seeking a Scientific Education

by Wells

As someone who came into scientific research from an atypical educational background, I spend a lot of time thinking about the pedagogy of the natural sciences.  Regrettably, undergraduate science classes – particularly at large universities – are often taught in a way that rewards rote memorization and does little to cultivate critical thinking skills. This was the topic of Kevin’s most recent article, which nicely summarizes many of the structural elements that contribute to this state of affairs. I generally concur with his assessment but  respectfully disagree that this is a problem for which we must find systemic solution. While their introductory science classes often suffer, the academic environment at large universities accurately reflects the demands of a modern scientific career, and will not be a serious deterrent for students who are committed to its pursuit.

Having been a student or researcher at five different post-secondary educational institutions, I have seen that students who are sufficiently curious and willing accept responsibility for their own education will find success in the sciences regardless of institutional setting. In fact, despite their disadvantages, large universities may be a better environment for such students. Reputable schools with well-funded science programs can provide opportunities for high-impact research not commonly found at small colleges, and undergraduates with the motivation and autonomy to take advantage of such resources are often very well prepared for graduate school. Normally viewed as a benefit, the close and supportive nature of the education at small colleges can often absolve students of the need to be aggressive in the pursuit of research opportunities, a skill that pays enormous dividends at every level of scientific study. While certainly the rote learning and anonymous classrooms characteristic of large universities do little to encourage creative thinking, those who can learn to be successful at such institutions will be well prepared for their graduate career and beyond.

Besides, the honest truth is that on a daily basis, scientific research is significantly more tedious than anything I experienced in my introductory coursework. For example, while I have used qRT-PCR to generate exciting and novel data regarding cellular metabolism in renal cystic disease, the process itself required two and a half painstaking hours of pipetting without interruption and still had to be repeated several times. Likewise, even though mice and rats are powerful model systems for human disease, there is not much about their husbandry that makes much use of my critical thinking skills. However, putting forth sustained effort in the face of such tedium is a necessary part of producing data and is as true for accomplished scientists as it is for college students.

Frank pipetting

You can tell this photo is posed because his bench is clean, he’s wearing a lab coat, and his forced smile just barely conceals 5 years of endless frustration.

On a similar note, while I understand and mostly agree with Kevin’s emphasis on interest-driven scientific education, I believe that in fact this approach is self-defeating when it is applied to graduate education. While this was once the way that I approached research myself, I have realized that many of the phenomena at the center of my current projects are important to a diverse variety of pathologies, and would be fascinating to explore even outside of the disease context. Additionally, beginning a graduate program with exceedingly narrow interests can very limiting. It may discourage the pursuit of opportunities in unfamiliar fields that might be very interesting, and can lead to selecting a lab or mentor without giving proper consideration to their ability to offer the kind of training you are looking for. There will always be opportunity to pursue research of personal interest, but good scientific training will emphasize the process of phrasing a complex hypothesis in terms of interpretable experiments, and not the question at hand.

To summarize, while I agree the modern university system does little to encourage creative thinking and independent study, students who are inclined to find such things intrinsically rewarding will not be deterred by tedious introductory coursework. Those who do find such classes sufficiently discouraging would likely find advanced coursework or a thesis project to be equally frustrating if they did not learn a certain degree of academic endurance in the interim. For some, this may simply be a question of maturity.  College freshmen are ultimately just teenagers, most of whom are barely ready to declare a major – let alone to decide what they want to do with their lives. I think this is the big failing of the modern university system and where I tend to agree with Kevin; large classrooms and grueling memorization-based coursework often alienates students who are simply not ready for that kind of challenge and for whom their interest may be better cultivated in a small campus environment.

That said, my introductory biology class at Reed College could not have been in a better or more nurturing environment, and I still hated it. When I began my post-baccalaureate coursework at Portland State, and later at UConn, I found that it was not difficult to find ways to enrich my scientific education outside the classroom and to make the most of my classes no matter the syllabus. The difficult part all along had been accepting the responsibility for doing so ; and as I have learned, the onus will always on be me, as a graduate student and beyond.