Oh, to be free of biology lab

30 03 2007

There has been quite a lively discussion going on lately (see here, here, here, here, here, and here for some of the highlights) over science labs for undergraduates, and being that I’m an undergrad myself (and have 2-3 lab courses every semester) I thought I would weigh in on the subject.

First, I should be honest and say that I’m none too happy with my undergraduate education up to this date. There have been some high points and some low, but especially since I started reading more scientific books and papers on my own, I don’t feel like I’m getting much from any of my classes. It may sound arrogant, but half the time I feel I could teach some classes better than my professors (becoming that insufferable know-it-all everyone hates in the process), and at this point college has merely become the institutional meat-grinder that I have to go through if I want to get my degree and some amount of respect. Darwin had publish a massive work on barnacles that took 8 years, I have to spend 8 years avoiding the BS; means to an end as far as some amount of academic respect.

Before I go off on my rant, I have had some positive experiences with lab work. Although my actual paleontology lab involved little more than looking at fossils and taking notes, the class did take a trip to the Inversand marl pit in southern New Jersey, where I was able to collect some bone material (there’s too little to ascertain from what, but likely a marine reptile) including a crocodile scute and mosasaur vertebrae. Certainly, neither was a big scientific acheivement but I felt utterly exhilarated uncovering part of an animal that lived over 65 million years ago right around where I was standing (the area was about 100 feet underwater during the end-Cretaceous). Another such positive experience occurred last summer when I spent one week in Stokes State Forest and another in Barnegat Bay, learning techniques for birding, forestry, etc. While I have to say I wasn’t particularly excited about the forestry/botany aspects of the first week, it felt good to actually be outside practicing methods used to determine various aspects of ecology rather than sitting in lecture.

If I had any other good labs experiences, however, I have long since forgotten them. Most labs I have taken have been horribly constructed and leave the student with little new information, certainly not reinforcing the concepts learned in lecture. Indeed, for some classes “Lab” merely means “video time,” where ancient National Geographic programs are shown without further discussion or comment. Others, however, involve monitored viewing/experience with materials, such is my current biology 102 lab. Each lab starts off with a quiz and .ppt presentation, followed by viewing of ancient Turtox-brand slides and then a final wrap-up where each group is assigned a question. The past week has been an exception being that we’ve been dissecting a fetal pig, but it seems more about just being able to name the anatomy than understanding about how the systems work in the organism. Indeed, often it feels like the course is designed with future med-students in mind, important aspects of biology like behavior, evolution, and ecology getting little mention or being pushed to the end of the semester.

Part of the problem with biology courses, and labs specifically, is that lack of enthusiasm shown by instructors. What grad student really wants to get up early and set up 20 microscopes with slides and herd undergraduates for 3 hours? I have yet to be through the system myself, but from what I understand if you cannot pay for grad school on your own, you need to get a GA or TA-ship, meaning if you can’t get a grant and you can’t pay on your own, you have to be a TA. I don’t want to paint all TA’s with too wide a brush (maybe it’s just Rutgers) but most of the ones I have encountered aren’t particularly happy about their situation and do little to inspire undergrads. Indeed, there are professors as well that seem like they would much rather be doing their own research than teaching an introductory course, and this apathy (and even contempt) comes across quite clearly.

Like I said, I don’t want to say that all labs are worthless or that every college is like mine, but as far as my own experience, I feel that I’m merely paying for my degree in yearly installments. There’s little that I’ve learned through my classes that I actually remember, and whenever I’ve shown an interest in a particular field or a desire to get involved, I’ve been brushed aside or looked down upon. When I switched my major to ecology & evolution, my adviser told me she didn’t think I could do it, and I’ve magically been reassigned to someone else (although it’s probably for the better). I’m tired of sitting in cramped lecture halls and listening to dispassionate professors stumble through lessons, I actually want to LEARN something and become a professional, but it doesn’t seem like I can do so at college. While gaining a “well-rounded” education is important, I think things are made more difficult on students by having to balance biology, chemistry, physics, math, history, etc. all in the same semester through much of their undergraduate work; if the classes had a common theme, were integrated, or even fed into each other, I think the acquiring and retention of information would be much greater, but I know that I have chosen my classes poorly in the past and now am stuck playing “clean up” in order to get my degree in the next year.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever make a good scientist at all, not for lack of interest or passion, but because I simply can’t stand the Ivory Tower of academia. I would absolutely love to go to Africa and study ecology and evolution there, but no one will take me seriously or even support me without having gone through the collegiate initiation process first, even though it has really done little to spur my intellectual development. There must be a better way.

Worst 4 years ever

28 02 2007

I got a chance to check out the documentary Go Tigers! tonight and it brought back a lot of memories of high school (no, not good ones). This Green Day song, being released in October of my senior year, essentially sums up my feelings on that time in my life

Now, my school was nowhere-near as football obsessed as Massolin, but football players did have a certain privalege and I could recognize all the same “characters” of the documentary from my own high school; classic football jocks, airhead cheerleaders, parents who buy beer for their kids to puke up on Friday nights, that crazy fat kid who thinks he’s funny but really looks like he’s going to have a heart attack, the young football coach who prays with his team just before cursing them out, etc. To put it mildly, I really hated high school; it was the worst 4 years of my life. Granted, I didn’t go to football games or take an interest in getting drunk on weekends (I had integrity), but in general it was just not a happy time. I was a dork, classes were boring, girls ignored me, the popular kids made fun of me nearly daily, and even amongst my friends I felt somewhat second rate. College hasn’t fared much better (although I don’t have to be at school all day every day now), the same high school drama just changing faces. Indeed, everyone here at RU makes a big deal about football but who can be bothered to protest yet another tuition increase or decisions to change the name of my school (Cook College)? Hell, when I graduate I don’t even really want to go to commencement because I don’t have much of a connection with this school; why should I sit and listen to people gab on about this being the “first day of the rest of my life” when I don’t really care? I just want to get out and start learning about the world and making a difference in it, and I guess the only reason I’m still in college is because the piece of paper is the first step to getting there, even though it doesn’t really say much about who I really am. *sigh* I want a do-over.

Adrift in a sea of apathy

15 02 2007

So far the interest in my idea for a peer-edited weblog about evolution for Rutgers undergrads has been essentially nil; people I’ve talked to about it think it’s a good idea but interest/motivation is certainly lacking. I’ll throw up some more flyers around campus and maybe make an announcement or two in class, but overall it seems that people (outside of one other concerned student and a professor) just don’t care. Perhaps if I actually post an article it will stir some interest, at the very least I could use it for the book I’m in the process of writing, about why evolution matters in the first place. Why should we care about evolution? Is it more than just theoretical posturing that explains nature without practical use? I certainly believe it’s the most important in biology to grasp, and while you may be able to do research or be a scientist in the biological field, understanding evolution(and ecology) is absolutely essential to truly understanding the implications of discoveries.

I picked up Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden the other day, and while dated (and he does speak favorably about Haeckel’s embryos, *sigh*) it is an absolutely enthralling read, the quotes he selects for the opening of every chapter especially interesting. Chapter 5, dealing with primate intelligence, opens with this quote from Linneaus

I demand of you, and of the whole world, that you show me a generic character… by which to distinguish between Man and Ape. I myself most assuredly know of none. I wish someone would indicate one to me. But, if I had called man an ape, or vice versa, I would have fallen under the ban of all the ecclesiastics. It may be that as a naturalist I ought to have done so.

While there are indeed differences between “Man and Ape,” I know of no character that can divorce us from our shared ancestry. It may be easy for creationists or the uninformed to say “I didn’t evolve from anything,” but I guess such people have not visited places like the Bronx Zoo and seen the gorillas there. While we are certainly not evolved from gorillas, we share a family history with them, a familial relationship that is starkly apparent when they are viewed for even a moment. As Sagan suggests in his book, perhaps we do not have any relatives closer than chimpanzees and other great apes as we eliminated them all through competition or homicide, all of us perhaps carrying the Mark of Cain and its legacy. Although some view being related to an ape demeaning, I find it wonderful; we are inexorably connected to those who came before us and all of life on this planet. As Charles Darwin put it in The Descent of Man

The main conclusion arrive at in this work, namely, that man is descended from some lowly-organized form, will, I regret to think, be highly distasteful to many persons. But there can hardly be a doubt that we are descended from barbarians. The astonishment which I felt on first seeing a party of Fuegians on a wild and broken shore will never be forgotten by me, for the reflection at once rushed into my mind-such were our ancestors. These men were absolutely naked and bedaubed with paint, their long hair was tangled, their mouths frothed in excitement, and their expression was wild, startled, and distrustful. They possessed hardly any arts, and, like wild animals, lived on what they could catch; they had no government, and were merciless to everyone not of their own small tribe. He who has seen a savage in his native land will not feel much shame, if forced to acknowledge that the blood of some more humble creature flows in his veins. For my own part, I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper; or from that old baboon who, descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs-as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions [emphasis mine]

It is clear that Darwin suffered from a bit of Victorian-era racism and romanticism of the natural world, for from whence did the “savages” come but the same stock that led to him and more “civilized” folk back in England? While it is easy to recognize the virtues of great apes, it is not so easy to watch males abuse females, see male chimpanzees on the hunt for monkeys (apparently they do not feel the same cross-species kinship that we have for “lower” primates), or recognize that perhaps our sometimes violent and irrational natures come from our evolutionary inheritance. As Sagan suggests in Eden, even though our neocortex is capable of very complex thought and expression, perhaps it is merely controlling the wild horses that are the limbic system and reptilian complex, the influences of such ancient systems being more influential in a meeting than complex abstraction/reasoning ability. I do not know enough about psychology or neurology to confirm or refute this view scientifically, but it seems that our enlarged neocortex has allowed us to be more elegantly barbaric at times, instead of attacking a competitor with our teeth and fists out of fear we vaporize his children with patriot missiles that we made (and justified) using our advanced brain. This is no to say we our slaves to our evolutionary heritage, the altruism expressed by humans far surpassing any found in nature, but to believe that we somehow are immune to the avoidance of pain, seeking of pleasure, and the feelings of fear or being threatened is ludicrous; such feelings are part of who we are, but not the whole of who we are.

When democrats act like idiots

9 02 2007

Lately there’s been a lot of sleazy union-types slinking around Rutgers University, trying to get more members into the American Federation of Teachers. From what I can tell, the vast majority of Rutgers faculty and employees do not want to be unionized, and from some of the stories I’ve heard so far the union representatives have been rude, coercive, and generally misleading/unethical during their visits to prospective members. As much as I don’t like Rutgers’ current president Richard McCormick, I feel he was in the right to represent the general attitude of Rutgers towards the union; we don’t want anything to do with another corrupt organization that steals money from staff and faculty without providing them any benefits. I don’t fully understand all of what’s going on (being only a student worker) but it seems that as long as the union gets enough “votes” in terms of signed union cards they can move in and try and represent all of the appropriate university employees whether said employees like it or not. Talk about unethical.

Regardless of the union issue, this passage from a Philadelphia Inquirer article on the subject caught my eye

Rutgers’ deal with the American Federation of Teachers came weeks after Gov. Corzine chided the university administration over antiunion e-mails sent to employees.

Some of Corzine’s fellow Democrats in the Legislature had threatened a cut in state funding to Rutgers if president Richard McCormick continued to fight the union, which wants to organize about 3,000 administrative, supervisory and professional employees.

Wait, they can take away more money from students? I guess the democrats are under the delusion that cutting funding to Rutgers is somehow going to hurt McCormick and other upper-echelon people or they just have gone crazy. We went through this song and dance over the summer, waiting for the new state budget to come out, and in short students got screwed BIG TIME (my tuition went up $1,000 and I don’t even live on-campus). As a result of less money, Rutgers had to let more people in, so many that some students had to live in hotel rooms and you now have to wait an hour before being able to catch an intercampus bus between classes. If funding got cut again, it would be another blow to students already disadvantaged by uncaring state government officials. I realize that since McCormick stopped his active assault on union reps things have simmered down and said cuts are unlikely to occur, but it does piss me off that state government democrats even considered cutting money from the school again, further straining many of the “non-traditional” (i.e. single mothers or people who don’t have mom and dad to pay for their tuition) students already desperately trying to find aid to stay in school. If I wasn’t so close to graduating I would seriously think of transferring elsewhere because attending Rutgers has been one of the worst experiences of my life and it does not look like the quality of education or intelligent of the administration is going to improve anytime soon.

Announcing Darwin’s Beagles!

6 02 2007

To say the least, evolution is a controversial topic. Everyone seems to have an opinion, but not many people seem very active in the debate or have a desire to dive into the topic, especially in my own state of New Jersey. Indeed, it’s sad to see misunderstandings of evolution persist even at the college level, so I have thus started a community-oriented, peer-edited blog for Rutgers undergraduate students to discuss evolution called Darwin’s Beagles. So far I’ve only gotten a response from one student, but hopefully that will soon change, leading to an active community of students writing about one of the grandest unifying ideas ever to arise in science. If you’re interested in commenting, contributing, or even joining, please visit the blog and get in touch with me at b_switek@yahoo.com.