Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

PLoS Genetics interviews David Botstein

by PhilipJ on 30 June 2006

Last month, PLoS Genetics interviewed David Botstein (we’ve mentioned him here before, too), the current director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton, which “weaves the physical, computational, and biological sciences into a cohesive endeavor.” He has strong beliefs on science education and why their is a declining interest in biology, and I have to say I largely agree with his opinions.

A common complaint by people lamenting the decline in students interested in biology (and science in general) is that high schools are no longer preparing people to understand or be enthusiastic about science. Botstein doesn’t believe this at all, for three reasons. The first of which is that it is wrong to think high schools have ever been all that good:

There is zero argument to say that they have gotten any worse. If you ask about the absolute number of kids who get calculus in high school, it has risen 10- or 20-fold in the last 30 years. When I went to college in the late 50s, I actually did have advanced placement, but it was rare!

His second argument is that when statistics are collected on those who have gone on to graduate school about their undergraduate institutions, there are just as many who come from smaller undergraduate institutions than the bigger research intensive schools like Harvard, Stanford, and and Princeton. The smaller, largely teaching colleges are better able to motivate people to become professional scientists (or at least acquire the training).

The third argument, with which I agree entirely, is

[W]ho was teaching whom in the 50s and 60s was very different [than now]. I had biochemistry from Konrad Bloch. This was Konrad Bloch before he got the Nobel Prize. He had nothing better to do than teach 120 kids biochemistry. He did it very well. He took it very seriously. He did not go to the dean and say, “Oh, I have this grant and I’m about to win a Nobel Prize and therefore I should be free to do research.”

He understood, as I think we all understood, that there is an organic connection between teaching and research. So I came with all this baggage. And Ira Herskowitz, and basically the MIT school, had that baggage. You remember what it was like! Luria taught 7.01 [introductory biology]; Boris taught microbiology. Gene Brown had 7.05 [biochemistry]. The leaders were leading from the front!

He then goes on to describe the situation for those entering university:

What happens to students who come to college wanting to learn biochemistry? They find themselves first in a chemistry class with a hundred students with absolutely no interest in chemistry. All of those students drill a hole in the head of the instructors and each other to get the best possible grade because all they want is the grade. You teach these people later, and you realize that they are unteachable, to a first approximation. I have never failed as a teacher, except when trying to teach genetics to medical students.

Botstein’s solution to this problem was creating a new stream for students who weren’t afraid of both the traditionally quantitative sciences (math, physics, computer science) and biology and chemistry, requiring all these subjects be taught in the first two years, and after that allowing a student to follow any stream they wish. Re-introducing quantitative skills to students who are interested in biology is important because old knowledge by a generation of biologists who weren’t afraid or uncomfortable with mathematics is being forgotten:

We have one such course called Method and Logic in Quantitative Biology, and we teach the classic papers, many of which are forgotten because they can’t be taught now because people don’t understand the math. You may remember reading Luria and Delbruck, and you may remember that nobody understood Luria and Delbruck because they didn’t have the math.

These were just a brief snapshot of the interview, and I strongly recommend reading the rest!



  1. Uncle Al    3888 days ago    #

    Shall we offer the Gifted superior educations and suffer the stupid a syllabus suited to their demonstrated abilities? DISCRIMINATION! Make everybody equal by cutting them down to size. American zero-goal education is all about every child left behind. Social activism is technical incompetence exercising intellectual irresponsibility.

    We don’t just talk it, we do it. We have a certified idiot as President, Bush the Lesser. We have lowered the average until everybody is above it (in a negative sense, pending further studies).

    [We duzn’t plum talk it, we’s do da thang. We gots da Man’s idiot as Super-dude, Bush de Lessa’. We gots dropped de damn whateva until da homeboys be ova da thang (in de honky jiggy, pendin’ futha eyeballin’). Right on!]


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