The Ideal Biology Graduate

Brian Fristensky frist at
Sat Nov 19 19:00:35 EST 1994

In article 91l at, scadding at (Steve Scadding) writes:
> I am currently involved in a process of curriculum review in this 
> department.  Instead of focusing on programs and courses as we have done 
> in the past, we are trying to develop a vision of what our objectives are 
> in offering a four year university program in Biology. 
God help us!! Is there a university anywhere in North America that isn't afflicted
with the CURRICULUM REVIEW SYNDROME? Has anyone tried to count the total 
person/hours devoted to this bureaucrat-driven navel gazing, at what must
be thousands of departments in hundreds or thousands of institutions?

What I want to know is, who, all of a sudden, published a study indicating that
university science curricula were not meeting the needs of academic, industrial
and government-based research? Who has made a compelling case that the 
university system is broken? I am still close enough to my own student
years to remember them vividly. At the two institutions at which I studied
(Cornell, A.B. 1980, Wash. State Univ., Ph.D. 1987), I thought I had excellent 
opportunities to learn a broad spectrum of subjects, taught by people who
were active contributors to their respective fields. The same could be said
of the University of Manitoba, where I am now a professor. 

Nonetheless, in the past
few years I have sat through endless meetings, read and been asked to write
endless documents related to curriculum review, and the end result of all
this, that I can see, is a watering down of the curriculum, under the
pretext broadening the curriculum. That is, more lower-level, superficial
courses, watered down versions of courses that teach the fundamentals
(intro. chemistry, biochem., physics, math etc.), resulting in less time
for more specialized upper level courses that can be taught at an advanced

> In particular, we 
> are trying to develop a picture of what our ideal graduating student 
> would look like.  What knowledge would they possess?  What skills would 
> they possess?  What sorts of things would we expect them to be able to 
> do?  What sorts of experiences should they have had? etc., etc., etc.
> We then hope to develop a curriculum which will bring about this desired 
> outcome.

> Has anyone at other institutions tried to define their goals in terms of 
> the desired characteristics of their graduates?  If so, I would be 
> delighted to hear from you.  
> How would you describe the ideal graduate of a four year biology program?
> Any thoughts or ideas would be appreciated?
The concept of the "ideal graduate" is abolutely the worst possible
way to conceptualize an education. It is a symptom of everything that
is wrong with university administration, and with the heavy-handed attempts
of higher authorities, such as boards of governors, legislatures, and
business intrests, to dictate to the university what sort of "product"
they should be turning out. We should not be in the business of 
creating a product: the Univ. of Manitoba TypeII-A  Biologist, Version 3.24.
We are in the business of creating opportunities for students to educate
themselves in a particular field of study. We should provide students with
rigorous training in the fundmentals, along with a requirement for pursuing
advanced study, through higher-level courses in some specialized field, 
and otherwise give them the freedom to pursue those things that are 
interesting to them. By and large, the current university system has
let students do exactly that up to now. 

The concept of an "ideal" graduate begins with the assumption that there is
a single ideal: a single ideal person leaving after 4 years with a diploma,
a single best series of courses, a single best type of thinker, a single
best way of learning, a single best criterion for evaluation of the product
(unfortunately, by default, the GPA). In truth, science benefits from 
human intellectulal diversity. We have innovation BECAUSE everybody didn't
study the same basic things, in the same way. Max Delbruck, being a physicist,
certainly wouldn't have qualified as an ideal biology student when he
graduated. It is BECAUSE he was able to approach biological problems from
the perspective of an outsider that he was one of the guiding forces in the
founding of molecular biology.

There is a place in science for many fundamentally different kinds of people.
We need the descriptive biologists like Liberty Hyde Bailey, who had the patience
collect and study thousands upon thousands of plant accessions, adding incrementally
to our storehouse of knowlege on plants. We need people like Lee Hood or Craig Ventner, 
who aren't afraid to think big. We need people like Ron Sederoff  or Temple Smith,
who had the courage, in mid career, to switch from Drosophila to pine trees,
or from physics to bioinformatics, respectively.
Finally, we need people like Barbra McClintock and Richard Feynman, 
who did what they damned well pleased and couldn't care less what other
people thought. We need both Chargaff's and the Watson's.

Thank God that every generation of students has people who are willing to
step out of the mold and be different. We need to make it easier for 
students to find their own way through the things they need to learn, to
create for themselves an education that is uniquely their own. As university
professors, it is our job to set high standards, design intellectually
stimulating and challenging courses of study, provide guidance where
necessary, but we must also treat our students as adults who can make
their own decisions. If we make too many of their decisions for them,
and prevent them from making mistakes, if we prevent them from having
occasional failures, we are doing them no service in the long run.

is a problem in today's universities, it is that while the ranks of 
professors, instructors, technicians and graduate students are being
cut back year after year, the administrators seem to be holding their
own. At the same time, this dwindling corps of dedicated scientists is
being asked to do more with less, teach existing courses with fewer
people while at the same time completely overhaul curriclua, with the
end result that we'll be teaching pretty much the same things that we
would have been teaching anyway. 

The university serves three basic functions: teaching, research and outreach.
Administration should be viewed as serving a support role that expedites the
execution of these functions. When the administration, or the board of 
governors, or the legislature dictate specifics, or try to tell us what
the "ideal" graduate should be, they are interferring with the process of

There is no one "desired outcome", to use your wording. The university system
is already too strongly biased towards people who think a certain way, 
learn a certain way, study a certain way and take tests a certain way.
We need to provide a flexible learning environment in which all types
of minds can be challenged to reach their full potential. We do not
need additional methods for homogenization.

I know this is not what the bureaucrats want to hear. They want a simple
formula, a concrete answer, they want to be able to tell the voters,
"see, we've reformed education. And if I'm reelected, we'll have even
more reform!" When Ezra Cornell founded my alma mater, he stated simply, 
yet elegantly what the university should be: "I would found an institution
where any person can find instruction in any study". There is no hidden
agenda there for any specific type of person, or any specific course
of study. As a geneticist, I have a strong bias towards diversity,
because genetic diversity promotes evolution. In the same way, intellectual diversity 
promotes creativity. 

Brian Fristensky                | 
Department of Plant Science     |  Life doesn't imitate art,
University of Manitoba          |  it imitates bad television. 
Winnipeg, MB R3T 2N2  CANADA    |  
frist at           |  
Office phone:   204-474-6085    |  Woody Allen, HUSBANDS AND WIVES  
FAX:            204-261-5732    |  

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