Question for those in the know.

Brian Fristensky frist at
Mon Dec 7 19:17:48 EST 1998

Brad Davis wrote:

>     I'm a 1st year Science student at the University of Toronto, who is
> having some difficulty in trying to decide what program he should choose
> to go into. Classically, I always thought I would go into something in
> the area of Microbiology, Immunology, Epidemology<sp?>, or perhaps
> Genetics.. However, after exposure to Evolution, Ecology, and Population
> genetics; I'm starting to rethink that.
>     I'm not sure what questions I should be asking, so as to ascertain
> what field I'd enjoy most. The two programs I'm considering are
> "Molecular Genetics and Biology", and "Ecology". After 1st year, and one
> and a half 2nd year courses, the two programs rapidly diverge; to the
> point where I feel I have to know very shortly which field I wish to go
> into (as the program I can go into will be decided by which courses I
> take in 2nd year). Currently, the two things most on my mind are that a)
> I no longer see myself being interested in Genetics for the sake of
> Genetics. I think its a terribly interesting field, just not necessarily
> for me; which on the surface would lead me to believe that Ecology is
> the way to go. However, I would imagine an undergrad degree in Genetics
> would allow me greater freedom in which Graduate program I apply to/get
> accepted to, than Ecology; simply because Genetics is a tool which is
> used by many (if not all) of the Biological Sciences, where as Ecology
> seems to me to be a very multidiscplinary field, which calls upon the
> skills of other fields.
>     I'd say some topics that I'd like to study would be the genetic
> diversity(polymorphism and heterzygousity) of populations in a
> community, and see if that relates to a communities ability to respond
> to an environmental change as much as the species diversity does.
> However, I'm also interested in Human Genetics, ie. The cause of
> Tourette Syndrome. I think it would be an interesting study, to
> construct a geneological<sp?> graph of an individuals family who has TS,
> and do comparitive genetic studies of past members of that individuals
> family, to see if there are any noticable patterns. I've always been
> interested in disease, and the effects of disease.

My first piece of advice comes, astonishingly, from Josef Stalin.
A digression is necessary here.
I'm currently reading Krushchev's memoirs (Krushchev Remembers),
and he cites an anecdote
in which Josef Stalin visited the college he was attending. Stalin
said that, while he hoped all the students would get a broad education,
nonetheless, he urged them to make sure that they also got some
depth of specilization in _something_. 
So, even a paranoid psychotic like Stalin can still be a source of

An undergraduate education should, most definitely be broadening.
At the same time, latch onto an area that really gets your
interest, and in which you can perform well, and take the
courses that you will need to really make yourself an
expert in that area. If there the possibility of doing a 4th
year thesis, do it. It doesn't matter so much what specific
area you specialize in. What matters is the intellectual
maturity you attain by knowing some area in real depth. 
The intellectual skills you develop will transfer to 
any other area of science.

Now to more specifics. Genetics, ecology and evolution
all draw strongly on statistics, so a solid grounding in
statistics is a good idea. The more ecologically-minded
you are, the more math you should take. As well, all these
fields rely heavily on computers. Sadly, most biologists
are very poorly trained in computers. Aviod "Introduction to
Computer Usage" courses. If you don't have enough intelligence
to read the documentation and learn how to use a word processor,
spread sheet and web brower, on you own, you don't belong
in science. Take real programming courses. Even if you never
write a program in your research career, the disciplines of
structured programming and object-oriented programming 
apply well to organizing research strategies, and planning
experimental procedures.

There are lots of jobs even for 2nd and 3rd year students
doing things like washing glassware, making media, 
greenhouse work, or data entry. They pay very little, but give you
exposure to how a lab runs. 

Most departments have weekly seminars, and the titles of 
the seminar are posted on bulletin boards and in univeristy
newspapers (and now, on web sites). These are open to the
general public, and not just to staff and graduate students.
Often, there is an informal coffee period just before the
seminar, where you can meet people in the department. Seminars
are a great way to get a feeling for what working in a
given field is really like. You just don't get that from

Finally, go have a look at the current journals section
in the library. Even if you don't yet know enough to
fully understand most research papers, find a few journals
that seem to be of interest, and follow them monthly.
That will give you a good feeling on what is happening
in the field. 

Good luck. 

Brian Fristensky                |  
Department of Plant Science     |  
University of Manitoba          |  All kings is mostly rapscallions.
Winnipeg, MB R3T 2N2  CANADA    |  
frist at           |
Office phone:   204-474-6085    |  Mark Twain (1835-1910)  
FAX:            204-261-5732    |

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