50 things every biologist should know

Mary K. Kuhner mkkuhner at kingman.gs.washington.edu
Mon Apr 11 14:42:39 EST 2005

In article <d3e6tf$1a7$1 at mercury.rfcgr.mrc.ac.uk>,
Jeff Houlahan  <jeffhoul at unbsj.ca> wrote:

>5.  What are the four unique properties of water?
>15.  What are the four principles of Mendelian genetics?

I really dislike this type of question because it comes so close
to "please read the exam-setter's mind."  Why four unique properties
of water--why not two, or seven?  Doubtless the examiner has
something specific in mind, but the candidate could know a *lot*
about water and not be able to guess which specific properties
the examiner is thinking of.

I was taught Mendelian genetics in terms of Mendel's First Law
and Mendel's Second law.  I have a PhD in genetics and feel that
I know a bit about it, but I would have trouble figuring out which
four things were wanted here.  I could probably guess, but it's not
testing my knowledge of genetics, it's testing my dim memory of
textbook formulations.

>26.  What are the kingdoms of living organisms?
>27.  Finish the following Kingdom, Phylum...

These mainly depend on which textbook the examinee learned from, and
are pretty meaningless nowadays.  A good chunk of the field believes
that the higher-order grades do not correspond to any biological

>30.  What comes first: the adaptation or the selective pressure?

This is an "ideology question" meant to scare out a specific wrong
view, but a balanced answer to it involves "It depends" and "Could
be either one" and "Define your terms" and other things that make
it an iffy exam question.

>31.  What is meant by the inheritance of acquired traits, who made this
>claim, and why was he wrong?

This is the kind of question that will trip up candidates with a
deeper knowledge of the subject, because what's often said about
Lamarc's work and what he actually did are somewhat different, and
also because there are a number of specialized cases where acquired
traits *are* inherited, depending on how you define "inherited".
(Consider polyglutamate repeat diseases, or cilium direction in

>32.  What is the object of natural selection?

Even more ideology.... I can't see any way to answer this short
of reading the examiner's mind.  (And that's putting aside that it
could mean either "What is the goal of natural selection?" or
"On what object does natural selection act?")

>33.  Are cladogenesis and anagenesis synonymous terms?

I will vouch for the fact that you can work in phylogenetics for
decades and not know the answer to this question.  (I don't
think I've ever *seen* the term "anagenesis.")

>37.  What is mitosis and what happens during mitosis?
>38.  What is meiosis and what happens during meiosis?

These I like very much.  More questions of this sort would be

In general, I dislike these questions because they don't seem to
test the candidate's biology so much as their knowledge of

You might see if previous years of the GRE-Biology are available,
or test-prep guides for the GRE.  It covers this sort of ground
very, very thoroughly and the questions have been somewhat debugged.

On the other hand, you might figure that your candidate passed
the GRE to get *into* grad school, and try to focus more on
usable general knowledge.  The mitosis/meiosis questions work for
me on this level, and many of the ecology ones (describe the
flow of water etc.)

Mary Kuhner mkkuhner at eskimo.com

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