Posts filed under ‘biology’

Yale vs. Harvard

Would a Yalie recommend Harvard over Yale?  Yes.

Surprised?  I was.

My seatmate on the airplane was a former university president who is an active Yale alumnus.  Becaus of his background, I asked for his take on my son’s short list of colleges, which includes Yale.  When he found out that my son is interested in science and math, he said he thought Harvard or MIT would be a better fit than Yale.  Why?  First, because Yale is traditionally stronger (or more focused on) the arts than the sciences.  Secondly, he thinks Boston has more to offer.

Interesting advice, especially since we were intrigued by the seminar that Yale offers (only) for freshmen who have done scientific lab research in the past, which gives them exposure to all the various science disciplines at Yale.   Harvard might have something like that, but we never heard about it.


September 15, 2009 at 10:38 am Leave a comment

Book Review: Early thinking about grad school

My son wants to major in some aspect of science.  There’s a good chance that he’ll end up wanting and/or needing to go to grad school.  I earned an MBA, but that’s sort of a different animal, so I feel inadequate advising him about grad school.

Getting What You Came ForThen a book caught my eye:  Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or Ph.D.    It was written by a Ph.D. in biology from Stanford who was frustrated at how long it took him and his friends to earn their graduate degrees, due to missteps along the way.

I found the book very helpful in enabling me to understand the process, and I plan to try to get my son to read the first half of the book before he goes off to college.   It deals with topics like:

  • Do you need a Ph.D., a master’s degree, or neither?
  • Should you work first?
  • What is grad school like?  How does it differ from undergrad school?
  • How do you select a grad school and what can you do to improve your admission chances?
  • What constitutes a good advisor, how do you get one, and how do you dump a bad one without sabotaging yourself?
  • How do you work the grad school politics, even if politicking isn’t your thing?
  • How do you pick a good research topic, one that will be manageable, yet lead to results, and result in getting interim papers published so you build a track record?
  • Should you pursue opportunities as a teaching assistant or a research assistant?

Some of the advice – like how to select and use an advisor or what to pick for a research topic – is very apropos for undergrads, too.  But more importantly, an undergrad should be contemplating the grad school decision much earlier than senior year.  To borrow advice from Stephen Covey, “Start with the end in mind”.

The book also helped me rethink my bias towards sending my son to an liberal arts college rather than a research university.  I now think it would be good for him to get to know grad students informally and see what is expected of them, before he makes up his mind about grad school.  But I think this book will help him get a bigger picture than what he might get in casual conversation with grad students, who might be tired, discouraged or lonely at any given point in their long slog towards their Ph.Ds. and who therefore might discourage him in an off-hand conversation.

The book is thick, which can be daunting.  It’s helpful to know that (a) you can skim or peruse much of the first half and (b) you really don’t need the second half until you are actually starting thesis research.

August 6, 2009 at 11:56 am Leave a comment

Revisiting Rhodes

Last fall, my son and I attended a reception hosted by Rhodes College (Memphis, TN) alumnae.  Lots of warm fuzzies, but we left wondering what Rhodes excels at, because no admissions personal were present to give us the pitch.  This week, I decided to call Rhodes and ask for the pitch by phone, so we can figure out whether it is worth a trip to Tennessee.  Here’s my summary of the conversation:

  • The “warm fuzzies” we got from the reception we attended are typical.  Rhodes focuses on developing strong interpersonal relationships. 1700 students. 11:1 student faculty ratio. Average class size of 13. Professors reach out to students.  50% Greek, but the Greek system is non-residential; they have cottages to hang out in but they live in the dorms.  2 year residency requirement, but most students choose to stay on campus all 4 years….except that 65% study abroad.  80% are from out-of-state, so it’s definitely not a suitcase college.
  • Being in Memphis is a big advantage. Rhodes is one of a very few liberal arts colleges located in an urban center.  10 minutes by car/bus from downtown.  Lots to do; many opportunities for internships with businesses. Town is kind of like Austin, TX.  (If you’re not familiar with Austin, it’s generally regarded as the most fun city in Texas – great music scene, beautiful trees and hills, vibrant downtown area.)   Heavy emphasis on music.
  • Strong choice for science majors.  Biology is the #1 most popular major.  (English is #2.)  Memphis is a biomedical hub.  St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital is a globally recognized name and has both a clinical practice and strong research.  They also have LeBonner Children’s Hospital.   Memphis also has a lot of medical industries (she mentioned pharmaceuticals) for internships or research projects.  Students have interned with NASA (not sure if that was in Memphis).
  • She brags about the students’ “trajectory” when they leave.  93% accepted into med school.  98% accepted into grad school.
  • Great fellowships available.
  • Students take charge of their education.  “Autonomous” in design of education.  (Whatever that means.)  65% study abroad.  Strong encouragement of involvement with local business or summer projects elsewhere.
  • Cross-apps (students who applied to Rhodes also applied to) :
    1. Vanderbilt, Davidson, Center, Hendrix, Emory, Washington & Lee, Sewannee (lots of southern schools).
    2. The top students also applied to Princeton, Yale.
    3. Texas students usually also apply to SMU, Trinity & UT.

I don’t know yet if my son will keep Rhodes on his list of colleges to visit this summer, but I find much of this pitch appealing.

May 8, 2009 at 7:59 pm Leave a comment

College Visit Report: New College

New College, in Sarasota, Florida, is an anomaly.  First, it is the the “state honors college” for the University of Florida system – not a common approach.  Secondly, instead of grades and course requirements, the students design their own “contracts” of study and receive written evaluations on their output.   Thirdly, New College is on many short lists:

  1. Colleges That Change Lives
  2. Cool Colleges
  3. Best Values in Public Colleges
  4. Public Ivies (the original 1985 edition)
  5. Ranked 31st in “feeder schools” to law, business & medical schools in the nation by The Wall Street Journal in 2003, and #2 among public schools, measured as a per capita % of graduates
  6. Ranked as #5 public liberal arts college by U. S. News & World Report in 2009, and #94 among private & public

They also offer significant merit scholarships (up to $20,000).

So what kind of student is a fit for such a place?  Students who:

  • want a small school
  • have a passion they want to pursue
  • are self-starters, take initiative
  • are not scared of undefined situations
  • like the casual Florida lifestyle (including walking barefoot across campus or studying by the bay)

And who is not a fit?  Kids who

  • want structure
  • feel the need to benchmark themselves against others
  • will not take initiative
  • want a school with traditions (New College was founded in 1960)
  • look for activities and social life off campus (Sarasota isn’t exactly a happening place)

[My son’s conclusion from our visit is that it’s not a fit for him…too small and he’s not enthralled by Florida.]

One particular niche for New College is marine biology.  Located right on the Gulf of Mexico, the marine biology labs study local sealife.  In fact,  one of the classrooms has 6 aquariums with ecosystems maintained by students.  (Imagine how calming it is to listen to a lecture while watching the fish swim.)  Students designed the wetlands that filter the used aquarium water.   Most of the biology faculty members conduct research in marine biology or neurobiology using marine animals.

Everyone who applies by a certain date receives a scholarship.  Some of the scholarships cover almost the entire tuition bill.

March 29, 2009 at 5:33 am Leave a comment

Depth vs. breadth?

Today Education Week reported results of a new study, first reported in Science Education in December 2008, that concludes a focus on breadth is misguided:

A central finding is that “breadth-based learning, as commonly applied in high school classrooms, does not appear to offer students any advantage when they enroll in introductory college science courses,” the authors conclude, “although it may contribute to scores on standardized tests.”

The authors build their research on a national survey of 8,310 undergraduates enrolled in their first college science course. Students were asked how much time they spent in high school biology, chemistry, and physics classes on various subtopics.

In each subject, the researchers said students had been exposed to a topic in depth if they reported spending at least one month on it—for instance, mechanics or electromagnetism in physics or evolution in biology. They controlled for other factors, such as students’ socioeconomic background and math proficiency.

How much does depth matter?

The results show that students who had spent at least one month on one particular topic earned higher grades in college science courses than students who had not. By contrast, those who had been exposed to a relatively long list of topics, but not in depth, did not have any advantage in college chemistry or physics and were at a disadvantage in biology… Students who experience deeper coverage of physics in high school perform in college as if they had received two-thirds of a year more preparation than those who had the opposite mix of depth and breadth.

One of the complaints voiced about Advanced Placement (AP) classes is that they are “a mile wide and an inch deep”, especially as compared to International Baccalaureate, but that is starting to change:

The College Board, which has been criticized for promoting what some say is a diffuse approach on its Advanced Placement science exams, is redesigning them to emphasize depth and scientific reasoning, said Trevor Packer, a vice president of the New York City-based nonprofit organization. The first of those revisions, to the AP Biology test, will be unveiled in September.

quotes from Education Week, “‘Depth’ Matters in High School Science Studies”

So what can a teacher do?  The study authors conclude:

…teachers should use their judgment to reduce coverage in high school science courses and aim for mastery by extending at least 1 topic in depth over an extended period of time.

March 11, 2009 at 5:23 am Leave a comment

Colleges for future Ph.D.s

If you think your child is destined to be a researcher or college professor, which colleges and universities should you investigate?

Try this list of the top 25 baccalaureate colleges and top 25 research universities, measured on the basis of the number of their students who go on to earn Ph.D.s in the sciences or engineering.  Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) put this list together.  HHMI is a non-profit that funds biomedical research and has also taken on the mission of improving science education.

The headline of HHMI’s complete report, “A Wellspring of Scientists”, is that “when it comes to producing science Ph.D.s, liberal arts colleges are at the head of the class”.

February 16, 2009 at 7:52 am Leave a comment

Learn AP Biology with a Free Video Game

“Online and interactive games that are closely linked to instruction are sometimes referred to as “serious games.” One game cited in the study is Immune Attack, developed by the Federation of American Scientists, a nonpartisan Washington organization focused on science and technology issues.

“The game asks players to navigate the bloodstream of a girl born without an immune system. Players look for bacterial infections and “activate” immune cells to go to work. Immune Attack is intended primarily for high school biology students, as a supplementary teaching tool.

“After learning of the game through a Google search, Netia Elam used it in her Advanced Placement biology classes at Forest Park High School. Even with teenagers who are accustomed to games with impressive visual displays and features, Immune Attack won them over, partly because they felt challenged by it, said Ms. Elam, now the instructional technology resource teacher at Bull Run Middle School, in the same school system as Forest Park, the 73,000-student Prince William County, Va., district.

“Ms. Elam sprinkled the game into lessons on immunology. She found it appealing for a number of reasons: It motivated students to learn more about the topic, and there was no cost to using the game, which can be viewed at the Federation of American Scientists’ Web site.”

From Education Week, “ Informal Experiences Can Go a Long Way in Teaching Science: NRC Study Points to Benefits from TV and Games” by Sean Cavanagh, 1/28/09

January 28, 2009 at 6:46 am Leave a comment

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