Why study Biology?

Although often regarded as a 'soft' science Biology is one of the most complex of all studies because it has such a wide scope and is built upon diverse foundations. The 'hard' sciences like Physics and Chemistry deal with fundamentals. Biology starts with those fundamentals and applies them to interactions. Those interactions may be anywhere from the molecular level, to individuals or ecosystems. There is nothing soft about that!

Furthermore, an ability to make sense of those interactions has never been more vital, whether we are dealing with the epidemiology of COVID-19, predicting future pandemics, increasing food supply, managing the biodiversity crisis or coping with climate change. Biology is essential to the future of all of us. All of the urgent issues facing humanity now are compounds of many problems and in order to tackle them we have to be able to synthesise different aspects of biology and link into other disciplines. Accordingly biologists need an understanding of the molecular basis of their subject, how that contributes to physiological processes and how those lead to individual behaviours and shape ecosystems. Underlying all of that, it is essential to understand how these systems have been shaped and constrained by their evolution.

In recent decades molecular biology has dominated undergraduate Biology courses. Course organisers now recognise that the whole-organism and ecosystem aspects are essential, and there is an increasing emphasis on physiology, evolution and ecology. This is reflected in my supervision of Cambridge University undergraduates for the first year courses of Evolution & Behaviour and Physiology of Organisms, and the second year course Evolution & Animal Diversity. In combination these courses give an outstanding understanding of the fundamentals that are needed to be a biologist, whether that is a molecular biologist, an epidemiologist or a conservation manager.

Science writing

A particularly important part of a good biology degree is the training it provides in scientific communication. Many courses give students the opportunity to present work in the form of posters and presentations. The most important part of scientific communication, though, remains writing. Undergraduate essays provide an invaluable training in communicating ideas precisely and clearly. This comes into its own when students go on to write scientific papers, reviews, popular articles, books or reports. Few, if any, aspects of modern life do not include writing. Helping students to develop their communication skills I regard as one of the most important parts of my teaching.

Other links

Some of these approaches are also described in a series of on-line outreach discussion sessions I have given. These are aimed at Year 12/S5/Year 13 students interested in studying Natural Sciences, providing a flavour of studying sciences beyond what is covered in the school curriculum, introducing the approaches to information and ideas needed for scientific study at university level. Recordings of the lectures are available on-line along with some other videos and at the links below.

1: Approaching scientific literature

2: The scientific method

3: Role of collections in a digital world

4: How university science approaches pressing issues of our times

Noteworthy papers

I find there is always more to add to teaching, so I am constantly sending my students links to the latest papers that are of relevance to their courses. Sometimes it's not particularly relevant, just really interesting. Most of these I'll incorporate into the next year's teaching, but not at the expense of the essential 'old' material. Sometimes I spin off a book that I can point the students to without having to cram all that material into a supervision (e.g. Essential Animals). Those are the points that aren't required for their courses but I feel they ought to have met, and can follow up if they are so minded. New papers that I've sent students over the past year include those listed below (and some older ones here):

  • Sendell-Price et al. 2021. An island-hopping bird reveals how founder events shape genome-wide divergence - updating a classic example on population genetics
  • Sun et al. 2020. Rapid local adaptation linked with phenotypic plasticity. - loss of England's ancient 'Wild Wood' led to genetic isolation of buryng beetle popualtions and now changes in different populations abilites to use large or small carrion
  • Pashalidou et al. 2020. Bumble bees damage plant leaves and accelerate flower production when pollen is scarce. Science - bumblebees are gardeners: they make flowers open by biting holes in leaves
  • Cucchi et al. 2020. Tracking the Near Eastern origin and European dispersal of the western house mouse. Scientific Reports - origins and spread of the house mouse in association with the spread of agriculture, and leading to the domestication of the cat
  • Conroya et al. 2020. Tracking late-Quaternary extinctions in interior Alaska using megaherbivore bone remains and dung fungal spores. Quaternary Research - pattern of extinction of the North American megafauna
  • van Klink et al. 2020. Meta-analysis reveals declines in terrestrial but increases in freshwater insect abundances. Science
  • Lopez-Garcia & Moreira. 2020. Cultured Asgard Archaea shed light on eukaryogensis. Cell. - the first Asgard archaebacterium, previously known only from environmental DNA, sheds light on origins of eukaryotes and mitochondria
  • Rebar et al. 2020. An evolutionary switch from sibling rivalry to sibling cooperation, caused by a sustained loss of parental care. PNAS. - origins of cooperation in a burying beetle species
  • Sun et al. 2020. The Scaly-foot Snail genome and its implications for the origins of biomineralised armour. Nature Communications - biomineralisation in mollscs, bryozoans, brachiopods uses the same genes
  • Castro et al. 2019. Sequestration and biosynthesis of cyanogenic glucosides in passion vine butterflies and consequences for the diversification of their host plants. Ecol. Evol. - Heliconius butterflies get toxins from Passiflora plants, but if plants are not toxic some species can make their own toxins.
  • Yang et al. 2019. Imprinitng sets the stage for speciation. Nature - the interaction between learning and speciation
  • Tchernichovski & Conley 2019. A genetically tailored education for birds. Nature Briefings - a review of a recent paper on genes and learning
  • Contact

    Justin Gerlach by e-mail