“What can I do with a BS in Biology?”

There’s a time every fall semester when students walk into my office on an almost daily basis to say that “they say I won’t be able to get a job” with a BS in Biology. I’m always taken aback by this. I’ve starting asking aloud who “they” is, as an entry to some critical thinking about how we perceive and receive information about topics that might be worrying to us. So, to my students with this worry, here are some thoughts.

I’ll begin by positing that you might be asking the wrong question. Biology is a huge field, and a BS-BIO is a broad degree, unless you have tailored it in some way.

So, first let’s assess what kind of biology you like. Why did you choose the major to begin with? Has your own understanding of biology evolved? It’s a vast topic that by definition touches on every aspect of life, so list the subfields and subjects you’ve enjoyed so far, and why. List those you want to learn more about, and why. Decide what you like about biology and go learn that. Learn it well. And along the way you’ll find five more things you love and want to learn as well.

Second, where do you see yourself in 4 years? Do you want to play with huge datasets and pull out really interesting or critical results from those data that could impact—for instance—the health of cities, ecosystems, or humans? Do you want to interact with people all day, visiting offices or placing phone calls with a myriad of clients? Do you want to be at the bench or in the field carrying out a research project that your boss as delineated and funded? Do you want to design new projects based on questions you think are interesting? Do you…fill in the blank. What do you want your day to day work experience to be?

Interlude: You chose college, not a professional/technical/trade school. That means you opted to focus on critical thinking, problem solving, leadership and team dynamics, and of course science content knowledge and practice, coupled with the interconnectedness of all things. As a Biology major, you are practicing the process of science and learning a vast amount of information that scientists have assembled using that same scientific process. These results give us our current hypothesis for how life works, and as an undergraduate you are required to learn it to some level of resolution. But you could dig deeper. Every nugget of biology content that you learn is from some scientific study conducted and published at some point in the past. Learning to read and write in the style of those studies, especially those published more recently, builds important technical communication skills. Acknowledge that you are building an important skill set that employers seek out (see the bold elements if you are puzzled about what those some of those skills are). Also, take advantage of the opportunity to learn skills that are available to college students—statistics, quantitative thinking, coding—and practice thinking and working in these quantitative ways of thinking. Always going for the easy A in may not actually be the strategy that will train you the job you want in a challenging field.

Third, augment the traditional classroom-focused curriculum. Conduct research, join a Vertically Integrated Project, do an internship, meet alumni in fields that might be interesting. Say yes to opportunities that come before you.

Develop your resume, using the information and expertise of the Center for Career Discovery and Development. Set up a linked in profile. Do a job hunt every few months, exploring indeed.com, zintellect.com, usajobs.gov, and other sites you discover along the way. Look on the HR site of a place you think you might want to work. This exercise will tell you where the biology jobs are right now and where they might be headed (hint, think data science).


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Someone thought it would be fun to have…chickens

I bought my house fours years ago yesterday. Happy housiversary, House. How about we celebrate by buying you four 6 week-old chickens? No? Too late my green friend! They are here. Actually, they arrived on Thursday morning, and I spent my first 10 minutes with them in an Uber, with a box containing four live pullets sitting on my lap. Pecking chicks. Hungry chicks. Thirsty too. Ginger, Halibut, Lee, and May.

Day 1: I put them in the run under the coop because it was daylight. In two minutes, they’d figured out how to drink from the watering bucket “nipples” (I didn’t name them that, really). Within 5 they were eating down the food (started with 2 scoops). So I left them to it and drove to work. When I got home at dusk they were peeping and hunkering down…in the run. A day in the run hadn’t led them to explore the coop. So I climbed in and handed them up into the coop, and followed them with their water and food.

Day 2: Come morning, they sat in the doorway, looking down and unable to figure how to walk down the ramp to the run. Two eventually did, while I helped the other two down, and left them for the day with food and water. By dusk of day 2, they’d eaten most of their food, so I added a scoop. Or tried to. They were peeping and waiting by the door for me to…do something. Which was to help them up into the coop again. What is the chicken learning curve?

Day 3: Finally, a weekend!

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So, the Biogeography of New Zealand? Piece of cake. I’ve never been here, but I know about the Kiwi, and…hmmm. That’s actually maybe all I know. Oh, the tuatara. Right, so I know two species native to New Zealand. What could go wrong?

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There’s this thing that I love to do, called “teaching what you don’t know.” It means I get to learn SO MUCH AMAZING STUFF by helping my students learn it. In this case, I had a three week respite while a local colleague taught the class every thing about NZ geology. Ever heard of greywacke? Me neither, but I have now. A whole bunch of greywacke. It’s sandstone (but grey in color) and forms the rocky backbone of New Zealand. So, while the students were learning all about rocks and faults running under the city (yikes) and volcanoes and earthquakes, I was cramming up on endemic species. And now, three weeks in, I’m able to answer most of the student questions so far. I think they are probably asking me the easy ones. On Monday, someone asked me, “What are the insects…?” Answer: Weta. See, I knew that. It’s working.

The first species I met was the tui, which the program leader likens to mockingbirds, but they are way cooler than that! Iridescent black and with a funny little white feather dewlaps, and the craziest songs–that part is like a mockingbird. A mockingbird on steroids. Also, the beer of the same name isn’t bad. On Monday the class takes a field trip to a local sanctuary that maintains an amazing predator-proof fence. I went two weeks ago to check it out. Lots of fern trees, 10 new to me bird species. There is so much out there, and THIS is why you study, or teach, abroad. Plus, when I get home, it’ll be almost spring. I’m missing out winter this year.

fern tree4.jpg

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Island Biogeography with skittles species

Skittles are problematic. They are totally disgusting as a food item. Even during the set up for an in-class activity on migration to islands, my stomach was churning. Sticky, sweet, chewy but hard. I just can’t. But…they do come in 5 colours and there are hundreds in a bag, so skittle species were the obvious way forward today in class. Here are some happy little skittles who recently migrated out to sea. Some landed safely on islands near to (center) or far from (left) the mainland (just outside the right edge of the picture).

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The point? I’d just given a lecture, with powerpoint slides and everything, on the equilibrium theory of island biogeography. And nothing is more initially obvious yet deceptively nuanced than a lecture on this. So many details, so many easy to overlook assumptions that underlie the model, so many rates that intersect. So we played a game on the sidewalk (in the wind) to see if they could reproduce the “rules” of dispersal using five species of skittles. Eventually, yes, I think they did! I’ll check in tomorrow to find out if they can reproduce that dispersal is random with respect to species in this model.

Meanwhile, I have 6 bags of dirty skittles in my dormitory. Anyone interested in taking those off my hands? If not, the nightmare continues…skittles are problematic.

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Tongariro, not Ngauruhoe, for me

I’m thinking about blogging a little more consistently here on the site, but this girl is just so busy climbing mountains and learning about New Zealand’s native species that it’s hard to find the time. Each blog entry is a weta or kakapo that I could be out meeting.

This weekend we circled Mt. Ngauruhoe…Mt. Doom, my LOTR friends. It’s spectacular. And alarming. At our lunch stop on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, I noticed that Ngauruhoe has little zig-zaggy trails up the side of it, hiking trails for anyone as crazy as a hobbit with the One Ring to destroy. And then I saw little white specks moving along the ziggity bits. I was on the trail with people that crazy.

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But I myself wasn’t that crazy. My group was headed up Ngauruhoe’s neighbour Mt. Tongariro:

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This looks much saner. While I contemplated that thought and hiked up to the base across this lovely dried up lake bed, a rescue helicopter landed not once, and not twice, but three different times to take injured people off the trail, temporarily closed during the rescue(s). So we waited for it to fly away…and then up we went. Completely sane…

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New Year, New Zealand

I always dream of travel to exotic places, as New Zealand has been on my list for years. So, when the perfect opportunity presented itself, how could I say no? SIX weeks in New Zealand, all expenses paid, and all I had to do was teach a course called the “Biogeography of New Zealand.” Sign me up!

So I asked for the Biogeography of New Zealand to be in my teaching load for Spring, and (easily?) convinced the powers that be that I should and could teach abroad. In the midst of a hectic fall semester in Atlanta, I planned my departure, found a house sitter, prepped the garden for winter, packed for the trip, got bronchitis,…all the usual winter break things.

And suddenly, I’m taking Uber to the airport, driving away from my lovely house in my fun neighborhood and my family and friends and having a my own personal crisis of leaving everything I know to travel to the other side of the world. Also, I’d forgotten how stressful it can be to fly with a carry-on viol. It’s like playing roulette with the big kid gamblers (I would imagine–I’ve never even wanted to do that). In the end, my little treble viol found overhead space on every leg of the trip with no issues, unless you count rudeness at the United Airlines check-in desk in Atlanta. Thanks United, for making me cry in the airport on New Years Day! Happy New Years to you!

And “two days” later* I’m HERE–Wellington, New Zealand, home for the next 6 weeks! It’s pretty and wet, like a Vancouver winter but with Vancouver summer temps. Welly, you have confusing weather. I hear that the sun will come out day after tomorrow, or sometime yesterday. I arrived about 3 hours before I could check in to my hotel for the night, so I left my bags with the concierge and headed out to see what’s what and get some brunch. And this is what happened…

As I walked, I noticed my hiking boot was being weird. I looked down and saw a black crack around the sole…

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which eventually turned into the sole falling off completely.

dead boots.jpg

These boots are (were) 10 years old and have seen some heavy hiking, but they’ve also spent a good amount of time languishing in the closet, too, because I usually hike in sandals, so why were they disintegrating on my feet? Bad boots. Or bad boot owner? Yes, that’s me. Because NZ has very strict rules about bringing in clean hiking gear, before leaving I stropped those boots within an inch of their lives (and maybe misjudged a smidge?) to get the Appalachian red clay off them. Lucky for me, they sell shoes here.

Just checked, and it’s still raining.

*It’s only one day of my real life, but the international date line really is confusing, it turns out. See you again, yesterday!

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What’s New

Uncommon Practice performs two shorter sets at the High Museum of Art Friday 6 pm and Saturday 3 pm, and a full length concert Sunday:

#joy image

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Bringing good things to life

Our interactive lecture activity on selection versus drift, developed in collaboration with colleagues at the HHMI/National Academics Summer Institute, was featured in Bonni Stachowiak’s blog on How to make a seemingly boring topic come alive. It’s the beginning of my plan for world domination to turn students into chili peppers!

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