Biology 103

Simone Biow's picture

Bio 103 vs. the Big Fat Textbook

Campbell Reece defined Biology as “the scientific study of life” in the Seventh Edition of his textbook Biology (1). Needless to say, this statement is vague and written as a conclusive fact. It is difficult to question its veracity or scientific merit because it’s not really saying too much in the first place. Instead, Professor Grobstein began his course by similarly suggesting that Biology is the “science of life,” but he then presented a series of additional questions:
• What is science? Why can't it "get it right"?
• What is life? Can one get it "right"?
• Does science = life? (2)

From the start, Grobstein involved his students in the discussion and made them think. Yes, think about science, not just memorize it and move on. He encouraged us all to actively participate in and ask questions about the study of Biology. He acknowledged the fact that much of science is “theory” and not “fact” and that there still exist hundreds of questions that neither he nor anyone else could answer. According to Grobstein, science is simply a series of hypotheses that have not been disproved. On the other hand, Reece wrote in absolutes. It is as if he felt obligated to answer all of the questions about Biology, and therefore life. Grobstein’s lectures did not attempt to account for the unknown, but did often acknowledge it. Ultimately, Grobstein and Reece’s didactic approaches to Biology differed on three particularly interesting subjects: their definitions of life, their approaches to diversity and evolution, and their attitude towards the human brain.

Meagan McDaniel's picture

Deep Ancestry: DNA Testing & Heritage

It took me a few weeks to decide that I didn't want my DNA for a graduation present. The thought had been tempting me ever since I'd attended a lecture about genetics with my AP Biology class; apparently there were companies who, for as little as a few hundred dollars and a cheek swab, would mail you a map of your ancestral origins based on bits of your DNA. I'd always loved history, but felt I wasn't a part of it; to me, being white and American meant you weren't connected to anything, even though I technically knew some of my “ancestors” had come from Ireland and Scotland about two hundred years ago. I wanted to send off my DNA samples and receive a map telling me that in fact, I was a combination of all sorts of interesting backgrounds. It would have validated my place in history, in my own mind.

CN's picture

Escherichia Coli: A Dangerous Bacterium or a Test Model?

With the recent reports of serious foodborne illnesses that are occurring throughout the country, and in a myriad of recent situations, the question of where exactly our food comes from, and how it can become contaminated by various agents, has had widespread coverage by the media.  By taking the prevalence of food related diseases into consideration and combining this with the fact that a good friend of mine had been hospitalized from such a food related illness just last week, I couldn’t help but take a closer look into what exactly I have been eating and where my food was coming from.  The main cause of the majority of the recently publicized sicknesses is a bacterium called Escherichia coli; or E. coli as it is commonly known.  It is this bacterium that is responsible for the outbreak related to fresh spinach grown in fields in Salinas Valley, California, which sickened 199 people and killed 3 (2).  In addition, it had also been linked to the current outbreak of illness associated with those who have eaten at Taco Bell restaurants, like my unfortunate friend.  As the latest epidemic-like outbreak of E. coli has been garnering even more media attention, public fear has been rising about this potentially dangerous bacterium and information concerning it is pertinent.

CN's picture

Seriously Loopy Science vs. Traditional Science

The entire structure of this biology class is unlike any other science class I have seen. It rejects most of the conventional ideas and methods of most science classes and embraces the individual’s ideas, perspectives, and insights. Conversely, most science classes are concerned with general terminology, scientific laws and methods, and long lectures. In order to properly evaluate the differences between the unconventional course and the more traditional book with relation to each other, one needs to consider only a few key concepts and evaluate accordingly. On this basis, I am going to compare and contrast this course and the book in both their presentation style and in the information offered. I have decided to choose a particular subject, prokaryotes evolution and their ability to transfer genes throughout a population, and evaluate what I have learned from each source. Using this as a foundation, I will also delve into the idea of horizontal gene transfer, the different ways the two sources have presented this concept, and what this says about the sources in general.

Georgia Lawrence's picture

Book Evaluation

In this class, we have come to understand, time and time again, the importance of proteins on biological systems. I would like to focus my analysis of the seventh edition of Biology, written by Neil Campbell and Jane Reece, on the chapters concerning the creation of proteins from transcription and translation. I found this part of the course to be particularly interesting, and feel that this section provides a solid basis for comparison between the approaches of the book and the course. Chapter 17 is titled “From Gene to Protein,” and promises by the end of the section that the reader will, “understand how genetic mutations, such as the one causing the dwarf trait in pea plants, affect organisms through their proteins” (2, 309). This section corresponds with our discussion from the week starting October 30th, during which we discussed the process of creating polypeptide chains, and in turn, the creation of proteins.
Chapter 17 of the text book begins with the history of the research done to determine the processes of transcription and translation, the two major stages required to create proteins from DNA (2, 311). It then acknowledges that this research is part of an ongoing “story” which allows for revisions of the current hypothesis in the future. After providing the initial background context, the book delves into the explanations for each process. The book goes into much greater detail than was covered in class, however, it is important to keep in mind the goals of the course compared to the goals of the text book. In Biology 103, we were attempting to gain a basic understanding of concepts related to the study of biology, whereas a student relying on this text book would probably be looking for introductory knowledge in order to advance to the next level. Overall, I find that the use of the internet and the online lecture notes Professor Grobstein provided to be a more effective teaching method for our purposes. While I would never wish to minimize the value of reading to gain a better understanding, the online website is a more accessible source of information for those wishing to gain a better understanding of the world around them, rather than memorizing a bunch of processes and facts relating to biology.
While I found the website to be a better method for teaching than the text book in this particular chapter, there are several features of the book that I feel parallel or vary from the format of our course. The use of pictures and figures in the text provide for a more in depth understanding of the concepts being discussed in the text. These are much like the links provided on the site along side Prof Grobstein’s bullet points. Students are able to go back to the site on their own time and further explore provided sites, just as they are capable of examining the figures and captions. The book also puts key terms and concepts into bold font and they are defined in the back of the book in the glossary. These would be helpful for review of the section and a limited understanding of the chapter. Each chapter is also broken down into sections, and at the end of each section there is a “concept check” containing a couple questions to ask oneself. In addition, at the end of every chapter, there is a multiple choice, 10 question quiz, for which answers are provided in the Appendix. After reading the chapter, the questions were not difficult to answer, but were helpful in providing some sort of self-evaluation. That was one of the major differences between the book and the structure of the course. There was not a lot of opportunity in the course to evaluate how well you had understood concepts taught in class, at least in the traditional sense of examinations, such as quizzes or tests.
All of these features reflect two very different philosophies of teaching. Rather than teaching for a test, and requiring rigid memorization, Professor Grobstein’s structure of the class encouraged participation in the course forum to express concerns and thoughts. The class fostered individual expression and ideas and instead of responding to a text, we were responding to each other. While the text book provides much material for a greater understanding of biology, the students provided each other with research on interesting topics from different sources. Mariellyssa writes during the week we were discussing proteins, “Although class this past week was interesting, I did find it a bit hard to follow. I spent some time this weekend reading about fat and cholesterol levels and how they effect our bodies… I found this great article by the Harvard School of Public Health that was really interesting, you should check it out” (1, Mariellyssa, 11/5/2006) . Not only did she take the initiative to learn more about the subject and educate herself, rather than waiting to be taught, she was able to provide the rest of the students, and anyone reading our course forum, the opportunity to learn more as well. While I think that the two forms of learning achieve similar goals in the end, the student has a much different educational experience.
Overall, I felt that in the authors’ attempt to break the material down into manageable sizes, a student easily loses sight of the big picture. It would be difficult for a student really absorbed in the facts of the material to take a step back and appreciate the really wonderful processes occurring in biology, as our class was often able to do. An example of this is very clearly expressed in the forum, “It is really amazing that the slightest changes in the assembly of atoms or in a molecule can lead to things as different as a human and a rock… To think, any one of us could be affected with a serious disease because of a ‘malfunction’ of DNA, the smallest things that make up our body” (1, Kelly, 11/6/2006). Especially in this chapter, which is dealing with genetic makeup on such a miniscule level, one does not get a full appreciation for the tiny changes along the polypeptide chain which result in the expressed genetic mutations. I found the book to provide a wealth of information, much of which was not even covered by the class lectures, but I gained a better appreciation for the implications of science in my everyday life than I otherwise would have in a different course.

Works Cited

Georgia Lawrence's picture

Asthma In America: the Silent Suffering

In June 1999, it was reported that the prevalence and severity of asthma had increased over the past twenty years, the biggest sufferers being children and young adults located in inner-cities of the US (5). This trend has intensified in recent years, and further studies show that children of low-income families are disproportionately affected by asthma. There are many factors involved in one’s susceptibility to the disease and it is important to understand the causes and triggers of asthma to more clearly see why children in cities are at such high risk. As the problem has gained more attention, the government has taken on initiatives in order to improve the problem, including programs to help educate parents and healthcare providers about dealing with asthma in children. Asthma is a classic example of the interaction between genes and environment and is an important disease to understand in terms of both its scientific and social implications in this country (5).
Hannah Mueller's picture

"Mapping the Mind" and Finding Consciousness in Biological Architecture

Of all the improbable biological organizations in existence, the brain is perhaps the least probable. In her book Mapping the Mind, Rita Carter describes how everything we do, sense, experience, and are is processed through intricate interactions in the brain. Despite advances in the relatively new scientific field of brain mapping, the brain "is probably so complex that it will never succeed in comprehending itself"(10). However, in classes such as Biology 103, scientists with all levels of experience continually attempt to form a "less wrong" understanding of the brain not only by using it but also by imitating it. The brain itself is a scientist that tests hypotheses and is always inventing better stories to use to interact with the world around it. Through evolution, the brain has caused humans to emerge as "Story Tellers," conscious life forms with the ability to question and to create. Mapping the Mind asks many of the same questions about the brain that we have asked about science in Biology 103. These include the effects of architecture on life, the use of "seriously loopy science," and the rise of consciousness from matter.

Cristiane de Oliveira's picture

Empty Crib, Whole Woman: The Phenomena of Pseudocyesis


       Every biological occurrence has an explanatory story; unfortunately, not all of them end in happily ever after. Once upon a time, there lived a middle aged woman who happened to be the Queen of England. Mary – or as history would crown her, Bloody Mary Tudor – fell in love with handsome Phillip, the prince of Spain and twelve years her junior. As custom dictated, Mary and Philip married in a lavish ceremony, and soon after Mary fell pregnant. As Mary had been facing the pressure of producing an heir to the throne, the event could not have been better timed. The Queen was ecstatic as she watched her belly swell with life, her long awaited heir. Except…nine months came and went, then twelve months, then fifteen months. It became painfully obvious that Mary had never been pregnant, despite her distended abdomen and lactating breasts[1]. Needless to say, Mary was depressed, her physicians were perplexed, and historians were intrigued. How could a woman’s body simulate a physical pregnancy, with no medical aid whatsoever? What was this powerful mind-body connection in which desire and sheer will could create a pregnancy without a fetus? Such were the questions behind the story of pseudocyesis.             Pseudocyesis, or false pregnancy, is a medical phenomenon in which women (and a few men, it has been reported) experience all the symptoms of pregnancy without actually being pregnant. Those affected by this disorder exhibit amenorrhea (the discontinuation of menstruation), tender and swollen breasts, distended abdomen, morning sickness, and even “fetal movement”[2]. In very rare cases, a woman may even experience labor pains and phantom delivery. What makes the body so fervently believe it is carrying and birthing a child, when in fact there is nothing but air?            Typically, this condition occurs in thirty-something women (though some cases have reported both female children and more mature adults). Statistics show that 80% percent of women with the condition are married, 14.6% are single, and 2.3% are widowed; at least one third of them have been pregnant before.3 Pseudocyesis manifests itself when a woman is either:
  1. desperately wanting a child, because of a basic biological or emotional need
  2. extremely afraid of becoming pregnant, or giving birth
  3. suffering from a severe depressive disorder. [3]
Above all, pseudocyesis is a psychological condition occurring when a woman’s overpowering fears or needs of pregnancy manifests. It is believed that this psychological desire or depression triggers the pituitary gland to secrete elevated hormones, mimicking the hormone changes of real pregnancy[4]. Similarly, the body accumulates increased amounts of gas, fat, feces, or urine to mimic the swollen belly. Women who have been trying to conceive for long periods of time to no avail (either because of infertility or miscarriage) develop severe depression, and couple with their intense longing for a child, trick their bodies into “becoming” pregnant. The physical changes in their bodies coupled with the strength of their delusion can result in false positive pregnancy tests. When these women undergo routine prenatal procedures such as sonograms, and are told by physicians of their condition, they refuse to believe that they are not truly expecting. As time goes by and no child is born, however, they must face the reality of their situation; sometimes they fall into clinical depression. Pseudocyesis usually lasts nine months, although it can last as little as a few months or many years. 1% of women with this condition go so far as to actually experience labor pains, and need to “deliver” their non-existent child. Fortunately, cases of pseudocyesis have declined with time; advancements in technology and psychology make diagnosing this condition easier, as well as offering more efficient treatment. Currently 1 to 6 cases per 22,000 births are reported in the United States, a steady decline from the 156 cases reported between 1890 and 1910[5]. This condition is most commonly known and observed among non-human mammals, especially dogs and cats. In that instance, the animal will begin to nest, preparing a home and birthing space for themselves; they might also gain weight, produce milk, and “mother” inanimate objects. Canine pseudocyesis can manifest itself both overtly and covertly – if the animal exhibits physical symptoms of pregnancy it is overt pseudocyesis, if they exhibit no physical symptoms but show expecting behavior, it is covert[6]. Some animals may “undergo” this phantom pregnancy in order to be able to lactate and feed abandoned young from their tribe; it is also a response to their ovulation cycles. These animals suffer from the same desire their human counterparts do: they do not merely want offspring, but they yearn passionately for them. Unlike humans, however, once a canine experiences pseudocyesis, the condition is likely to return over time.             The usual course of treatment for women with pseudocyesis is intense therapy sessions, as well as medical procedures to “cure” them of their conditions. To terminate their distended bellies, they are placed under general anesthesia; for the amenorrhea and elevated hormone levels, they are prescribed certain medicines. Alternative medicine such as massages, hypnosis, and opiates are also employed as a course of treatment, but their effectiveness is not proven. Usually the extinction of their physical symptoms, and a sonogram, partly resolves the situation; however, psychotherapy is the best recourse to ensure the restoration of their mental health.[7]            Many people believe we exist in order to reproduce: to create more life, and increase the chance of “getting it right” this time around. Consequently, we also believe that immortality is truly only achieved through procreation – a small part of ourselves will live on in our children and our children’s children. Women in particular have been instilled with the notion that their sole role is that of a mother, increasing the pressure of having children. Pseudocyesis has perhaps decreased because the roles we now “offer” women are vaster: self-accomplishment can be achieved through excelling in professions, education, charity work, and spiritual endeavors. Mary Tudor never did have children, and that is not the reason for which she is remembered: Mary fought for her crown, her government, her faith, and her people. She is a reminder that one does not have to have children in order to be a woman. The story of pseudocyesis might never be complete for we still do not fully comprehend the causes or treatment for this condition. Its existence, however, allows us to observe the intensity and power of the mind over body: our greatest desire or fear can affect our corporeal composition and harmony. How to know how much of our ailments or experiences are controlled by the mind, how much it can cure? We are left in the darkness of the unknown, comforted only by the infinitesimal possibilities our mind can accomplish.
Priscila Roney's picture

The Predator's False Promise: Pseudoscience over Reason

Over 11 million people are diagnosed with cancer world wide each year, 7 million of which will not survive. With early detection, one-third of all cancers can generally be cured by surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy (1). Nonetheless, cancer treatment and detection is amongst the biggest medical challenges faced by our societies today.  Ever since the late 1980s there have been reports, articles and stories about “cancer defying sharks” and how these fearful predators potentially hold the secret weapon in our fight against cancer. These stories were commercially publicized by an entrepreneur named I. William Lane, who claimed that shark cartilage could treat and cure cancer, arthritis, enteritis (an inflammation of the intestinal tract), macular degeneration, psoriasis, acne and poison ivy (2). These claims became widely publicized and many companies in the US began marketing these shark cartilage “supplements”. Oncologists also noticed that an increasing amount of their patients were asking about shark cartilage treatments or had already tried this form of alternative therapy (3). Many were so eager to believe the idea of finding such an idealistic cure for cancer, that they did not bother to search for the scientific evidence supporting the alleged “magical properties” of powdered shark cartilage.

Margaret Bohara's picture

Flying Fish

How do flying fish fly?


What makes flying fish so special?


            As a kid, I was always enchanted by flying fish.  They seemed so wrong in the world – fish, that live and breathe and eat and breed in water, flying in the sky like birds.  For years, I didn’t think flying fish actually existed.  But I began to believe, little by little, and now have decided to base my final web paper on these magnificent creatures.  Where exactly do they live?  What exactly do they look like?  How exactly do they live?  Why exactly do they fly?

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