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Anatomy of a department

What better way to reflect on the changes in education and research over the past 50 years than to look at a single department – especially in the sciences – and what better place to do it than a university that opened its doors 50 years ago?

BY MICHAEL SMITH | OCT 05 2009

It’s 1959 – just six years since James Watson and Francis Crick deciphered the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, ushering in an era that, in retrospect at least, can only be described as a biological revolution.

Elsewhere, the world turns much as usual. In Cuba, a young Fidel Castro has just seized power. In Ottawa, the not-so-young John Diefenbaker, 64, is prime minister. Mattell Corp. has just launched Barbie, the St. Lawrence Seaway has just been completed, and The Sound of Music is wowing them on Broadway. Oh, and a small band of visionaries is planning a new university for Toronto – one that will shatter old hide-bound structures and find new ways of teaching and learning.

The connection between the first fact and the last may not be obvious. But consider biology. In most, perhaps all, universities of the time, there was no department of biology. There was a botany department. There was a zoology department. There might be, rarely, a department of genetics that had been established when scientists discovered that genes somehow governed heredity. And these departments met in only a perfunctory way, if at all.

“Keep in mind that the package ‘biology’ comes to us as organisms – we see birds, we see plants, we see animals,” says Ken Davey, one of Canada’s foremost entomologists. “And for many, many years, that’s the way the science was organized in universities.”

The spanking new York University, with a handful of students and only three scientists on its fledgling faculty, would be the first in Canada to dispense with the old divisions and have, simply, a Department of Biology. That was partly out of necessity – there was no way a new school could obtain the resources to staff two or three separate departments – and it was partly a matter of philosophy, according to Ron Pearlman, one of the earlier members of the department.

The philosophical point – echoed across the university and not just in the sciences – was that knowledge should be integrated. In the early years, first- and second-year students didn’t take a chemistry course or a physics course, Dr. Pearlman says. Instead they took courses that tried very hard to paint a broad picture of science.

That has fallen by the wayside in general. But for biology, at least, there was no backsliding – and that’s because of Watson and Crick. Before their path-breaking work on DNA, explains Dr. Davey, the biological sciences tended to emphasize the differences among organisms. Afterward, the focus shifted to “those things that organisms share,” he says. Biology, considered as the study of similarity, was the new wave. And where better to ride the new wave than a new university?

The idea of York University was born in the late 1950s. It opened its doors in 1960 in a borrowed building on the University of Toronto campus and moved to U of T’s Glendon campus the following year. By the time Dr. Pearlman arrived – recruited in 1968 by his former teacher Harold Schiff, the first dean of science at York – the biology department and its eight members were ensconced on the barely developed Keele St. campus. “It was raw, tiny, out of the way,” Dr. Pearlman recalls.

But that very newness, he says, was one of the attractive features of the school for a young scientist. “There were no precedents,” he remembers. “No one said, ‘we didn’t do this 50 years ago, so you can’t do it today.’” The integrated department was one of those new things, and it put brash young York at the forefront of Canadian biological science.

The early years of York’s biology department were notable for their emphasis on molecular biology, adds Dr. Davey, who is a former chair of the department as well as a former dean of science and vice-president. He is also, like Dr. Pearlman, a charming raconteur with a passion for his science.

The next step, says Dr. Davey, was to start hiring people who were interested in biology at the cellular level – using the same molecular biology techniques, but asking questions at a higher level of organization. Dr. Davey himself was recruited in 1974 when the department decided to add an emphasis on the organism level – not, he hastens to add, from an old-fashioned zoological or botanical point of view, but from the viewpoint of the new integrated biology.

Dr. Davey and his colleagues established York as a centre for invertebrate endocrinology. “This place just boomed along,” he says. “We had established an enormous leadership in the area.”

Finally, under his leadership, York added researchers interested in the population level of biology. Brock Fenton – known to many Canadians as a popular and entertaining expert on bats – was the marquee hire in 1986 and went on to chair the department for six years. But “permeating all of this was the original molecular biology,” notes Dr. Davey. The researchers used many of the same tools, but asked different questions.

The result was a solid leadership role in Canadian biology. During the 1980s, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council had four grant selection committees to hand out research money. “York had the largest grants from three of them,” Dr. Davey reports.

One tangible sign of that early leadership was a containment facility for some of the controversial areas of biological research. It may seem quaint nowadays, but the notion of recombinant DNA was once a terrifying bugaboo. What monsters might be created by these eggheads in their ivory towers? In Canada, York defused the issue, persuading the granting councils that the university should build a containment facility where such research – as well as other molecular and cellular studies – could be carried out safely.

The facility attracted some of the big names in Canadian biological science. Lap-Chee Choi, one of the discoverers of the gene defect involved in cystic fibrosis, came to Keele St. to do some of his work. Tak Mak, who found the T cell receptor, one of the keys to the human immune system, did some of his research at York. The resulting cross-
fertilization helped cement York’s reputation as a centre of biological excellence.

It couldn’t last, of course. Despite York’s dramatic growth, it still didn’t have the financial clout of the older, more established schools. “Other organizations began to pick off our mid-career people,” Dr. Davey recalls.

That said, York is attracting a plethora of students, and the department’s 40 faculty members make it a “relatively large department by national standards,” says Imogen Coe, the current chair. Even over the past few years, demand for biology courses has risen sharply. She recalls, for instance, teaching a fourth-year course when she arrived 12 years ago that had a dozen or so students – “a very nice number.” Today that course has 100 students.

That’s partly because the local community is growing by leaps and bounds. But it’s also a function of a surging interest in matters biological, says Dr. Coe, as a result of increased awareness of the role of biology in understanding the natural world. Whether the interest will last is up in the air; she notes that the wheels fell off an earlier bandwagon, computer science.

The course of the years has wrought other changes, as well. Both Drs. Davey and Pearlman lament the loss of the integrated approach to science in the early years. Now, first-year students take separate courses offered by the various disciplines because the sheer volume of material in the sciences has grown.

“The general philosophy still exists,” Dr. Pearlman says, but there’s little consensus on how to be interdisciplinary.

On the other hand, it’s clear that biology has had a huge influence on other sciences over the past 50 years.
It’s no longer, he says, “just bird-watching.” Now we have biophysics, biochemistry, bioinformatics, and the list goes on. “We all understand research breakthroughs are in the interdisciplinary areas,” Dr. Pearlman says. But exactly how to reflect that in the teaching side of the university is, and always has been, a tough question.

Indeed, the school’s first dean of arts and science, John Saywell, describes the school’s early “general education” as a running battleground for those who favored the idea and those who did not. The 1960s version of general education, he says in his 2008 memoir Someone to Teach Them, was dead soon after it was born, although it has left a legacy of interdisciplinary courses.

York’s early emphasis was on teaching in a broad way. But much has changed, especially in biology. As a science, biology is more and more quantitative – no more “bird-watching” – and very much driven by technology. In most fields – molecular biology, cell biology, biochemistry, genetics – both undergraduate teaching and research are still very much focused in the lab, Dr. Pearlman says.

The difference is one of degree. For students, there’s less lab work than there was 50 years ago, due to the combined effects of technological change, increasing costs and many more students. “We have maintained a basic hands-on lab program in most introductory courses,” says Dr. Pearlman, while some upper-level courses are essentially free-standing labs that are project-based.

For her part, Dr. Coe says the department is still focused on giving students a broad education. It’s just that the definition of “broad” has changed. The department has moved away from “acquisition of facts” and toward courses that emphasize fundamental principles. “Because of the explosion of knowledge, it’s absolutely impossible to cover all the facts,” she says. On the other hand, it is possible – and essential in the modern world – to instill critical thinking, and to teach such things as the scientific method and the structure of evolutionary theory.

But the goal now is for students to grasp biology as a whole, to understand the unity of life rather than its diversity. “We try to really teach an integrative approach to biology,” Dr. Coe says. The same integrative approach is true in research – the early strength in molecular biology has stood the test of time, but now it’s being used to probe different questions. For instance, she says, professors like Laurence Packer and Bridget Stutchbury use molecular tools to understand, respectively, the behavior of bees and songbirds.

Fifty years on, the wave started by Watson and Crick shows no signs of cresting. “It is,” Dr. Coe says, “the golden age of biology.”

PUBLISHED BY
Michael Smith
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  1. Jackie Leithoff / October 5, 2009 at 16:27

    I am interested in learning some of the more novel techniques that have been used to market canadian universities abroad ( especially china) – do you have any good examples?