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MIT student blogger Mollie B. '06

DNA-mazing by Mollie B. '06

Lots of tidbits about the biology program at MIT.

Today I am inspired by Ben (not this Ben), who asked

it seems that biology courses at high-school level focus a lot on reciting things, and I don’t believe it’s the essence of the subject. Could you please tell us more about biology @ undergraduate level (esp. @ MIT)?

It’s very true that biology is different at the high school and undergraduate levels, particularly at MIT. Most of what I remember from high school was doing things like identifying skulls using a dichotomous key, dissecting starfish, and memorizing all the phyla for a big lab practical test. My high school mostly focused on ecology and organismal biology (but not evolution — I’m from Ohio, remember), and we only did a little bit with molecular and cellular biology.

MIT’s biology department, in contrast, is largely a biochemistry/molecular/cellular biology department with a lot of people who like to do computational stuff on the side (hey, it’s MIT). It is, as you are probably aware, one of the top three departments in the country for biology. Some people take issue with this sort of ranking, since the ranking is really for the graduate program; in MIT’s case, the strength of the graduate program is the strength of the undergraduate program, since undergrads take classes with and do research next to grad students. (One of the classes I’m taking this term, 7.28, molecular biology, is a joint grad-undergrad class; the undergrads outscored the grad students on the last test. Hee.)

Many MIT departments place a strong emphasis on teaching students how to think about problems rather than teaching them to solve specific problems — after all, if you want to be a good scientist or engineer, it’s important to learn how to think critically rather than to merely regurgitate solutions other people have devised. In accordance with that philosophy, the biology department teaches known facts about biological processes in conjunction with instruction about assays to use to discern these facts for yourself. A large percentage of courses require students to read papers from the primary scientific literature.

To make sure that students are learning to problem-solve rather than memorize, most tests in biology classes are either open-book, open-note, or both. This does not make them easier. It makes it less likely that you will lose points based on a factual error, but having the book and a complete set of notes won’t give you the actual answers.

As an example, this is a test question from 7.06 (cell biology) the year that I took it.

(a, 6 pts) Design an experiment that tests if egl-1 expression is sufficient for programmed cell death to occur in cells of the worm C. elegans. Include mention of the result that proves that egl-1 is indeed sufficient for PCD to occur.
(b, 6 pts) You find that C. elegans that are homozygous for a deletion in ced-9 are inviable. You suspect that (if they were viable) these worms would no longer have CED-4 localized to the surface of mitochondria because there is no CED-9 protein to tether it there. You want to examine CED-4 localization in these ced-9 null mutants, but you can’t (because they are inviable). Your boss challenges you to examine CED-4 localization in ced-9 null mutants despite this obvious glitch. Design an experiment that allows you to do so.
(c, 5 pts) Over-expressing wild-type CED-3 in C. elegans induces inappropriate cell deaths in a slow and inefficient manner. You have created a construct that leads to over-expression of a mutant form of CED-3. This construct induces inappropriate cell deaths much more quickly and efficiently than the wild-type construct does. What specific version of mutant CED-3 is being expressed from your construct?

That’s the kind of thing that can’t be solved by memorization and regurgitation alone.

Anyway, all the professors in the biology department are required to teach every year, and they all serve as undergraduate advisors. (All of the classes at MIT are taught by PhDs, and those PhDs are almost exclusively faculty members. In the rare cases when non-faculty members are lecturers for a course, they’ve gotten that job because everybody loves them.) I have three or four favorite professors whose offices I can pop into unannounced, and I wouldn’t feel out of place making an appointment to meet with any other professor in the department, either. All the professors who teach classes hold office hours for students to come ask questions, and they get really happy when people come meet with them. Most of them seem to be very interested in undergrads — I think they find us amusing. All of the professors in the department also take UROPs, too; some of the positions available for this summer are announced here.

In conclusion, biology at MIT rocks.

Postscript to that — The administrator of my PhD program sent all of us new first-years an Excel spreadsheet with contact information for all the other first-years. Guess how many of the seventy first-years graduated from MIT? Ten. That’s right, fourteen percent of the first-years in the Harvard BBS PhD program are MIT grads. See conclusion above.


1. In addition to his entry-inspiring question above, Ben asked

Hey Mollie, I’m an int’l student thinking about majoring in Biology. I wonder if vocabulary will be a hard job for students who had been learning the whole bunch of thing in a different language (and it will be harder than other subjects)?

Learning the vocabulary for anything is definitely harder if English isn’t your first language. I’m not sure that biology will be any harder than anything else, though. The good thing about MIT is that we have a lot of international students, so everybody is perfectly used to stopping to clarify words and terms for anyone who doesn’t understand. Last night, for example, a bunch of us were sitting in the lounge talking, and Kate ’07 said “…and he was kind of a stickler for the rules.” Tal ’09, who’s from Israel, injected, “Wait! What’s ‘stickler?'” And Kate defined it and went on with the story. So if there are unfamiliar terms for you in lecture, don’t worry — there will be plenty of people happy to help you learn.

2. Nehalita asked

Totally Random Question: Do you know which cell phone service has the best reception? When I was up there for CPW, I didn’t seem to have service anywhere inside the dorms…

Ahh, yes, this is what happens when you build an entire campus out of brick and concrete. :) People are pretty split on this issue — you can check out discussions here, here, and here. I have Sprint. It’s okay.

3. Shikhar asked

Hey since you are moving to grad school..can i ask you something…is it considrerd perfectly normal if a person goes to grad school after getting some work experience aka job…for say 1-2 years after graduation…or does it make one less marketable than in comparison to someone fresh out of know like make the admission staff think that this guy must have been rejected just after UG so thats why he took a break….if this is not true then does working increase someones credibility…What are your views…

Oh, yeah, it’s totally normal for people to take a year or two off after graduation. (Actually, a lot of laboratory technician jobs are advertised as being for one or two years so recent graduates can get more research experience.) People take time off after undergrad for several reasons (to make money, to avoid burnout, to get more research experience, to make sure they want to go to grad school), and admissions committees don’t look down on it at all. Actually, I think it’s somewhat easier to get into graduate school after taking a year or two off, since it’s clear that you definitely want to go to grad school — I think the admissions people sometimes have trouble taking fresh-out-of-undergrad applicants seriously.

4. Christina solved Dan’s problem for me. ;)

5. Amelia asked

Hi, I’m currently a highschool freshman. I’ve developed a strong interest in biology in my bio honors course this year (along with previous years of science)and plan to apply to MIT to major in biology. How would you suggest I prepare in the next few years and what skills should I develop that will best help me in college?

I think the thing that helps the most is to read anything you can get your hands on — if you have a broad base of science knowledge coming into undergrad, it really helps. (It also helps if you can read quickly — there’s a lot of reading in college!) Some free stuff to read, if you don’t mind reading on the computer, can be found at the NCBI Bookshelf, which I think is just super. I also have a list of books I’ve read in the past few years.

Also, if you have a college campus anywhere near your house, it would be great to try and get a research job, maybe over a summer. That’s not at all a “requirement” to get into MIT — most people don’t get lab jobs until college — but if it’s something you really like, that’s further evidence that MIT and biology are good choices for you.

6. An anonymous commenter said

Do you know any biology majors who are interested more in environment applications of molecular biology rather than in more human/medical applications? Also, I dream of doing either a double major in EAPS/environmental science — biology focus or at least doing an EAPS minor. How would I find out, when I get to MIT, if that double major is really possible? How would I find out if other people and how I might contact those people? I did find at least two professors do the kinds of research I hope I can do someday. Is it appropriate to email them for advice? If so, when? It seems a little silly to try to get in touch with them before I get to college, but I wonder how long after that would be all right, if I wanted their advice of what courses to take.

Oh, definitely — my cheerleading friend Carly ’07 is actually a double in 12 and 5 (EAPS and chemistry), but she’s interested in marine biology-type stuff and she has a UROP in a biology lab. (If you’d like her email, either email me or leave your address.)

As for doubles, I think it’s best to assume you can do it until any information otherwise surfaces. :) You’ll probably be able to figure out if it’s feasible by the end of your freshman year or so, but you can’t officially declare a second major until the beginning of your junior year anyway. All freshmen pretty much take the same courses, so you can take the normal freshman courses next year and worry about the actual logistics of majoring and double-majoring later.

It would be fine to email professors now, but it would probably be a little more appropriate toward the middle of the fall or so.

7. JKim said

It’s pretty intimidating that a lot of prefrosh know exactly what they want to major in (and thus, what courses they need to take, etc etc) when I just want to slow down and figure things out. Do a lot of people come in undecided, and are there any sort of advising programs to help you figure out what the heck you’re supposed to be doing with yourself?

First, you definitely don’t need to know exactly what you want to do right at this instant — and odds are pretty good that even the people who are like “oh, I’m going to major in x and minor in y FOR SURE” are going to change their minds at least once between now and next spring.

There are a few different ways to figure out what you like to do best. The Academic Resource Center provides a lot of resources on major choice, and all the departments hold open houses during the spring for freshmen to come check them out. There’s also an annual Choice of Major fair with booths for each department and free stuff for freshmen (biology department pencils, mechE stress balls, etc). Upperclassmen will always be more than happy to offer their personal two cents on any department. (Upperclassmen like offering their two cents on pretty much anything.) You might want to check out Anthony’s choice of major thoughts — my own personal “should I do BCS? or biology? what about a minor in chemistry? premed?” dilemma was a long time ago.

15 responses to “DNA-mazing”

  1. Jessie says:

    One thing my high school did well, back in the day, was teach bio – our bio class was almost pure cell/molecular. We made E coli that glowed in the dark. *grin*

    You considered a minor in chemistry? *another grin*

  2. Dan says:

    no she didn’t

  3. Melodie says:

    are you really getting married????

    (in reference to Ben’s dating post)

  4. Anonymous says:

    do you have any advice on how to get to know professors? it feels like they sit on some high pedestal and we can only stare in awe.

  5. “Most of them seem to be very interested in undergrads — I think they find us amusing.”

    Like pets?

  6. Jon says:

    haha, ok, totally random, but i have to give your props (wow….i never say “props) for reading His Dark Materials last year. Im reading the trilogy for the second time (im on Amber Spyglass), and its definitely by far one of the best fiction trilogies ever written!

  7. Lena says:

    How come all your notes are typed and do most students take notes on a laptop or by hand in class? and how much homework on average do you spend on a given day? are the 5-0-7 (hrs per week) spent on the classes accurate?

  8. Steven says:

    Hi Mollie, how do you conquer those open-book or open-notes exams? how do you make A or B in those classes? Those questions seem impossible even to the authors of your textbooks!

  9. Christina says:

    Oh GOD. This post makes me so excited.

  10. Mikey says:

    I also considered a minor in chem (course 5)! I was one of the few who actually loved 5.12 (organic chem) and thought I’d love a minor or double major in 5 and 7…I was also one of the few who loved 18.02 (multivar calc) and thought he wanted to be a math major…but no, it was 7 for me. 7 all the way.

    Steven – I think that question just sounds really hard because there are a lot of specific terms (CED-3, CED-4, ced-9, egl-1, C. elegans…), but remember – it’s open-note/open-book, and so usually those specific terms (or terms similar to it) and/or related systems/processes have already been talked about. So you’d flip to lecture 5 of your notes, quickly remember topics covered about egl-1 and its function in programmed cell death, and then apply your problem solving skills to come up with a viable experiment. or perhaps lecture 8 where the professor talked about experiments done to overcome obstacles mentioned in part b. and then you’d flip to lecture 6 where the professor covered the different CED-3 mutants and their characteristics for part c. (I don’t know this for sure, but having taken this class, I’m guessing I’m somewhat close?) Anywho, no need to fret – for someone who’s never taken a college bio course before, it will definitely seem like a daunting exam question. Heck, I took the class a year ago and I’m still a little scared! It’s really not as hard as it looks once you’re taking the class though, trust me. smile

    (ok that was probably more info than you cared for, so i’ll stop writing now. love your blog mollie! we’ll have to talk bio sometime! haha…reading it makes me kinda want to go back to school and take more bio classes, believe it or not…)

  11. Mom08 says:

    Dan, my son works (UROP) in the lab of one of those “awe inspiring” people. He’s even famous and probably the best in the world at what he does. He is very very friendly and comes into son’s office to chat and see how his life is going. My son got the job by walking into the lab and asking if they needed any help.

    He has also gotten to know a couple of his professors fairly well by going to talk to them during office hours or after class. So it is possible to get to know your professors.

  12. Sarab says:

    I’m from India and I’ve been told by everyone that in India the courses I’m doing right now are very advanced as compared to the rest of the world. Is this true?

    For example, in the 11th grade I’ve done translation, transcription and replication and in the 12th grade I will be doing Human Physiology.

    Is this the same in an Americna High School?

  13. Christina says:

    IRT Sarab:

    It depends what courses you take. My Biology class has covered everything you mentioned above.

  14. Shannon says:

    Sarab- Biology is typically a 10th grade course here in America (most people here probably took honors as a freshman and then AP as an upperclassman). In a year, most students will cover the protein synthesis and DNA replication that you mentioned as well as basic human physiology (and of course other typical biology basics). In some schools, physiology/anatomy can be taken as a seperate class as well.

    I’m sure you will be right on track with other students entering MIT. To what depth did you study those subjects?

  15. Filiz says:

    Nice entry! I also love biology, molecular biology in specific. It is slightly more difficult to navigate around the majors/minors, especially with what I want to do (biotechnology) because it’s named different things in different schools =/ oh well.

    What subject exactly is your PhD in? I looked through the webpage and I found an overview more or less and a few different catagories… well I am new to your blog, maybe I’ll find it one of your other posts. I’ll check it out smile

    Anyway, it’s nice seeing you answer other peoples questions- and awesome blog title.