In 2004, the Department of Biological Sciences (DBS) will celebrate the tenth anniversary of its formation. As we examine past achievements, we see a commitment to maintaining the facilities and programs that defined the excellence of the former Departments of Botany, Entomology, Genetics, Microbiology and Zoology. We also look to future developments on campus, provincially and nationally to define our opportunities for growth and development.
The primary objective of a university is scholarship. It suffuses everything we do as academics, teachers, researchers and students. Scholarship requires a deep knowledge of a subject, reflective thought, clarity in describing principles and objectives and the ability to impart a love for a subject to others. Becoming a scholar is a life-long process, taken on by the individual, and aided by the infrastructure, people and opportunities an university affords. Scholarship develops slowly; consequently, we have an elaborate system for establishing benchmarks for achieving academic excellence. As we move from undergraduate to Professor Emeritus, we should continually strive to achieve ever higher levels of scholarship if the University of Alberta is to be "indisputably recognized as one of the top universities in the world". Consequently, the DBS is committed to providing the opportunities for the development of scholarship at each stage in our academic careers and providing the rigorous assessment of our progress that is the hallmark of a great University.
The Undergraduate Experience
The undergraduate experience is often a daunting process for young people who have just finished their K-12 education or are returning to school. Initially there are few options in their programs, large classes and heavy workloads. By third year most students have found their subject of interest and are gaining a deeper understanding of it. By graduation, students should be able to reflect on their program of study and link the seemingly disparate course demands together to describe a coherent whole. They should be able to think independently and describe both verbally and in writing their achievements in learning, the hallmark of scholarship.
The DBS is one of the largest and most diverse departments on campus and in Canadian universities in general. It has incredible resources in academic staff, support personnel and facilities that allow our students to excel. The DBS is committed to offering a wide selection of lab courses in addition to lecture-based ones to enhance the undergraduate experience. The challenge is to continually re-vitalize the content of lectures and labs to promote scholarship in the face of rapid technological advances that continually expand the boundaries of our subject. Undergraduates need contact with professors and staff in order to learn, to become scholars, and to be assured that their programs have relevance to their lives. The challenge for the DBS is to develop the resources to make this happen.
Graduate school has changed immensely in the last hundred years. The idea of pure study with an eminent professor for the personal satisfaction of scholarship has been supplanted by a need to achieve the signs of academic success that are expected by the job market in academia, government and business. From the demand to publish scholarly work or original research to developing teaching dossiers, graduate students are expected to complete their programs and demonstrate excellence in their subject in ever shorter time frames. We view that both the academic faculties and the graduate students needs to play a role in the continual excellence and further improvements of our graduate student training programs. Graduate students need to be very clear about their goals and have a strong personal commitment to achieving academic excellence as independent scholars. They need to take more control over their programs and define the resources they need to succeed in this mission. Without their active participation, we cannot improve our graduate program. The creation of more rules or the imposition of new criteria by themselves cannot improve the quality of scholarship. Only the commitment of the academic faculty to this enterprise coupled with the intellectual curiosity and energy of graduate students will allow our graduate program to excel. Supervisors and supervisory committees need to be aware of the expectations and demands of the graduate programs and make clear, appropriate guidance to tailor the programs accordingly. With the participation of both parties concerned, we are confident that the expected new challenges in the graduate training experience can be met with ease.
Biological Sciences in the Future: A Vision
The biological sciences will play an increasingly important role in our lives in this new century. Ecosystems worldwide are under increasing stress from global human population increases, climate change, urban expansion, increased demands on agricultural and natural resources, the large scale use of biocides and growth-enhancing chemicals, and changes in global economics. The sustainability of many resource industries is in doubt. Loss of biodiversity jeopardizes ecosystem integrity, as well as the natural sources of bioactive compounds both known and still to be discovered. Emergence of new diseases and increased drug-resistance of microbes threaten the health of plant and animals (including humans). On the other hand, scientific advances such as understanding of the biological and genetic basis of many health issues, the ability to genetically transform organisms, as well as advances in genomics, proteomic and nanotechnology, provide us with new tools to address these demands, but also create new technical and ethical challenges. To make effective use of these tools and technologies, and to address some of the problems highlighted above, continued advances in the knowledge of the fundamental principles of biological functions (from the molecular to organismal level), the interactions among organisms and between organisms and their environment, as well as how and why biological systems have changed in the past are crucial. We must continue to make advances in our knowledge base, disseminate such advances to our peers and the public, and nurture and train the highly qualified personnel that will lead us and shape our future. Biological science research at universities must play a central role in this endeavor. Our vision includes a Department of Biological Sciences (DBS) that is recognized both nationally and internationally as one of Canada’s top departments.
Excerpted and modified from the Chair’s document, “Department of Biological Sciences: Five Year Plan 2003-2008” and the “Graduate Program Review, March 18 & 19, 2004; Self-Study Report”.