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What do students need to know about developmental biology ?

Posted by , on 29 June 2010

This is a question that I keep asking myself. I am starting work on the third edition of my textbook “Essential Developmental Biology”. Over the years the quantity of published material in developmental biology keeps rising exponentially. Papers nowadays are extremely detailed and technical compared to the way they were in the 1980s when the shape of current molecular-genetic developmental biology was being established.

People always tell me that the thing they like about my books is their brevity and conciseness. But brevity can’t be maintained without being extremely selective, and this inevitably offends people whose research topics get left out.

Suppose an undergraduate (or beginning graduate student) has taken a lecture course in developmental biology, comprising maybe 40 hours of contact. What do you expect them to know when they appear in your lab as a PhD student ?

Do they need to know about sea urchin as well as mouse fertilization ?

Zebrafish pancreas development as well as mouse pancreas development ?

Enhancer traps in mouse as well as Drosophila ?

Would you expect them to know what the amnion is ? What are the properties of neuronal stem cells ? Which end of a Hydra is the head ? Anything about Dictyostelium ?

Or none of the above…?

Is there areally a core set of principles of Developmental Biology as a science, or is it just a bunch of topics that can be varied without limit depending on the interests of the instructor ?

If anyone has comments on this matter, and particularly about what they would like to see included in, or left out of, my third edition, please let me know.




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6 thoughts on “What do students need to know about developmental biology ?”

  1. I would argue that what they need to know is ‘first principles’ illustrated by specific examples, and from there back to generalisations. There is no way that a course can cover everything, or predict what kind of lab a student will eventually end up in. Then, it may be better to give them sufficient knowledge so that they can extrapolate from first principles and specific examples to whatever experimental system they end up on.
    I like how Paulo Freire puts it: ” [..]decoding requires moving from the abstract to the concrete; [..] from the part to the whole and then returning to the parts. […] this movement of flux and reflux from the abstract to the concrete […] leads the the supersedence of the abstraction by the critical perception of the concrete, which has already ceased to be a dense, impenetrable reality’ (P Freire, Pedagogy of the oppressed, ISBN-13: 978-0-140-25403-7)

  2. Good question, Jonathan!

    You clearly can’t fit in everything for every organism, but maybe the basic thing to know is that there are differences _and_ similarities between them, and make sure they can identify when something is species-specific or not. (So they won’t end up thinking that using a microscope is unique to Drosophila work, or that each gene is regulated the same way – or even exists – in every organism.)

    I had a look at the 2nd edition of your book, which we have in the office here, and I really like the “classic experiment” features. It’s important to emphasize where the knowledge actually comes from, and give students an entry to reading peer reviewed papers.

  3. Jonathan, you’re totally right that you can’t cover everything. And in my experience, whenever you go to a new lab or a new line of research, you always need time (sometimes hours, sometimes days, weeks if you need to learn tricky new procedures) to ‘acclimatize’.

    So you can’t teach students ‘everything’, but you CAN teach students to learn more quickly in your particular field; this can indeed be accomplished by teaching them the most important principles and the relation between them. Abstractions themselves are not remembered easily, but from what I’ve gathered from educational research, it is ideal if you can demonstrate a basic principle with three or so radically different organisms/subprocesses, perhaps help the students by pointing out the similarities (and the reason for the differences) afterwards. The best way would be that students would learn the relationships between the core facts; learning any specific subsubarea afterwards should be much faster then as the new knowledge would easily ‘slot’ into the template. If you’d like to know more about educational experimental findings , a book such as “Building Expertise” from Ruth Colvin Clark gives a better overview.

    Good luck!

  4. Like the other comments, my suggestion is to focus on first principles and classic experiments. I think that teaching students how to think is more important than telling them what to think, although a good text book hopefully does both.

    I work as a cell and developmental biologist now, but most of my training before I went to grad school was in biochemistry and genetics. As a grad student and again as a post-doc, I’ve played catch-up with various fields of study, mainly by reading reviews and seminal papers but also by referring to text books to get a handle on the history of particular fields.

    I think a good text book provides a context for our knowledge…and I think there are core principles specific to developmental biology that allows us to frame our questions in ways that help us understand the molecular, genetic, cellular, and biophysical events that lead to the generation of offspring from parent (on a cellular level, on an embryonic level, on an organismal level, and on a species level).

    Some clear examples of basic principles that are specific to developmental biology are: induction and specification; cell autonomy and non-autonomy.

    I’m looking forward to the new edition of your book…maybe I’ll actually be a professor by the time it is published and can suggest it to my students.

  5. I would find it useful to have an up-to-date explanation of the technical advantages to research in developmental biology of each of the many model systems out there, be they cellular or organismal.

    Is there an attached online resource to Essential Developmental Biology? There is that “Internet Resource” page by Blackwell, for starters. Could you prevail upon your publisher to add a link, for example, to the Node, or the ISDB, or any other developmental biology website which you hope will stay stable between your third and hypothetical fourth editions? And then you could perhaps moderate a hosted entry such as this one, devoted precisely to this topic. It would be a way to be able to concentrate on your chosen selection of models/experiments as exemplary for the print edition, without permanently leaving out such creative models such as the sea snail for handedness, for an off-the-top-of-my-head example.

    I hope you get lots of feedback on this question. I think it’s fantastic for textbook authors/editors to feel out the desiderata of their readers in this way.

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