Am I a Chemist or Biologist

The practice of science and the practice of teaching science at a college level have an unusual disconnect.  In the college realm we have to be highly qualified in order to teach a subject, according to the Higher Learning Commission (HLC, the body that accredits most Midwest colleges and universities).  However, as with most administrative demands, the definition of highly qualified is a bright-line definition.  In the case of the HLC, the definition of highly qualified  is that you have an earned degree within the field one step higher than the highest degree in your program (a Masters Degree in the the case of Jackson College) and have taken eighteen graduate credit hours of classes within the discipline you are teaching.  In actuality it is a pretty low bar (most graduated programs are 30+ hours and very focused on the discipline), and is mainly there to prevent less than ethical decisions of running a class with a “warm body” in front of it simply because you can fill the room with students.  The requirement itself is a response to decisions made by administrators during the enrollment boom of the late naughts and is not onerous at all (though adjuncts who can not longer teach because they fail to meet the new bar would disagree).

So where does this conflict with science as a practice? Actual science is rarely bound by neat lines that separate one discipline from another.  Most researchers have dabbled in many fields of science during the course of research simply because a question comes up in their work that falls outside of the classic questions of their field.  I’ll use my own training as an example.

I earned undergraduate degrees in Chemistry and Biology.  Now an undergraduate degree really doesn’t do much to qualify you as a scientist (sorry to burst your bubble guys) since it is mainly focused on overall education (the out of department requirements) and content mastery of the basic corpus of knowledge for your chosen field.  Even if you do research as an undergraduate it is typically very guided and the project was selected for you by your mentor (with them knowing you had a good chance at success).  So while you finish your Bachelors of Science degree with good content mastery and basic critical thinking abilities, your true growth as a scientist comes in graduate school.

In the mid Nineties, when I started graduate school at Duke University, interdisciplinary studies  were all the rage.  Biomedical sciences had particularly embraced it an new degree programs in everything from Cancer Biology to Biological Chemistry were being started.  I entered Duke as a Biological Chemistry major, meaning I didn’t have a department but rather an overarching theme to my studies and my department would be decided by which mentor I chose.  Coming out of undergraduate I leaned heavily towards the Chemistry side of my education and so I focused my initial studies in grad school, and my course work, in that arena.  In the first year I took courses in Medicinal Chemistry, Reactive Organic Intermediates, Organic Compound Spectroscopy, Advanced Organic Synthesis, and various Biochemistry related courses.  During that time I also rotated through various labs to get a feel for their research and try to find a mentor fit.

Typically you go through three rotations and then decide on a mentor from those choices, but I never found a fit that worked for both of us, so I did five rotations.  I eventually settled on Dr. Phil Hanna’s lab because I thought anthrax sounded interesting and he was a young mentor.  His youth, he was himself brand new to the job as a Professor, meant that he was energetic and, more importantly to me, willing to entertain ideas of where the research should go.  The freedom meant that I had a lot more say over my graduate research and as such I could go far afield from the norms of the field when I thought it needed it.  Being mainly a chemist, at this time, I brought a different viewpoint to a microbiology lab (plus I had to go and back-fill some course holes) and slowly my bona fides as a microbiologist came into focus (my official department was microbiology).

This story is to show that science, as a career, is often not pigeon-holed into any single field and the department designation on a degree may not accurately describe your job.  I meet the HLC requirements for both Chemistry and Biology, but many times I end up having to explain that because in education we like the nice certain boxes for accrediting form.  Always think about the questions you want to ask and look for the tool that best answers that question, even if it is outside your current wheel house.  You can always learn a new idea, even if the course designation is different than your official field of study.