How to succeed in university biology

If you are a biology student at Algoma University, you may be asking yourself: "How can I do well here, and how can I make sure I come out of this degree ready for a career, and armed with the skills and experience to get a decent job and be a contributing member of society. Okay, you might not be thinking all of those things, but maybe you're thinking some of them. As someone who has read a lot of student resumes and cover letters, and interviewed myriad students, I offer the following advice, aimed at helping you to succeed in your courses, and at ensuring that you maximize what you get out of your degree:

1. Work on your writing. The vast majority of students are poor writers. I don't say this to disparage youth; I was a bad writer when I was an undergrad, and it cost me a lot of marks. The fact is, students don't do enough writing, and when they do, they're not generally using good writing practice. I recommend a couple of things. When do you write the most? Probably on email, or facebook or some related internet tool. Rather than sending the typical short message, frought with grammatical errors and convenient phonetic spelling, spend a few extra moments to use full sentences, and correct grammar and spelling. If you're really ambitious, use paragraphs to separate your ideas. You'd be surprised how much this can help. The number one thing holding students out of the mark ranges that they really want (say for medical or law school), is typically writing. It isn't just a matter of grammar; it's being able to answer questions clearly and succinctly. You might be very smart, but we can't mark what you know unless you can write what you know in a way that we can understand it. You could be a genius and get everything wrong if you can't write. Additionally, your writing is the first thing any prospective employer will see when reviewing applications. Bettering your ability to communicate in writing will also improve your ability to communicate verbally. This is the single most important piece of advice I can give you. Success is generally built on the ability to distinguish ones self from others favourably. Being able to write well will distinguish you from most other students unless, or course, all students start taking my advice about this!

2. Focus on practical work. Try as we may as professors, it's hard to make studying science the experiential equivalent of doing science. That's why we always make courses have labs; no, it's not because we want to torture you or keep you from your weekly prime time fix. Sadly, even labs really aren't enough. So if you really want to find out whether science is your thing, I recommend two courses of action. First, volunteer in a research lab on campus. This may be competitive, so schedule a meeting with a professor and give them your pitch. In that meeting, don't make the fatal, but common, mistake of telling the professor how volunteering for them will help you. Consider highlighting the skills you can bring to his or her lab. Hint: professors always have menial tasks like data entry, reference cateloging, ect. that they won't want to do, and that will give you a chance to see what science research is really like. Yes, science, like pretty much any career, has lots of menial tasks. If you don't believe this, you're labouring under what I have come to call the C.S.I. delusion. TV can make any job look cool; don't trust it. Second, do an honours thesis. This is the best possible advice I can give you if you want to see whether you really like science.

3. Learn to give presentations. Most of you are probably scared to death of this. One of my favourite Seinfeld bits is about how dying is the second biggest fear for the average person, while public speaking is the first. Seinfeld then extrapolates that at a funeral, the average person would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy. This issue gets back to the importance of developing strong skills in communication (see first point). The better you are at this, the further you'll go. Practicing presentations helps you learn how to draw focus to particular points, and carefully frame an argument. Knowing how to do this well will give you confidence that will allow you to excel in interviews, and this will again help you to get jobs.

4. Pay attention to the marking scheme. This is perhaps the most basic suggestion I can offer. On tests and assignments, pay attention to how marks are allocated. This will help you focus your answers. I have seen students have trouble finishing exams as they meander through an answer, half of which has nothing to do with the question. If you have a test question worth two marks, make sure you're answering with two pieces of information. We design marking schemes so we can look for a particular number of things in the answer. The number of times I've had an exam question with the words "Identify and explain..." answered with only the identified bit even though the question is out of two marks, is especially frustrating because the student may have been perfectly capable of explaining, but did not consider that part of the question. Many students study by coming up with exam questions for one another; this is a great idea. Consider extending this idea by giving these questions a marking scheme appropriate to the expected answer. So how does this relate to your future? Well, it's a simple matter of paying attention to important details, something that is required in any job, and in life in general. This will also teach you how to better interpret expectations, and become more efficient at completing any given task.



Courses I currently teach at Algoma University

A) Principles of Scientific Inquiry (BIOL 2056): This course introduces students to the scientific method, how it is put into practice, and how it is used both in science and the public forum. Students are exposed to the basic techniques of experimentation, with focus on understanding the concepts of experimental control, falsification and the accumulation of evidence for particular theories. Students will learn to evaluate conflicting evidence, and to use the scientific method to ask difficult questions about common assumptions we make in our daily life.

B) Systematics & Phylogenetics (BIOL 3206): This course will introduce students to the basic methods used by systematists/taxonomists, and allow students to practice these skills by making invertebrate, plant, and fish taxonomic collections. Students will learn how to identify, and classify species, and the procedures used by scientists in the description and designation of new species. Students will also learn the fundamentals of phylogenetic classification and will use their plant collection to build a phylogeny that will be compared with a comparable phylogeny built from the published Angiosperm phylogeny which is available online.

C) Ethnobotany (BIOL 3346): In this course, students will be introduced to the science of Ethnobotany, which is the study of the interactions between human cultures and plants. This includes a wide range of topics taken from an even wider range of disciplines. Students will learn about the general features of plant life that are of interest to humanity, how plants are currently used by humans, how they may be used in the future, and how cultures have shaped our present relationships with plants.

D) Community Ecology (BIOL 3357): This course introduces students to the concept of the biological community and explores critical questions related to why different habitats host different numbers of species, why some species are more locally common than others, and how interactions among different species contribute these patterns.  The course presents theory and experimental techniques used by ecologists to address these questions.

E) Advanced Studies in Ecology & Evolution (BIOL 4426): This course will introduce students to some ‘big’ research questions in the fields of ecology and evolution.  Students will participate in class discussions in which they will be expected to critically evaluate research papers, and discuss problems and possible solutions.  Students will also gain skills in writing research proposals and literature reviews, and in making presentations using computer media programs, and gain experience in collecting and analyzing data used to investigate scientific hypotheses.


Structure of Algoma University 4-year Biolology Program


  • BIOL 1506 Biology I
  • BIOL 1507 Biology II
  • MATH 1036 Calculus I
  • MATH 1037 Calculus II or MATH 1057 Linear Algebra
  • CHMI 1006 Chemistry I
  • CHMI 1007 Chemistry II
  • 6 credits from:     
      1. GEOL 1021 Understanding the Earth I
      2. GEOL 1022 Understanding the Earth II
      3. PHYS 1006 Introduction to Physics I
      4. PHYS 1007 Introduction to Physics II
  • 6 credits from Group I (Humanities) and/or Group II (Social Sciences)


  • STAT 2126 Introduction to Statistics
  • BIOL 2026 Microbiology
  • BIOL 2056 Principles of Scientific Inquiry
  • BIOL 2126 Cell Biology
  • Two of the following three:
      1. BIOL 2706 Vertebrate Form and Function
      2. BIOL 2716 Invertebrate Form and Function
      3. BIOL 2127 Plant Form and Function
  • CHMI 2426 Organic Chemistry
  • 3 credits BIOL 2000 series
  • 6 credits from Group I (Humanities) and/or Group II (Social Sciences)


  • BIOL 3006 Evolutionary Biology
  • BIOL 3017 Genetics
  • BIOL 3356 Population Ecology
  • BIOL 3357 Community Ecology
  • CHMI 2227 Biochemistry I
  • BIOL 2996 Scientific Method and Analysis
  • 6 credits from BIOL 3000 or 4000 series
  • 6 non-biology credits


  • BIOL 4105 Honours Thesis
  • 18 credits from BIOL 3000 or 4000 series, with at least 9 credits BIOL 4000 series
  • 6 non-biology credits
  • Students can complete a maximum of 42 credits at the first year level
  • Minimum specialization average 60%
  • Specialization average for ‘honours’ designation 70%
Students must complete a minimum 12 credits from Group I (Humanities) and/or Group II (Social Sciences)