Dr. Rosemary Redfield of the University of British Columbia has published a provocative paper in Plos Biology, suggesting that we reimagine how we teach undergraduate genetics and has asked for comments at her teaching blog. I hope that indeed her paper generates discussion, because based on my experience of having taught in this area for over 30 years, such a discussion, I think. is sorely needed. So herein are a few thoughts to contribute:

  1. Is change needed? Let me state at the outset that I love the historical approach. It is how I was taught, and I never cease to be fascinated by the historical development of genetics as a field, especially as it connected with (and at times seemed to contradict) the development of evolutionary biology. It was how I taught, and for me I think it worked. However, I was hooked by genetics at a very early age, and after an unfortunately (but fortunately brief) excursion into the world of theoretical mathematics, it became my passion. In other words, I was far from the typical undergraduate life science major. Indeed, as a teacher, while I have had my successes with that approach, they have been somewhat fleeting. Thus, if for no other than pragmatic reasons, I’m convinced we need to consider alternatives.
  2. Has Dr. Redfield posed the question correctly? To quote her,“The first goal of a modern basic genetics course should be to provide students with an understanding of genetic principles and processes that will be useful in their non-academic lives.” In other words, should we be academic purists, or (to use a hackneyed word) should we be “relevant”? I would prefer not to view this as a dichotomy, but rather to figure out the best way to be both. That is, how can we convince students that “the stuff is worth knowing” and still provide them with the grounding they would need to pursue advanced studies should they choose for and be comfortable that in making “the stuff” “relevant”, we have not sacrificed rigor?
    To address that, I looked very carefully at Dr. Redfield’s suggested outline, compared it with the text we currently use (which can remain nameless for the moment) and asked myself what was missing from her proposed approach. Without question, a few things are. For example, bacterial and phage genetics are nowhere to be seen. But should they be stand-alone topics, or could they be more effectively subsumed into coverage of key concepts like gene expression and regulation? Conversely, as an evolutionary/population genetics, I am intrigued by the idea of putting variation first. And that is the question that dominates modern genetic research. After all, what is a genome wide association scan if not an application of genomics to the classical population/quantitative genetics quest for understanding of genotype/phenotype relationships?
    I could quibble with some other features – in general, I’d like to see a bit more non-human genetics, and important though it is, I’m not sure cancer genetics can be effectively given the emphasis she suggests. But overall, is there much missing? I don’t think so. And will it be effective in engaging students? I’m hopeful, but that remains to be seen.
  3. Finally, are we giving Mendel the boot? If we define Mendel as Punnett squares and ratios, perhaps. However, I’ve always taken the approach that the key contribution of Mendel was not assortment, segregation, dominance, etc. (after all, they only apply to diploid organisms, a small minority of species), but rather the concept of the particulate gene. If one starts with that approach, then obvious questions follow – what is a gene? How does it work? How is it inherited? How does it explain the diversity of life? These questions are just as central in the era of genomics as they were in the one of wrinkled seeds, white eyes, and tetrad analysis. One may certainly quibble with Dr. Redfield’s proposed trajectory, but it is difficult, I think, to claim that it constitutes some sort of rejection of Mendelism or (as did a comment on a Discovery Magazine blog) a “faux genetics education”.

So in summary, I’m real pleased to see this article published, and if nothing else, I hope it gets teachers, and perhaps most importantly textbook writers, to give serious thought to how we approach the challenge of teaching genetics. We consider it axiomatic that genetics is central to all of biology; if that is true, it behooves us to convey the subject in such a way as to make that point evident to students, not simply because we say it is but because they come to that realization on their own.