Dr John Janovy explains how to become a biologist

Dr John Janovy

1. In your forward, you mention that there aren't any biologists anymore? What do you mean by that?

That comment is a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but it also addresses a very real situation in biology today, and that is the molecular revolution. Molecular techniques, especially the isolation and sequencing of DNA, have become so accessible, prevalent, and pervasive, that anyone who wants to make a career as a biological scientist must learn those techniques. Certainly there are some biologists, good examples being wildlife biologists, who don't use those techniques every day. But even wildlife law enforcement has adopted some molecular techniques, for example when law enforcement officials use DNA to identify the species from which frozen meat has come. The problem for all up-and-coming biologists today is to figure out how to apply the right molecular techniques to answer biologically interesting questions.

2. Can you give a brief overview of some of the careers that a biology major might pursue?

A biology major at any college or university has a wide variety of possible careers. A biology major usually satisfies all the admission pre-requisites for any professional program in the health sciences, including medicine, nursing, dentistry, and all allied disciplines. In fact, the health professions are where most biology majors end up. However, a good solid background in science, including biology, is ideal for someone interested in teaching. I know students who have majored in biology, even gotten masters degrees in biology, then picked up teaching certificates, and now have excellent careers as public school teachers (usually in secondary or middle school science). Forensics programs are also heavily biological, so that a biology major might want to go into a graduate forensics program. The pharmaceutical industry hires a lot of biologists, from sales people to researchers, although background in biochemistry is always a plus in this case. Biology majors at colleges or universities are therefore door-openers rather than ends that will get a person a job as a biologist. But I've also known plenty of students, especially those trained in microbiology, to get jobs as technicians.

3. What kinds of people make the best biologists? Personality, characteristics, etc.?

I always suggest that students read John Steinbeck's Log of the Sea of Cortez. In that book, he probably describes biologists best as adventuresome, usually fun-loving, thoughtful, people. The most successful biologists I know are very open-minded and curious, and they work all the time, read a lot, and don't mind talking about their work. But as in all the sciences, I believe that curiosity is the primary characteristic. Nowadays, communication skills, especially writing skills, are also important, because if a person does not write easily and skillfully, then any job involving biology will soon become a burden

4. Wouldn't you say that with our concerns about the planet these days that the job of the biologist is extremely important?

Yes, it is truly of vital importance to humanity that we humans become educated about our planet and the forces that distribute natural resources. But it is equally important for biologists to be able to communicate scientific understanding to the general public.

5. You taught invertebrate zoology. How does studying animals without a backbone become so fascinating?

Well, first of all, there are hundreds of thousands of such animals, so that you never run out of new and fascinating organisms to study. Second, because of this diversity, there is an equal diversity of evolutionary histories, ecological requirements, etc. So the life of an invertebrate zoologist is actually a life of continuous exploration, and continuous surprise. Finally, and for me this is a truly important facet of invertebrate zoology, the animals are truly beautiful. And I do mean absolutely gorgeous little creatures, especially some of the microscopic ones!

6. What kinds of obstacles are there to becoming a biologist?

The major one is money, but that is an obstacle for all college students. But perhaps the biggest obstacle is the lack of opportunity to go out into the field and study organisms in their natural habitats. There are plenty of places where such study can be done, and is done well, but for the vast majority of college students taking biology classes, such encounter with nature, especially when guided by a senior scientist, is fairly rare. This study of whole organisms in their natural environments, on the other hand, is exceedingly educational.

7. What success stories have you heard about because of your book?

In general, I'm surrounded by a lot of success stories because our University of Nebraska biology majors usually do well. But I've had quite a bit of positive feedback about this book, a lot of it from faculty members at other institutions who either recommend or require it for their students. The second edition, the one with the woodcut of a green heron on the front, is the version that is probably most useful to current students because it was updated to take into account the molecular revolution.

8. The book is a collection of essays that date from around 1995, right? Can you tell us how things have changed?

Actually, the first edition was back in the 1980s; the second edition was issued by the University of Nebraska Press in 2004. I honestly believe that the first edition addressed the most important aspects of biology, namely those human traits that lead to success: patience with uncooperative organisms, determination to pursue a life of the mind, discipline, self-confidence, a sense of responsibility [to teach others biology], a certain kind of idealism. The second edition still focuses on those human qualities, but uses some modern examples to illustrate them. I honestly believe that human qualities always override technology, no matter what the discipline.

9. What advice would you give someone who wants to major in biology?

Get exposed to as many different kinds of organisms as you can, as early as you can, and as often as you can. Learn to read, write, and draw well; stay idealistic about life on Earth; accept the fact that evolution is the central unifying theme of the discipline.

10. Is there anything else that you would like to add for readers of this website?

I always advise my students to take advantage of every cheap date opportunity they can, especially those involving biology. In Lincoln, Nebraska, those cheap date opportunities include local natural history and art museums, a well-labeled campus landscape (which I often use as teaching material), even local pet stores and zoos. In other words, turn off that cell phone, put away the iPod, and start looking at the birds, insects, and plants around you. And if you and your significant other are out of money, go out to PetCo and spend a couple of hours looking at the fish (and reading the scientific names)!! The latter activity, however, is sure to brand you as a couple of biologists among your peers!!!