Frequently asked questions

Biology Student FAQs

Should I take Biology 1010 before Biology 1020?

Biology 1010 (Cellular Basis of Life) and Biology 1020 (Diversity of Life) are both entry-level courses. Despite the numbering, there is no requirement to taking Biology 1010 first. Work out a tentantive progam for at least your first two years of university (see the link to program planning guides on the main Help for New Students page). Look at the second and third year courses you plan to take first and check their prerequisites. If Biology 1010 is a more important prerequisite, take it first. If you fail or are forced to withdraw for any reason, you will still have the opportunity to take it in the spring. If Biology 1020 is a more important prerequisite, take it first.

One final point to consider. The majority of students find Biology 1020 more difficult than Biology 1010. Taking Biology first will give you a semester to "learn the ropes" and develop appropriate study skills for university before taking the more challenging course.

Should I take Biology 1010 and Biology 1020 in the same semester?

This can work for strong students. But science courses at the university level can be challenging for new students, and loading up your program too heavily may result in poor grades and the need to retake courses. This is compounded by the extra workload associated with lab courses. You may also find that although you have the biology prerequisites for your second year courses, you lack the chemistry, physics or math prereqs.

I took Biology 1010 in the Fall. Should I take Biology 2000 in the Spring semester even though I'm still in my first year?

Taking Biology 2000 in the Spring semester of your first year has certain advantages. It is a prerequisite for many senior level cell and molecular biology courses, and having it will give you the opportunity to take these courses sooner. But BE CAREFUL. Second year courses have increased workloads and are evaluated more rigorously than first-year courses. If you are barely keeping up in your first year courses, you won't do yourself any advantage by jumping into second year courses early. Give yourself time to get your feet on the ground, learn the study skills you need, and succeed in your second year courses.

Is it okay to take three (or four) lab courses in the same semester?

A lab typically adds significantly to the time and workload associated with a course, and taking too many in one semester can result in poor grades and the need to retake courses. A good rule of thumb is to try to avoid taking more than two lab courses in a semester. Plan your program (see the link to program planning guides on the main Help for Students page) and try to balance out lab courses across semesters and years. Putting off lab courses until the end of your program can result in a nightmare semester, and also keep you from learning some key skills early in your academic career. If you want, or need to take more than two lab courses in a semester, be prepared for the extra time commitment that will be needed.

Lab courses don't give any extra credit. Why should I take lab courses if I don't have to?

Labs are an essential part of any university science program. Labs provide the opportunity to learn skills, and whatever you plan to do with your degree, those skills will be at least as important as the factual knowledge you gain from lectures. Employers, professional schools, and graduate programs all value the hands-on skills that labs provide. Put bluntly, a resume with no lab experience is an easy one to put in the reject pile.
And labs provide another tremendous advantage. They provide an opportunity to promote different learning styles. Although great strides are being made to make lectures more interactive, they still tend in general to emphasize passive learning. But many students do better in an environment which promotes hands-on active learning and exploration. Labs are still the best opportunity for active learning.

What courses should I take to qualify for medical/veterinary school?

The Biology major has been designed to make it straightforward to meet the requirements of most professional schools. However, each professional school has slightly different requirements and it is up to you to determine which schools you are aiming for, and find their specific requirements. Most professional schools list their entrance requirements right on their websites. The University of Lethbridge provides program planning guides for some professional schools. Links are provided on the main Help for Students page.

What are List I, II and III courses?

In the past, university biology courses were roughly divided into zoology (animal) and botany (plant) courses. As you will have already learned in high school, this no longer reflects our understanding of the diversity of life. The Department of Biological Sciences therefore divides its courses into three main streams based not on the type of organism being studied, but on the level at which the study takes place. Studies at the cell and molecular level are designated List I (e.g. cell biology, molecular biology). Studies of whole organisms are designated List II (e.g. plant physiology, animal physiology, developmental biology). And studies of interactions between organisms, and their evolution, are designated as List III (e.g. Principles of Ecology, Evolution). Students in the Biology major are required to take courses from each of the three lists, but most will tend to specialize in one List, depending on their interest and goals after graduation.

What is an independent study and how do I set one up?

An independent study is a course with no formal curriculum. Instead, the student develops an individualized course of study in cooperation with a supervisor. Independent studies may be taken at the second, third or fourth year level, as appropriate for the student's level, and the work undertaken. Independent studies at the second year level will typically consist of either a literature review, or an independent research project developed with the assistance of the supervisor. Independent studies at the third and fourth year level normally consist of a research project. Students are encouraged (and may in many cases be required by their supervisor) to present their results in a public talk at the end of the semester.

Enrolling for an independent study begins with finding a supervisor. Faculty members are not required to take any student for an independent study, but most biology faculty regularly supervise these projects. If you are interested in conducting an independent study you should first figure out which faculty members will be potential supervisors. Your course work will give you some insights about the interests and background of department members, and you can learn more about their specific research interests by looking at their web pages. Once you have a potential supervisor in mind, just knock on his or her door (or catch him/her after class). Faculty members may say no to an independent study, either because they are too busy, or because they don't feel you have the right background to work in their lab, but they will definitely not be offended that you have asked, and they may be able to suggest an alternative supervisor, or suggest courses you can take to improve your background in your field of interest. One of the advantages of a small university is that faculty are more than willing to sit down with individual students and discuss their options. Don't be scared to knock on doors. You have nothing to lose and much to gain.

How can I work in a research lab in the summer?

Many biology faculty hire undergraduate students to work for them in the summer, either in the lab or out in the field. These jobs provide wonderful opportunities to gain experience in your field of interest, and find out if research is your "cup of tea." Some jobs are posted on notice boards around the biology department, but don't depend on this. If you are interested in getting a summer job in biology, start asking around early in the spring (January or February is not too early) to find out who may be hiring. If you are not sure which faculty might offer jobs which would interest you, check out their web pages to see the type of research they do.
As with most jobs, applying for a summer research job will usually involve submitting a resume and going through an interview. You can strengthen your resume by taking courses in your field of interest, including independent studies (see above). Taking courses with potential employers will be especially valuable, because they will have a chance to see your strengths, and the skills you have acquired. If you don't get a job the first time you apply, don't despair. Work on strengthening your resume and apply again the following year. If you are a top student, you can make yourself much more attractive as an employee by obtaining a Chinook or NSERC summer research scholarship. Most researchers will be interested in an employee who comes with his or her salary paid.

I was an A student in high school. Why are my grades so much lower in university?

It is quite normal for grades to drop between high school and university. The first reason is simple. Only the top students from high school go on to university, so the standard is higher and the "competition" is tougher. If you were in the top 10% of your high school, you may only be in the top 20 or 25% at university and your grades will reflect that.

There is another, less obvious reason, but one which is more important in the long run. University is a very different experience from high school. There is much more personal responsibility for learning at university. Help is always available, but it is up to you as a student to seek it out. University requires greater discipline and commitment. Entrance to university is often combined with much greater freedom associated with moving away from home, and many students struggle to balance the heavy workload of a university science program with an expanded social life, and in many cases a part-time job as well. Without the close supervision they are used to from home and high school, many first year students get into a deep hole before they realize they are in trouble.

I get poor marks on all my written assignments. What can I do to improve my writing?

The short answer is: write more, and get feedback on your writing to help you learn from your mistakes. If your marked written assignment does not provide enough details to help you understand where you went wrong, ask your instructor for more details, and general advice on scientific writing.

Lots of support is available at the University of Lethbridge to help you become a better writer. The Writing Centre provides one-on-one tutorials with students, and has a number of online resources. The Library provides online style guides and information on citing sources. Writing 1000 (Introduction to Academic Writing) is offered in multiple sections in both the Spring and Fall semesters. Consider also buying a guide to scientific writing such as A Short Guide to Writing About Biology by Jan Pechenik, or Writing in the Sciences by Ann Penrose and Steven Katz.

What are Chinook and NSERC Scholarships and how do I get one?

These are competitive scholarships available to undergraduates. Successful applicants receive a scholarship which will fund them to work in a research lab over the summer, gaining valuable research experience. These scholarships are competitive and applications are judged on the basis of the student's academic record and the quality of the application. For example, a minimum GPA of 3.30 is required simply to be eligible for a Chinook Scholarship. If you are interested in obtaining one of these awards, you need to maintain an extremely high academic standard. Links to more details about these scholarships are provided on the main Help for Students page.

My question is not covered in this list. Where can I go for help?

Many resources are available to students.

The Departmental Administrative Support, Nicola Spencer can provide forms and directions.

Nicola Spencer
Office: SA9202
Ph: 403-329-2245