Trinity’s neglect of biology reveals institutional issues

By Jessica Chotiner ’17
Contributing Writer
When I first looked at the Life Science Center, I thought Hartford must have had a heavy case of the Red Scare to build this giant bunker. My friend insists that it looks like a submarine, and tour guides say it is a “brutalist impression of the Long Walk.” Brutal is right.
Trinity College is not known for biology. It is a school for the social sciences, specifically economics, and it has long been called a “pipeline to Wall Street.” Humanities and social science courses are taught in the lofty buildings of the Long Walk. Nothing could seem more quintessentially collegiate than the view of the Chapel from a classroom window. Even Clement, the chemistry building, is grand and beautiful in its antiquity. In fact, it would be easy, and perhaps more aesthetically appealing, to pretend that the campus ends at the Austin Arts Center. passersbys might as well ignore the massive concrete blemish between the freshman dorms and Crescent Street.
Biology majors know that the ceiling leaks on the third floor, we consistently try and fail to switch off the emergency lighting, we suspect that the common room couch has seen regretfully little action, and we know that the long windowless hallways are a little too perfect for a murder…or a ghost. Yet we accept the LSC as home.
Those are all exterior issues. What of the biology department itself? By and large the professors of the biology department are wonderful, well-educated, and helpful teachers. They eagerly give their time and attention to any student who might seek their expertise. However, professors, even good professors, are not the only requirement for a good program, and cannot be the only foundation for a meaningful degree.
Colleges and universities with top biology programs and pre-medical tracks must have good professors, but they must also offer specializations within the field ––opportunities to delve deeper into a subject that is incredibly broad and general. Even more critical for a good pre-medical program are advisors who are capable of offering the most up-to-date information and insight on medical school admission.
Trinity College meets these requirements to an extent. The biology department offers concentrations in Biomedical Sciences, Cellular and Molecular Biology, Organismal Biology, and Field Biology. But as a biology major myself, I can say that these concentrations are not something most students strive to achieve. In fact, I would say generally, we stumble into them by senior year and congratulate ourselves on having “concentrated” in something.
This school offers a smattering of medically-related courses such as histology and cell biology. Though these may be well taught courses, the kicker is that cell biology and microbiology, courses that are highly relevant to preparation for medical school, are taught on an alternating-yearly basis. The prerequisite introductory courses limit the higher-level biology classes that first year students can take. So really, we may only have one opportunity to take these particular courses in our four years. Restrictions such as these are particularly frustrating when one considers the paradigm of the Trinity College “liberal arts education.”
A liberal arts education aims to produce the fabled “well-rounded student”–– a student who has foundational knowledge in many subject matters, who can communicate competently in any discussion, and has great hair and perfect teeth. This approach is actually quite useful in developing the skills sets of future scientists and doctors. “Science people” are often thought to have little literary competency and to be poor writers. However, an education that requires students to extend themselves beyond the normal bounds of a science major is helpful in correcting those shortcomings. Communicative and literate scientists are valuable, so it is a shame that it is particularly difficult for biology students at Trinity to coordinate their schedules to fit both the requirements of their major and those of this institution.
In regards to student advising, Trinity again offers inconsistent quality. It is not easy to directly relate the percent of students accepted to their choice graduate program with the quality of the professors and advisors because each class of students is different. While some schools discourage students with low GPAs and low likelihoods of acceptance from applying to medical school, Trinity does not. The pre-health committees try to offer equal opportunity and support to students who wish to apply.
Ostensibly, that sounds very fair and encouraging (very liberal arts), but on the other hand, it does not serve to raise Trinity into the ranks of schools with high admission to graduate and medical programs. This may be another example of Trinity failing to truly focus on what’s best for students in those fields.
I cannot pretend to know the intricacies of these committees, and I do not know what makes or breaks the quality of a department or program. However, it is my observation that Trinity devotes resources to assisting and promoting students in the most popular majors, and shows a degree of neglect toward students and teachers of the life sciences. This is a greater tragedy still, as those students and teachers are some of the very best and brightest that Trinity has to offer.

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