Changing Fields: From Molecular Biology to Science Teaching and Ethics

Just 3 years ago, I received my Danish university degree (cand.scient.) in biochemistry/molecular biology. I worked in a lab and used PCR, Northern blotting, and sequencing procedures. I studied the biological and biochemical journals to keep up to date with the recent developments within my area of research. But now, I have changed fields: I am a Ph.D. student at the University of Copenhagen working on the role of ethics in teaching university chemistry. Instead of molecular biology techniques, I now find myself using questionnaires, interviews, and observations. And instead of referencing scientific journals, I turn to the sociological, pedagogical, and philosophical literature to develop my theoretical reflections. Changing my work sphere was therefore a radical change and in many ways it was like starting all over again.

The direct cause of my decision to change the "route" of my career was the announcement of Ph.D. scholarships for university science education research. But even before these scholarships were announced, I had seriously considered taking a different path from what many of my friends from university were taking in biotechnological research.

During my biochemistry studies, I was often struck by the great gap between the prevailing views on biotechnology from within the university setting and the views put forward in the public debate "outside." While the ethical implications of techniques like cloning, genetic modification of living organisms, etc. were being heavily debated among politicians, in the media, and around the Danish dinner tables, in the teaching context the very same techniques were dealt with as a purely technical matter. We focused on learning the biological and chemical theory behind the techniques, and in the lab we spliced genes in and out of bacteria. Words like ethics or even environmental consequences were rarely mentioned!

After receiving my degree, I had time to contemplate some of these issues. Being at a point in my life where I had to decide in which direction to go, reflections on my previous experiences naturally came up. I realized that I was in some respects dissatisfied with the education I had received and that I had some ideas about what to change! Thus, the announced scholarships provided a concrete answer to my considerations.

I therefore wrote an application for one of the scholarships discussing the project I had in mind: Should ethical reflection be a part of university chemical (including biochemical) education? Why? And how can this come about? I applied for and received one of the scholarships. In May 1999, I started to work on this project at the University of Copenhagen. Of course, the challenges had just begun!

When a student enters university in Denmark, he or she has already decided on a major. This means that during the 5 years it takes to get, for instance, the cand.scient. degree in biochemistry, the student will follow mainly chemical and biochemical courses supplemented with auxiliary courses in mathematics, physics, and biology. Therefore, when I started doing my Ph.D.-project, it was more than 5 years ago that I had studied literature from the humanities and social sciences, and I had no experience with the research methods used in the field of science education research. Luckily, the Ph.D. program in which I was enrolled provided us with courses in research methods and gradually I got the necessary insight into the huge and exciting field that I had entered.

At present, my project has developed far enough to allow me to present some qualified suggestions to changes in the teaching of chemistry-related subjects at university level--with special reference to the role of the ethical dimension. Often ethics in science teaching is primarily connected to internal scientific values as opposed to moral values in relation to science and the rest of society. For instance, the focus is often on scientific misconduct--students discuss why a specific activity, such as plagiarism or data substitution, is wrong and how one can deal with concrete situations of wrong-doing. The discussion of scientific work and the impact of this on the surrounding society is often limited to incidents where the external world is directly used for scientific work, i.e., the treatment of human or animal subjects. In my point of view this interpretation of ethics is too narrow because it leaves out the impact of scientific work in a broader perspective--a perspective, I think, students should grapple with before they graduate. This would prepare them to enter society not only as skilled scientists but also as responsible individuals. Integration of the broader societal perspective can also provide the contextual framing of the subject matter which I have found, in a survey performed at the University of Copenhagen, that many students would like to see included in the teaching.

Through my project I hope to increase awareness of this ethical dimension in the planning of university science education. I also look forward to working on this and other topics related to the What? Why? and How? questions of university science education in the future--and to experiencing the improvements in teaching that university science education research will hopefully lay the groundwork for. Therefore, even though changing fields has been a challenging experience, I do not regret my decision.

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