17 August 2011

Fields of research

As a graduate program coordinator, I field questions from students. Sometimes they ask about marine biology. I’ve gotten shocked looks when I tell people that marine biology doesn’t exist.

Well, I never put it in quite so many words, but the gist of it is that marine biology is not currently a distinct research field in biology the way people think it is.

Biology used to divide itself by the type of organism you worked with. There were zoologists, botanists, entomologists, mycologists, microbiologists, and so on. But that’s not how biologists divide their fields now. Biology is divided up into physiology, ecology, developmental biology, cell biology, molecular biology, evolutionary biology, and so on.

One of the ways to recognize research fields is the societies that scientists form to promote their fields. I belong to a lot of them. The Society for Neuroscience, the Animal Behavior Society, the International Society for Neuroethology, the Ecological Society of America (from which I was just blogging last week), the Society for the Study of Evolution, the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, and a few others.

There’s no Marine Biology Society.

Marine biology may have once been more of a defined discipline. But there used to be departments of microscopy, too, and you don’t find those any more. Scientific fields come and go, and academics reorient themselves to new fields all the time.

I don’t quite know how marine biology has gotten fixed in the minds of students, and more widely, the general public, as something that exists as an active research discipline.

Are there other scientific fields that exist in the mind of non-scientists, but not in practice?


skm said...

No suggestions at the moment for other disciplines, but you might get a kick out of these "science scouts" badges. Your post immediately reminded me of the “I actually grew up AND became a marine biologist” badge.

I'm 39, and I remember thinking about marine biology in high school. I don't know why it would still live in people's minds. Maybe people my age promulgate it by being teachers?

Bjørn Østman said...

I have a degree from UC Santa Barbara's EEMB dept. Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology.

My current prof boss joked that I would then know marine taxa like nothing, but alas, of name only.

SaidWithGreatConviction said...

Huh? Marine biology is certain a field with degrees, societies and conferences. Maybe just not at your school?