J. Michael Bishop, chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), gave his 2003 autobiography the wry title How to Win the Nobel Prize: An Unexpected Life in Science. Bishop, who shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Harold Varmus, grew up in rural Pennsylvania, a minister's son, and went to Gettysburg College. "Every new subject that I encountered in college proved a siren song. I imagined myself a historian, a philosopher, a novelist, occasionally a physician, but never a scientist (in part because I then had no idea of what a scientist might do)," he wrote. He saw "nothing of research. Gettysburg was a small liberal arts college that valued creativity, but in those days provided no opportunities for laboratory research, nor did it occur to me at the time that it should."
Nevertheless, "it was adequate preparation, a suitable stepping stone to the next level of sophistication that I encountered at Harvard Medical School," he says in an interview. "But recall that I was starting from a primitive base. That was a long time ago. It appears to me that the contemporary liberal arts colleges of first rank know how to prepare science students for graduate school, and offer much more to boot."
But are graduate students from the liberal arts colleges as well prepared as those who studied, say, across the bay at UC Berkeley, when they come to UCSF, an institution that ranks among the country's leaders in biomedical research?
"By and large, yes," replies Bishop, "especially if they have worked in a competent research lab during summers. Some colleges have alliances with research-intensive universities to facilitate this. And some students take a year or two after college to obtain extensive experience in a research lab before applying to graduate school."
The chancellor says that he remains "a great fan of liberal arts education. By all indications, this is a wise course of action, both as a credentialing device and as a test of motivation. Such students seem always to do well in our programs at UCSF. I recommend it."
Photo: University of California, San Francisco
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Reprinted from the HHMI Bulletin,
Summer 2004, pages 10-21.
©2004 Howard Hughes Medical Institute