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Graduate Computer Literacy Requirement

Tue Sep 7 00:01:00 EST 1993

In article <1993Aug29.213231.5582 at c-mols.siu.edu>
shriver at qm.c-biochem.siu.edu writes:
>We are in the middle of a discussion here concerning the pros
and cons of
>having graduate students in biochemistry and molecular biology
take a
>short course in computer programming and data analysis.  The
>biologists feel that this is an old fashioned requirement, while
>biophysicists feel that todays students are becoming less and
>acquainted with quantitative approaches.  I have been asked to
>if any biochemistry or molecular biology graduate programs still
>their students to have been exposed to computer programming (in
>language) and data analysis.

     We do not have a requirement in the biochemistry program at
UNL at the graduate level and it shows ... but it's not a problem
limited to our graduates. I've found many a post-doc (from other
well-known institutions and labs) deficient in the most basic
computing skills. The lack of these skills in the electronic
information age has me questioning their ability to effectively
and *efficiently* analyze data from instrumentation and the
computer. There are two areas that seem to need addressing; (1)
basic computer skills needed to function independently in a lab
(e.g., being able to install a program/update *correctly*, or
write a simple batch file to simplify ones work), and (2)
adequate familiarity and appreciation for the computer
(understanding the potentials and LIMITS of a computer, and
special recognition for basic computer ails and *bugs*).
     With regard to point (2), what concerns me the most is that
computers (especially those integrated with lab instrumentation)
have an uncanny ability to spit out results that look real good
(agree with some pre-defined hypothesis), but are in fact nothing
more than electronic noise (I've seen this happen more than once,
to varying degrees). I attribute the inability to distinguish
between the two a direct result of the lack of basic computing
skills AND an appreciation of what a computer (or all electronic
instrumentation) can DO (whether you want it to or not) and
cannot DO (give precisely the same output when the known
experimental input has a variance of 10-15%).

     YES ! I would vote for the introduction of a basic
programming/data analysis, architecture course as part of a
graduate program. But, I find that given the current condition of
science at most universities, the "publish-or-perish" syndrome, I
doubt very much that many faculty are willing to spare their
research bodies an additional 3-5 hours per week for *another
unproductive course*. I dearly hope I am wrong on this score. 
     I wish you the very best success if you are trying to
introduce such a "computer" requirement. Hats off to you.


Christopher Smith
Department of Biochemistry
University of Nebraska
e-mail: csmith at crcvms.unl.edu
     csmith at unlinfo.unl.edu

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