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john janovy jjanovy at unlinfo.unl.edu
Sat Dec 17 09:34:09 EST 1994

TO: Daniel B. Watkins

FROM: John Janovy, Jr.
                School of Biological Sciences
                University of Nebraska-Lincoln
                Lincoln, NE 68588-0118
                jjanovy at unLinfo.unL.edu

RE: Your son's education

Dear Daniel Watkins:

What a wonderful question!  [Would you out there who have been through
the system 
recommend an approach to his education?]  I'm guessing you'll get a 
LOT of 
answers, depending on the particular system(s) your responders have 
through."  I've given grades to about 13,000 students in the past 30 
years.  They 
range (now) from faculty members at major universities, executives in 
industry, highly 
successful entrepeneurs, to the lower end of the socio-economic scale.
 So my 
comments come from the perspective of one who sees a rather 
substantial sample 
of human resources come into the university system equipped with all 
kinds of 
advice, then sees that same sample processed by a system that offers 
opportunities but sometimes focuses more on money and prestige than on
the role 
of truly talented people in a complex society such as ours.

Put simply, my advice about your son's interest in microbiology (or 
any other kind of 
biology or any other kind of science) is:  don't worry about it.  He 
will never lack for 
opportunities to eventually do research, take challenging courses, 
make his mark as 
a scientist.  Almost any large university, and many small ones, can 
produce a 
productive scientist.  The value of a university education can be 
multiplied many 
times over by a student simply taking the time to talk to faculty 
members who will 
listen, seek and find an opportunity to do research early in his/her 
career, interact 
with graduate students, teach labs (many of our undergrads do all 
these things), etc.  
The best education is one in which a young person learns early on how 
to decide 
what he or she personally wants to study, learns how to gather the 
necessary to pursue the work, and learns that biological material is 
not always 

On the other hand, I see a large number of scientists, thrust into 
positions of major 
responsibility by the momentum of their careers, who have absolutely 
no sense 
whatsoever of how to interact meaningfully with their fellow humans.  
If your son is 
truly as talented as he appears to be right now, then 30 years hence 
(assuming we 
still have a civilized and reasonably stable world) he has an 
excellent chance of 
finding himself in such a position.  

My advice for a middle school scientist?  Learn to love art, 
literature, music; learn to 
get along with your colleagues, but most of all learn to manage human 
resources in a 
productive, dignified, way.  The best lessons now, in my opinion, are 
those taught by 
the humanities--the history of success and failure, the interactions 
technology and the wielding of power, the rise and fall of nations, 
the brutally honest 
lessons of evolution, demography, and the geographic distribution of 
Don't sweat the microbiology.  That's the easiest part of a 
scientist's career.  And 
quite frankly, (here comes the wrath of some microbiologists!!) 
prokaryotes are in 
many ways infinitely more cooperative than some eukaryotes.  The 
hardest part of 
that career will come when, as a successful scientist, your son finds 
himself in the 
company of arrogant fragile egos unwilling to confer intellectual 
citizenship on 
anyone who doesn't think exactly like they do.  And, there's an 
excellent chance he'll 
find himself in a position where he's forced to work with those people
to achieve a 
common goal.

Good luck.

I'd start with Ernst Mayr's GROWTH OF BIOLOGICAL THOUGHT.


(PS Sorry about the above format; for some reason it didn't transfer 
as well as it normally does!)

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