Learning science while travelling abroad
May 12, 2007 7:11 PM   Subscribe

Please help me keep my science education going while I trot around the globe.

In about three months, my spouse and I will be taking off for Asia for about a year. This is 98% awesome, but it does mean an extended break from my protracted-but-beloved effort to acquire enough of a life science background to get into wet-science grad school.

I'm planning to do distance courses in math during my year away, (In my prior academic life, I was an art history major (sigh) and then a lawyer (gut-shot yowl), so as you might guess, my math skills are rawther lacking), but I'd like to do something to keep up up the biology-specific momentum as well. Any ideas about how to do that?

I imagine that simply assigning myself a big pile-o-reading might be just the ticket, but what should that reading be? Would it be at all useful to read textbooks for classes that I'll likely take when I get back? Can y'all recommend a weighty tome or three that I can take with me? (Weighty is good-- I'd rather have one 1500-page brick of a thing than a dozen slimmer volumes.)

I'd also love to hear about other good, rigorous autodidacticism options. Do you know of any nifty sources for online or correspondence classes? Are there any podcasts out there that I should be following? (I already listen to the Nature podcast and the Cell podcast, when they bother to put it out.) Are there other other possibilities that I'm just not thinking of?

My current interests include mycology, evo-devo, and genetics, but I'm really open to studying just about every sub-discipline of biology.

Thanks, all.
posted by palmcorder_yajna to Education (10 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
For the three interests you mention, math skills don't seem terribly important, unless you want to get into serious modeling of evolutionary processes.

One option on the reading front would be to get the standard graduate text for whatever field you're interested in (for cell bio it would be Molecular Biology of the Cell; for biochemistry it would be Biochemistry) but the fields you mention are far enough outside of my area of expertise that I don't have a good recommendation (I'm a biophysics PhD).
posted by pombe at 7:53 PM on May 12, 2007

I listen to a lot of podcasts and find that they help keep me up to date with new advances in science. It doesn't so much teach me new stuff as keep me interested and get me thinking about things in a different way. Maintaining that flexibility and science type thinking will make other education easier once you get back.

My favourites can all be found on iTunes I think:
This Week in Science (twis.org, compulsory weekly science update)
Science Talk (Scientific American weekly podcast)
Science and the City (New York Academy of Science podcast, often has public lectures and interviews, www.scienceandthecity.org)
There are many many more (I have about twelve I listen to most weeks)

You can also download university lecture courses in many science subjects these days. Here's a list from Berkeley for example. That could be a good way to fill in gaps.

No reading advice though, so hopefully someone else will fill in that bit.
posted by shelleycat at 8:01 PM on May 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

Actually, I changed my mind. I'm going to reccomend my most favourite book after thinking about your specific interests: Life: an Unauthorised Biography by Richard Fortey (the American version is called Life : a natural history of the first four billion years of life on earth). It traces the evolution of life from the start to present day, is very well written, pretty accurate scientifically (unlike, say, Bill Bryson), and damn interesting. Fairly thick too.
posted by shelleycat at 8:11 PM on May 12, 2007

I can't recommend MIT's OpenCourseWare highly enough. It's a brilliant program. The course selection for biology is deep and includes a number of graduate level classes.

Keep an informed sense of humor with a digital subscription to NewScientist.
posted by nilihm at 8:32 PM on May 12, 2007

Are you looking to make yourself a better candidate for a grad program, or seeking personal enrichment?

If it is the first one, I think you would be well served to work toward taking the three relevant GREs: chemistry, biology, and molecular biology. You can download the practice books, and that might give you an idea what kind of things a grad in one of those subjects would be expected to know to help direct your self-study. And of course, you'll have to take one or more of them to get in to a grad program anyway.
posted by Methylviolet at 8:36 PM on May 12, 2007

Depending on how in-depth you want to get into Cell Bio and some Biochemistry, the cell bio book linked by pompe rocks. I found it clearly explained complex ideas allowing for self-learning (I'm assuming you already have a solid foundation for cell bio. If not, I'd look for something less dense). Even so, I would recommend using the Berkeley podcast or some variation thereof in conjunction with your own self-studying. It can definitely help to hear a second explanation of complex processes to really wrap you head around things.
posted by jmd82 at 8:37 PM on May 12, 2007

Another vote for Berkeley and MIT open courses and podcasts, ill add Guardian Science as one I listen to every week and is consistantly awesome. It won't get you into grad school but it's a great way to stay informed.
posted by sophist at 8:44 PM on May 12, 2007

Hmmmm....you might not want to hear this, but laboratory experience would probably be much more useful than courses or reading. Will you be in one place for any extended time periods? Doing a month-long volunteer rotation in an academic lab would probably be a cool experience for you and look good on a grad school application. Because of your background, profs will want to know if you've ever picked up a pipette, not what online courses you took.

As for math, statistics (perferably biostatistics) is the only course you need. I second the recommendation about prepping for the GRE.
posted by emd3737 at 11:24 PM on May 12, 2007

Online access to Nature or Science, or just PLOS Biology (which is free). Read all the relevant articles every week, puzzling your way through the parts that you don't understand with the help of your big books. An awful lot of success in grad school involves being good at reading and critiquing articles.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:12 AM on May 13, 2007

Everything that emd3737 said. Getting lab experience (and awesome letters of rec from PIs) is what will help you most for getting into grad school. A good letter demonstrating experience and drive can compensate for a sparse course background and mediocre grades and GRE scores.

(But if you're interested in a pharmacology tome (that also goes a little into the physiology), then Goodman and Gilman are your friends)
posted by twoporedomain at 5:45 AM on May 13, 2007

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