BIOS3171 - Student Perspectives

Student Perspectives of Evolution

Please enjoy a collection of student perspectives about BIOS3171 - Evolution.

Student Perspective by Nathan Burke

Nathan William Burke is currently a PhD student in Russell Bonduriansky’s lab at UNSW. Read more about Nathan's work in the Conversation, New Scientist, or on IFL Science.

Male and female spiny leaf insects.

Before enrolling in BIOS3171, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my degree.  Like many biology students, I was concerned about biodiversity loss and extinction, about habitat and ecosystem conservation. But I was also deeply curious about organisms themselves. I was like a little kid constantly asking 'why' questions all the time, about everything. Why do some insects have two sets of wings while others have only one? Why are some organisms hermaphrodites, but others have two separate sexes? Why do males of some species care for offspring while others don’t? These questions were always popping up in my mind, no matter what I was studying. To their credit, other courses provided answers to some of my specific questions. But BIOS3171 showed me that evolutionary theory holds the key to all these questions and more!

BIOS3171 ended up being one of my favourite courses in undergrad. Don’t get me wrong, the biology courses I had taken up to that point at UNSW had been really interesting (especially the field-based courses), and I learnt a lot. But they didn’t grab me the way BIOS3171 did. BIOS3171 covered everything you’d expect to find in a course about evolution: heredity, genetics, adaptation, life-history, sexual selection, sexual conflict, co-evolution, speciation, etc. But what made the course so valuable, I think, was that it taught me how to think like an evolutionary biologist. It gave me the tools and vocabulary to think about how evolution works, to know which questions to ask, and which methods best fit answering those questions. BIOS3171 also gave us students plenty of opportunities to put our evolutionary thinking into practice: we devised hypotheses about how evolution works in the real world, and designed experiments that aimed to test those hypotheses. 

I found the course to be extremely stimulating, but also quite challenging. It’s definitely not the kind of course you can fudge your way through without any effort and still expect to pass. It’s designed to make you think and engage, which is what the best university courses are supposed to do. From my own experience, though, the payoff was well worth the effort. 

BIOS3171 made me want to continue studying evolution. I did a summer scholarship project in Russell Bonduriansky’s lab on the foraging behaviour of maggots (which was really interesting!). I stuck around and did my honours with Russell the following year on sexual conflict in spiny leaf stick insects (which was even more interesting!). And now I’m doing my PhD (yes, again with Russell) investigating why sexual reproduction is so common in the animal Kingdom. But I wouldn’t have made it where I am now without the foundational skills and knowledge that I learnt in BIOS3171.

Theodosius Dobzhansky, a famous evolutionary biologist, once wrote: “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. I couldn’t agree more. We know that evolution is crucial for understanding everything from infectious diseases and antibiotics resistance, to invasion biology and conservation under climate change. That’s why I would recommend any biology student at UNSW do the BIOS3171 course on evolution: without it, nothing will make sense.


Text and photo are by Nathan William Burke. Nathan submitted this perspective14 February 2017.