Interdisciplinary, My Dear Watson
When I enrolled in a course in Fishery Biology, I was under the impression that it would exclusively study, well, fish. While it might emphasize fish populations and their environments, I assumed ichthyology would be the subject of focus.
I was mistaken. But not in a bad way. While the first two chapters outlined the biology and diversity of fish, the rest of the course dealt with fish as an economic resource and environmental player. I distinctly recall spending time considering different styles of fish hooks, their effects on bycatch, and whether they reduced the amount of target species the fisherman actually wanted to catch.
It turns out that Fishery Biology is the study of fish stocks - fishes caught for purposes of human consumption. Everyone picked a different species to study throughout, and we got to evaluate each other's work. One such student project was on the Atlantic Menhaden - a small, oily-fleshed type of fish caught to be sold as bait or as an ingredient in dog food. However, it is also a keystone species of its environment, and feeds a myriad of marine mammals, birds, and predatory fishes in the North Atlantic seas. Even more importantly, Menhaden eat the type of plankton that causes Red Tides.
When this type of plankton propagate unchecked, their population spirals out of control, and so many wash up on beaches during high tide that they are left behind, all dried up, in fine red powder on the beach. This phenomenon, referred to as a Red Tide, can cause serious health issues for the people nearby, who breath in the toxic red dust and experience serious respiratory problems as a result.
So this oily fish species used for pet foods is actually an important ecological force. Overfishing this species is currently a problem; the field of Fishery Biology attempts to balance a profit-oriented fishing management style that is balanced by a desire to preserve Atlantic Menhaden numbers, protecting both people and the environment.
Another case study had to do with the harvest of salmon in the Pacific Ocean, off of the Washington coast. The salmon fishery makes up a big industry, and in this case, who had a right to fish this salmon stock was in question. Most coastal countries claim the territory of the ocean 200 miles off their coast. This is called an EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). Each country's EEZ offers the country exclusive rights to the profits that can be made in it - here, through fishing.
The problem in this particular salmon fishery was that although salmon enter the ocean off of the coast of Washington State, they originate from rivers that begin in Canada. They were even spawning in Canadian streams. As a result, U.S. fishermen had an economic interest in how well Canada protected the environment of its streams, while Canadian fishermen had an economic interest in fishing mature salmon within the U.S. EEZ. We actually had to read from the treaty between the two countries outlining everyone's rights and responsibilities as a part of the course.
Another aspect of fisheries management is that some plans are influenced by culture. New Zealand, for example, is home to the Maori people, who have been fishing many species (some of which are threatened) the same way for hundreds of years. As a result, they do not take kindly to scientists and environmental activists stepping into their yards and telling them about the endangered species they are fishing or the bycatch risks of their fishing methods; they would take it as an affront to their heritage. Recognizing the largely sustainable nature of Maori fishing methods, when New Zealand put their own fishery regulations into law, they marked out regions where the Maori could carry out their traditions, unfettered by the recent legal stipulations.
What I found most enjoyable about fishery biology was that it is not restricted to just one field. It includes the science of fishes but also spans ecology, economics, international relations, and people (it is difficult to be an environmental activist and a fishery biologist, because you have to balance the environment's needs with people's needs, be they economic or cultural). The course textbook included supply and demand curves, statistics and calculus, and lists of ideal types of fishing equipment.
Apropos, knowledge of calculus wasn't required to understand the material; the textbook just included the derivation of an equation that maximized economic profit within the limits of over-exploitation of fish species. The calculus of that was written out for our perusal.
A major aspect of the course also included writing, which means a great deal of research was required - from technical, scientific sources. In this way, the course also prepared its students for writing, research, and critical thinking in the sciences.
I had a lot of fun in Fishery Biology; I finished up with a discussion of the effects of the current historic Californian drought on local fisheries (they actually caught and transported anadromous species to the ocean last year, fearing that the fish would die travelling through mostly dried up rivers). It was a course that covered science, social science, and rhetoric, and the sheer breadth of it really held my interest.
With a new semester under way, I recently started a course with a similar flair: Developmental Biology. This is a class that covers embryology, metamorphosis, environmental effects on organisms, and aging. That much I expected. What I didn't expect was a) an even greater research and writing load than fishery biology and b) a course that spent as much time on ethics, argumentation, and debate as it did on science.
First off, let me say that the science of embryological development is downright fascinating. From the 1-3 second electric potential change of a recently fertilized sea urchin zygote (to prevent the acquisition of too much genetic material), to the highly choreographed dance of Wnt proteins, retinoic acid and sonic hedgehog genes that organize cell movement and differentiation into cardiac and neuron and skin cells, it is an astounding process in the simplest of species - even more so in the crowning glory of God's creation. The science of developmental biology is remarkable, beautiful, and challenging.
And it, too, is interdisciplinary at its core. Each week requires two or three discussion posts, and last week, we each had to examine two opposite sides of the ethics of IVF treatment. Emotional or religious bias was out of the picture; we could explain the religious point of view, but from an 'unbiased,' 3rd party position. Furthermore, we had to critique other students' arguments with logic and academic sources, most of which were either scientific or legal.
Research highlighted the emphasis on motherhood in some foreign countries, and used that to argue that IVF helps eliminate discrimination against infertile women in such cultures. Other sources documented what can happen when human life is treated as a commodity - what happens if a couple divorces after opting for IVF in a surrogate pregnancy? For baby Manji, that circumstance left him an orphan.* And of course, there is the question of the ethical way to handle the just under a million frozen embryos, by-products of the IVF process.
Similar assignments are ahead, and other, more science-oriented, debates are currently under discussion. There will even be talk of gender issues and how sex - not gender - is controlled by genetics. The course goes as far as saying, "Gender can be chosen but sex cannot. This means that a woman could actually be a male and a man could be a female" (Excelsior College, BIO360). Here, "male" and "female" are types of sex while "man" and "woman" are types of gender.
Apparently, the professor does not consider the science enough to challenge us: ethics, worldview, gender theory, argumentation, and debate are also part of the material. Besides the fact that this has so far taken up much more time than any other course I'm currently taking, it is a delightful challenge into a plethora of subjects, all with the aim of teaching me to 'think like a scientist,' but also encouraging me to think through my beliefs on subjects I honestly haven't spent much time on before (IVF and embryonic stem cell research aren't exactly in my apologetics toolbox - yet).
So there you have it, my two very favorite courses. Both highly interdisciplinary, both cultivating skills in writing, research, critical thinking, and debate, and both rooted in my beloved field of science. Because what could be better than a course that ties in the study of fishes to international relations? Or developmental biology and moral belief systems? Seeing subjects interconnect like this make them more relatable, more practical, more memorable - long after the anxious wait for that final grade.