Zoology: a degree that'll drive you wild

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The Independent Online

A degree in zoology gives you both specialist and general training for any future career. Zoology is the branch of biology that focuses on animals, although much of the biology of animals can only be understood if their interactions with plants and microbes are also explored. We study zoology at a wide range of scales in size, space and time. Broadly this can be divided up into questions about how populations, organisms and cells function. Patterns of animal populations and behaviour observed in the natural world are the products of processes (birth, death, mating, fighting, digestion, excretion, etc) that operate at variable rates depending on external and internal conditions. These processes depend on mechanisms that are ultimately programmed by genes and executed via specific molecular, cellular and physiological pathways. The essence of a good zoology course is to start at both ends of this spectrum - to identify interesting questions arising from observations of the natural world and to answer them using all the modern tools now available to us.

These tools range from satellites to give us information on local and global environmental conditions through digital video equipment to molecular probes that identify sub-cellular phenomena. Once we understand the component parts of animal biology, we can build on them to answer questions of great importance to our world today. Many - but not all - of these questions involve the human animal, Homo sapiens. How can we protect the millions of other species with which we share this planet? How can we complete our knowledge of these species by finding, identifying and classifying them? How can we protect ourselves against life-threatening parasites and microbes? How can we harness the exquisite machinery of cells to develop cures for infectious and non-infectious diseases?

Not all zoology courses will cover all parts of the subject - the variety is just too great to fit into a single three- or four-year course. The choice lies between a broader, more superficial overview of the whole subject - preferably biology rather than only zoology - and a narrower, deeper specialisation in one part, say environmental or cell biology. The best courses will offer an understanding of the principles underlying the full range of the subject, but allow increasing specialisation as the course progresses. An ecologist with a working knowledge of molecular biology, for example, will be equipped with a powerful tool kit.

Zoology is essentially a practical subject. A zoology course must include teaching the practical skills needed to make all sorts of measurements, direct or indirect, ranging from the secret life hidden within cells to the equally obscure mortality rates of free-living animals. These measurements give rise to vast arrays of numerical data that must be stored, manipulated and analysed correctly to answer precise questions.

However, while theory without practice is fantasy, practice without theory is chaos. Obviously questions do not come out of nowhere; they arise instead from existing theory and previous questions. The greatest conceptual framework within which all of biology fits is the theory of evolution, courtesy of Mr Charles Darwin. Evolutionary biologists understand how complex structures, organisms and systems can arise through the same basic processes of mutation and selection (the differential survival of organisms with different genes). Furthermore, there is the benefit that the theory of evolution is a truly scientific theory in that it throws up all manner of predictions that can be tested out.

One common tool used to make theoretical advances is mathematical modelling. Using models we can predict how populations of animals may change with newly introduced parasites or competitors, or how the risk of infection with malaria may change with global climate change. Such predictions must be tested with real data from observations and experiments in the field or the lab. In that way, the theoretical models help to define exactly what we should measure to understand complex systems better.

Communicating ideas in biology relies sometimes on equations, often on graphs and almost always on clearly written text. Students in zoology are trained in communication skills, both written and verbal, so they can express scientific ideas concisely and in language tailored to the audience, from primary school pupils to professors. This runs alongside training in analytical thought and quantitative skills, which is why so many different professions are happy to welcome graduates with zoology degrees.

A degree in a biological science opens the door to a huge variety of future employment, whether or not it uses the specialised scientific knowledge that you learn directly. With or without further training or postgraduate degrees, graduates may continue to practise biology as, for example, research scientists within universities, research institutes or commercial companies; environment protection officers; natural history film-makers; or teachers at any level. Outside the field, it is hard to think of jobs that would not benefit from a first degree in such a science: law, publishing, accountancy, finance, international development, medicine and public health - there are just too many to list! So, if you have a passion for understanding how animals work, consider a zoology degree, whether or not you necessarily think you want to spend the rest of your life with a career in the area.

Sarah Randolph works in the Department of Zoology at Oxford University