May 29, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 18

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    Quantrell award: Philip Ulinski

    Professor in Organismal Biology & Anatomy Call him a heretic, but Philip Ulinski, Professor in Organismal Biology & Anatomy, has no allegiance to the doctrinal team-teaching approach.

    "Biology is integrative," he asserts, "but that's not the way the academic world is structured."

    What often happens at universities, he said, is that each instructor comes into the class and lectures on his or her own topic, "and at the end somebody gives a speech asserting that all this is integrated -- but of course, you've demonstrated all term that it's not."

    The approach that works best, he said, and the approach that he uses, is to have an individual instructor truly integrate the curriculum by bringing several disciplines to bear on a problem.

    Ulinski teaches in the second and third courses in a three-course sequence of integrative introductory biology. The curriculum is designed for students with a strong high school background in science and mathematics who intend to become professional scientists.

    The curriculum is integrated in two ways, Ulinski said. It employs the tools of physical and mathematical sciences in the study of biology, and it reconciles molecular biology with problems at the organismal and environmental levels of organization.

    Rather than taking the textbook approach of starting with cells and working up to ecology and behavior, the innovative curriculum focuses on problems in biology and uses all available tools as necessary.

    "It seems to be working out," he said, "and the students seem to like it."

    Ulinski only recently began teaching undergraduates after teaching the subjects of human morphology and histology to medical students and neuroanatomy to graduate students in his department.

    "I was ready to do something else," he said. "Three years ago, the Biological Sciences Division decided to re-evaluate the curriculum. Then Hugo [Sonnenschein] arrived and rededicated the University to the College, wanting to increase the size and the quality at the same time," Ulinski said.

    "Biology will have to be a major part of that, because it's such a big draw. Many of the students will concentrate in biology or take biology courses to prepare for medical school."

    Ulinski enjoys teaching for its intellectual challenge. He said that part of the challenge is that the students' math skills are so fresh.

    "In these classes, we approach biology in quantitative fashion," he said. "And you have to be as rigorous as the math department in adhering to the logic. The students take what they learned in calculus and apply it to biology."

    An additional challenge, Ulinski said, is that he gets to practice what he preaches and "reach away from my own area of expertise."

    "Tomorrow I'm giving a lecture in population biology," he said, "and I'm a neurobiologist."

    Ulinski is an expert on the brain structure of reptiles and birds, and his current research explores the visual cortex of the turtle. His work parallels that of cognitive psychologists who study how the human brain organizes information and how brain activity responds to environmental conditions.

    While much is known about how individual neurons respond to specific conditions and behaviors, Ulinski stands with those who believe it is the organization of groups of neurons that hold the key to understanding brain activity. Even the simplest activity of the brain -- recognizing an object, or following movement -- becomes incredibly complex in that scheme.

    A University faculty member since 1975, Ulinski has just finished editing a book on mathematical models of the cerebral cortex and is now writing the first textbook on computational neuroscience. He is also the author of Dorsal Ventricular Ridge: A Treatise on Forebrain Organization in Reptiles and Birds (1983). He has published numerous articles in leading journals, including the Journal of Comparative Neurology, American Zoologist, and the Journal of Morphology.

    -- Bill Burton