How does one become a biologist?

18 september 2018

"My driving force is to highlight and discuss the processes that affect our education and maybe make us less successful", says Katerina Günter, doctoral student in gender studies.

In autumn 2017, Katerina Günter became the university’s first doctoral student in gender studies focusing on discipline-based education research in biology. “The purpose of my research is to contribute to the development of higher level biology education. I want to uncover the processes that affect the students’ identity development, choice of path and establishment within biology and the academy.”

Nestled into one of the lushest corners of the Botanical Garden lies the Centre for Gender Research. An enviable study environment for most, and a veritable paradise for a biologist. Here, Katerina landed after writing her master's thesis in systematic biology at the Evolutionary Biology Centre, EBC, in June 2017. Just over a year before she had arrived from Freiburg as an Erasmus student. Her interest in gender studies and teaching was however awakened already as a student and teacher of biology at Heidelberg University.

"I started thinking about what students are expected to learn and do in order to be and become a legitimate part of the biology environment. What is needed to take the next step in your career as a student? Students I spoke with told me that they felt uncomfortable in different contexts without knowing why, and that they were required to rethink how they behaved in “the right way". It suddenly became clear to me which voices were allowed to contribute in a certain situation or context, due to power structures and hierarchies.”

When Katerina first came to Sweden she was astonished by the way students and teachers interacted with each other. It felt very unusual to address teachers by their first names and to have coffee with them, although she would also appreciate it. She noticed the positive influence interactions had on the performances of students and their experiences of the academy.

Scrutinizing the university environment

Although the academic hierarchies may not be as visible in Sweden as they are in Germany, Katerina believes universities shaped in similar international cultures of education are characterized by similar conditions.

“At the university we reproduce norms, hierarchies and structures that we have experienced during our training; they live on in the classroom and in the lab. This is my driving force – to highlight and discuss the processes that affect our education and maybe make us less successful.”

When the interdisciplinary doctoral position at the Centre for Gender Research was announced, she felt it was made for her. During her first year immersed herself introductory courses in gender theory and methods of science, discipline-based education, and Swedish. Excited and curious, she also began to teach the courses Physiology as well as The Diversity and Evolution of Organisms at EBC. In addition, she guided the feminist city tour (feministiska stadsvandringen) in Uppsala. And began to gather material for her own research. Some teachers have told her to lower her ambitions, says Katerina and laughs.

"What drives you?"

"When I talk to students from all sorts of backgrounds, and hear about their experiences and thoughts on biology, what motivates and affects them – then I’m filled with a great sense of being able to communicate their thoughts and speak up for their experiences.”

Unlike the main focus on measurements and quantifiable results in biology research, research conducted within gender studies often involves text analyses, interviews and observations – qualitative approaches. At the moment, Katerina is interpreting motivational texts concerning choice of study, written by biology students at the undergraduate programme in recent years. Later this fall, she will interview some of them. Students from other disciplines have also offered to respond to her questionnaire, so there is an apparent interest in sharing study experiences.

“While my project aims to explore how biology students in particular develop their identities as "biologists" during their training, this focus can of course be applied to many other areas within the academy. I hope that my four-year project will affect University teaching in general and in the long term. As a result, it may also have a bearing on the rest of society and be of interest to the general public.”

Interdisciplinary collaboration between doctoral students

Katerina, however, is not the first doctoral student with one foot each in gender studies and science at Uppsala University. Anna Danielsson, who studied physics education research with a gender perspective, is currently a professor in the Department of Education. The same specialisation was chosen by two other graduate students working with Katerina, Johanna Larsson and Anders Johansson; others can be found within the field of computer science.

"But it was high time to get started with biology!" says Katerina.

But not everything has gone smoothly. In an introductory course at the beginning of her doctoral studies, Katerina asked some questions about the challenges of working interdisciplinary. The response she got from the invited lecturer shocked her: If she did not feel confident in the academic environment because of her interdisciplinary position, she should simply leave the academy.

"I became disillusioned and it took a lot of encouragement from my colleagues and friends to get over it. And now I don’t agree at all! You may feel insecure sometimes, it shows that you’re on the verge of something new!”

Later she hopes to present studies where teachers tell her about their perspectives on teaching.

“How do they perceive themselves and their roles and how do they affect students? What do teachers think is most important to communicate to their students in order for them to become good biologists, good scholars, good teachers? If we start to have these conversation now, they will in the long run affect our perspectives on education.”

Read more about Centre for Gender Research and the Department's interdisciplinary research.


Anneli Björkman