Friday, May 31, 2013

Teaching Biochemistry from a Canadian Perspective

I've always been a bit embarrassed to admit that my own department doesn't adopt my textbook in their introductory biochemistry courses. The honors course uses the 4th edition of Voet & Voet but it's only "recommended," not required. The large introductory course for non-specialists recommends several textbooks, including mine.

The arguments against having a required textbook have often focused on the idea that none of the current textbooks covers the material that's being taught—especially in the large course. Our large (1300 students) course tended to emphasize human physiology from a biochemical perspective. Many of the lectures in the metabolism section involved specific case studies.

The large course is changing now that one of the lecturers has retired and it will no longer be so slanted toward human physiology. The summer version is being taught right now and it's clear that the lectures are more like those in traditional biochemistry courses. I was surprised to learn that the new course now has a required textbook, unlike all previous versions of the course for the past decade. I was even more surprised to learn that the required textbook was a specific Canadian version of the Garrett & Grisham textbook "Biochemistry" published by Brooks/Cole in the USA and by Nelson Education in Canada.1

The Canadian version adds three new authors. One of them is Stravroula ("Roula") Andreopolous, a Senior Lecturer in my department who runs the large introductory biochemistry courses. The others are William G. Willmore, a Professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, and Imed E. Gallouzi, a Professor at McGill University in Montreal.

Here's the description of the 1st Canadian Edition.
Biochemistry 1st Canadian edition guides students through course concepts in a way that reveals the beauty and usefulness of biochemistry in the everyday world from a unique Canadian context. Biochemistry is a living science that touches every aspect of our lives and this book ensures students are made aware of the significance and interdisciplinary nature of this subject; questions posed at the beginning of each chapter and new “Why it Matters” boxes grab interest and tap into students inner ‘scientist’ answering why and how topics are relevant and important, “Human Biochemistry” features highlight how biochemistry affects our bodies, as well as “Critical Developments” sections focus on various types of drug design. Highlighting the most current research topics such as mRNA turnover and microRNA, as well as Canadian researchers and institutions, the 1st Canadian edition of Biochemistry will help students master the concepts of biochemistry and gain new insight into this dynamic science.
I'm not sure what I think of this idea. The standard textbooks, including my own, have a slight American bias but they are mostly written for students from all over the world. I've never heard complaints from Canadian students who use my book. To me, it sounds a bit parochial to make a special Canadian edition just so Canadian researchers can be highlighted. I find it a bit embarrassing.

What do you think? Is it a good thing to print biochemistry textbooks for specific markets? Should there be one for Texas and a different one for Massachusetts? Should there be an Australian and a Scottish version to draw attention to scientists in Australia and Scotland?

1. This is not usally thought of as one of the better biochemistry textbooks but I'm a bit biased.


  1. Interesting! I think it is up to the instructor to give it a "local" context, and a textbook shouldn't be biased. There's good research all over the world!

    1. There's good research all over the world!

      No, there isn't. There are huge parts of the world virtually devoid of good research.

  2. Hmm. I'm not sure how I feel about this.

    To be honest—though it's been a long time since I've needed a biochem' text book—if I'd had one as an undergrad that I noticed was a specific 'British edition' highlighting British achievements in the field, I'd feel a little put out.

    Science, like it or not, is an international endeavour, with people feeding into it from all over the world. That there is a 'unique Canadian context' in which to view biochemistry, feels...wrong. I would want the whole story, I'd want the science as currently understood by researchers the world over.

    If lecturers wish to highlight their institutions contributions, great! I would too. But a text book should be without agenda or bias* in my opinion. Though, I guess I'd have to get my hands on a copy first to see just what a difference it really makes, before I can really make a call on that.

    *Well, as much as possible...

  3. What's next, a physics textbook from a Mormon perspective ?

  4. My first year chemistry textbook was specially sponsored by the South African Academy of Science and Arts, and written by South Africans. There was a clear reason: it was written in a language (Afrikaans) spoken only in South Africa and Namibia. And I still found it embarrassing. Science is no place for nationalism.

  5. What a terrible idea. Will we next have biochemistry from a black perspective? Physical chemistry from a Chinese perspective? Physics for Aryans?

    The scientific community is international. If you're going to be a scientist, you're competing internationally. If some textbook is biased towards Americans, you correct the problem by fixing the bias, not introducing more books with new and different biases.

  6. "Canadian biochemistry" does sound a bit funny but I don't have a problem with the idea. The thought, presumably, is to make the subject more attractive to Canadians through feelings of national pride, etc. Not sure how much it works but if it does, why not? As long as it does tactfully, not "in place of" but "in aadition to", I don't see why not. E.g., my campus is littered littered with plaques commemorating various great discoveries made her over the years. Same idea - to make local population feeling more exclusive.

    What I do find a terrible idea is "highlighting the most current research topics such as mRNA turnover and microRNA" in an introductory Biochem course. Reminds me how some folks took Lehninger's textbook and screwed it up by stuffing with subjects dear to their research.

    1. Explain to me how "feelings of national pride" is in any sense different from say being proud of having blue eyes or "white" skin.

      All are accidents of birth over which one had absolutely no control and made absolutely no contribution.

      While the statement is typically meant to invoke good feelings, upon closer scrutiny it appears to me to be as divisive and tribal as similar sectarian statements spouted by the religious.

      You said as much later on in your comment - to make local population feeling more exclusive.

    2. You are in favour, then, of alienating any non-Canadian students who happen to be studying in Canada?

    3. @steve oberski:
      Explain to me how "feelings of national pride" is in any sense different from say being proud of having blue eyes or "white" skin

      It's not fundamentally different, of course. But that's human nature - humans like others like them and they like being part of the winning team. And yes, feeling more exclusive is a very large part of the status games humans play.

      @Konrad: No, I am not.

    4. @DK

      I don't disagree with your statement that feeling more exclusive (i.e. tribalism) is an inherent human trait.

      But so may be xenophobia and (for males) and propensity towards rape bit I'm pretty sure would wouldn't advocate that those be catered to in a textbook.

  7. On this topic, could anyone recommend a biochemistry textbook for a high school bio teacher wanting more background to supplement the high school biology curriculum? I had Moran's text at one point, but loaned it to a student and never got it back; must have been a great read :)

    I'm sure Larry would recommend his own, but does anyone else have a recommendation?

    1. The most comprehensive biochemistry textbook is the big book by Voet & Voet. The problem with that book is that the fundamental principles and concepts get overwhelmed by irrelevant detail.

  8. I'm not sure.
    I agree with everyone above, that there is no place for nationalism in the science.

    But on the other hand, when we hear (I'm talking as a layman living in Poland) that scientists discovered something, the first thing which comes to mind is "american scientists".

    So maybe a little bit of nationalism is healthy? It could actually reminds students, that science is international endeavour (i.e. - that there are also scientists in their country)?

  9. This is clearly an example of parochialism in full bloom. Rather sad and pathetic. I recently had the pleasure of working as a visiting fellow in Estonia. In this tiny country of 1.3 millions, an advanced university level textbook in molecular biology was recently published in the Estonian language with financing from of the EU. What an absolutely waste of money given that good and highly accessible books are widely available in the English language (the lingua franca of science). However, one should never underestimate the simmering nationalism and associated inferiority complex some fellow scientists are subject to.

  10. I'm a bit torn about this. Science one of the great activities that extends beyond borders, whether they be national, religious, or whatever. Also, if the authors want an international market, they should write for it. On the other hand, in class I have always highlighted the contributions of women to my field, and I can see highlighting the contributions of one's countrymen. That could be the work of the instructor rather than the textbook author, though.

    Years ago, I taught biology on a then very isolated Polynesian island using a New Zealand textbook. The principles were presented well, but the overwhelming use of New Zealand examples did nothing to connect with the students.

  11. I agree with the idea that it's fine if it's just a matter of adding a bit of "hey-look-this-one's-in-Canada!" to the otherwise nation-free content.

    Sadly, I do not think the chapters on Maple Syrup or Poutine will be widely discussed.

  12. comments about this fascinating text book: 2.5 out of 5 stars 6 reviews
    4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
    1.0 out of 5 stars Overly complicated and poorly edited Feb 11 2012
    By Sarah - Published on
    For a beginning biochemistry text they make simple concepts overly complicated and wordy. Important concepts are not easily taken out of the text and they often refer to information in chapters that are much later in the text. The problems are the end of each chapter are extremely confusing and require you to do a search and find to figure out what tables you should refer to since the problem often does not tell you where you will find the information. Sometimes when a problem does refer to a table you go to look for the table and realize that they were all renumbered in the revised edition (though they forgot to change the table references in the problems). There are also numerous spelling and grammatical errors. Nothing about this text is straight forward or easy to understand.

    In all my science courses this is probably the worst book I have ever encountered and have resorted to using other sources for learning most concepts as this book does not explain things clearly.
    2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
    1.0 out of 5 stars Dense Aug 6 2012
    By apple - Published on
    Format:Hardcover|Amazon Verified Purchase
    I really, really hated this book and it doesn't help that my professor used it like a crutch. I could read and write notes about a chapter, get to the end of the chapter questions, and not have a clue on how to answer the questions. There also aren't any examples throughout the chapter on how to solve the problems. All the answers are at the end of the book, but it really didn't help because there isn't anyway to find out where they got that answer.
    2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
    1.0 out of 5 stars Not helpful Sep 2 2012
    By Joanna Lin - Published on
    Format:Hardcover|Amazon Verified Purchase
    It's very wordy and dense....difficult to read and understand. Information is given in large blocks of text with little emphasis on important ideas and the bigger picture. Just flipping through the p..

    I'm shitked!!!