Mr. Biology

In this, the second part of our look at the Science teaching team, our resident Biology expert, Colm Nolan, was kind enough to subject himself to a few questions. Apart from being a wonderful teacher, Colm possesses a brain like velcro – absolutely everything seems to stick. He never ceases to amaze his colleagues with the breadth (and often randomness) of his knowledge and the humility with which he carries it. His scientific curiosity takes him to many wonderful places. To put it simply, Colm knows an awful lot of stuff about an awful lot of different things. Here he shares what he knows about Biology, his course and academic life.

Colm deep in discussion during recent student poster presentations.

Colm deep in discussion during recent student poster presentations.

What is your role at DIFC?

At DIFC I am the Biology teacher. I have, over the course of the year, somewhere in the region of 130 hours class time to deliver a general Biology syllabus to a level similar to the Irish Leaving Certificate, or UK A level.

Is your class tough? What should I expect?

Well, Biology is not rocket science (we leave that to physics!), so there are no hard-to-understand concepts, but the class is still tough. The reason it is tough is because there is so much information that a student must retain. The Bio course also puts a lot of demand on the students’ language skills – even if you know it you still have to be able to write about it!

Are there a lot of assignments on your course?

Yes, the assignments for Bio take up quite a bit of the students’ time. In total there are four, substantial pieces of work, two essays and two laboratory reports. Each one takes many hours of work as students are expected to gather information, collate and refine it, and then present it in a professional format. It is a long process, but as all my past students have told me, it is the most important set of skills that they gained at DIFC, and the most useful for their university course.

What do you enjoy about your job?

What makes me look forward to each academic year is the group of people I am going to meet. Our students are generally highly motivated and energetic. I feel privileged to be one small part of the development of such individuals.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Having done my undergraduate degree in UCD here in Dublin, I have lots of advice on how different the university teaching situation is from the high school classroom. With several years’ experience in a plant molecular biology laboratory, I felt quite at home with the DNA/protein and the photosynthesis portions of the course; however, it took me quite a lot of effort to get comfortable with the mammalian physiology sections in this course. And the first dissection laboratory I did? That was quite an education!

Why did you choose to follow a career in Biology?

Biology was always my favourite subject; I read somewhere that Biology at the end of the twentieth century was where Physics was at the end of the nineteenth. And true enough we have seen the dawn of the age of genomics with a lot more set to happen in the coming years – it is a very exciting time for Biology.

Were you a good student?

I have lots of personal experience to share with my students because in my own high school/university career I have, at different times, been both a very bad student, missing classes and procrastinating, and a very good student, organised and proactive. Distraction from studies can happen so easily – it is one of the benefits to having the support network provided in DIFC that this kind of negative spiral can be stopped before it begins. I wish I had had this in my first year in university!

Do you have any advice for someone starting on your course in 2015?

My advice would be to get prepared, mentally, for the work that you are going to do, in other words, be proactive. Students who view me and the other staff at DIFC as ‘people who can help me get where I am going’ are the ones who excel, but we have had some students who view us as ‘people who will make me pass my exams’. Start reading now, look for the syllabus document online and read that. Oh, and you should get familiar with your computer, make sure it will type and spell check in English.