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April 14, 2005

Books, Journals & More – A Closer Look: Laurel Bridges Roberts & James Bobick

Everything you’ve always wanted to know about biology (and probably much more) has been asked and answered in an informative, engrossing and entertaining 2004 reference book.

From the basic (What is a cell? What is respiration? What is a seed?), to the advanced (What is the meaning of the phrase “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”? What is eutrophication? What are the different kinds of mutations?), to the curious (Why do buzzards return to Hinckley, Ohio? What emotions do animals have? How many leaves are on a mature tree?) — all are answered in plain English in “The Handy Biology Answer Book,” the latest of a dozen reference books in the Handy Answer Book Series.

“A student can dip into the book and find out what are the major parts of a cell, and what their functions are and where they’re located,” said James Bobick, a science librarian and one of the book’s four authors. “An educated adult who might be interested in, say, cloning or stem cell research or biotechnology — the glitzy hot topics — also can find information in there, along with the basic information that leads up to that topic, so that there is a full range of information provided.”

“Handy Biology” covers more than 1,600 questions in 16 chapters, supplemented by 100 illustrations and 150 tables and charts. Many of the more esoteric and fun concepts are highlighted as sidebars.

The 565 pages also include a timeline, from 520 B.C.E. to the present, of major biological milestones; birth and death years of virtually every prominent biologist; further reading recommendations and web site sources, and an index.

Bobick, adjunct faculty member in the School of Library and Information Sciences, and Pitt biological sciences lecturer Laurel Bridges Roberts worked for a year to produce “Handy Biology.”

The two Pitt faculty members collaborated on the book project with Naomi Balaban, a science reference librarian at the Carnegie Library main branch, and Bobick’s spouse, Sandra, a biology and genetics teacher at the Community College of Allegheny County, who holds a doctorate in science education.

In formulating the book’s questions, the four collaborators worked mostly in teams of two — the librarians on one team, the biologists on the other — as the group’s version of “checks and balances,” according to Bobick.

“For example, Laurel and Sandy did the heavier chapters such as biotechnology and genetics, the structure of DNA,” Bobick said. “Naomi and I worked from the librarian’s perspective on our chapters, such as on cell structure and fungi, and then the teams would trade the questions. If they would get too carried away with the academic end of things, we would say, ‘Now wait a minute, let’s get a couple questions that would give the reader a hook, to get them interested in, let’s say, animal behavior.’ If readers don’t know the basics, like what really is entailed in animal behavior, or who are the key players in that field, we thought they might lose interest.”

Contrariwise, the librarians deferred to the biologists to ensure that no important scientific concepts or topics were missing.

The librarians also contributed frequently asked questions from their experience at the reference desk, while the biologists drew on typical questions that their students asked in class, he added.

Roberts said, “When Sandy and I were putting together our chapters, I was more motivated by my teaching of introductory biology. I want my students to think holistically and not just memorize information. So, I wanted to cover at the very least what would be appropriate in an upper-level high school biology or introductory college-level course, and then go into the cool stuff that we enjoy telling our students that maybe doesn’t fit into “What is an atom?’ ‘What is a cell?’ I was always pushing for more sidebars for emphasis, because there are so many fascinating ‘Did you know that?’ items.”

In laying out the ground rules for the book, the collaborators decided early on not to compete with standard biology textbooks for technical information or abundance of scientific graphs and tables. They then decided on 16 appropriate categories and agreed on a target of 100 questions per chapter. They also agreed that each chapter would cover basic material and significant people at minimum; then they would add what each of them found interesting within the topic.

“It was frustrating to me at first, because I’m so used to textbook format, where you start with one thing and end there, which is very linear,” Roberts acknowledged. “Also, some questions that we started with don’t appear in the book when we realized the answers were much too technical. So we struggled at first finding the right mixture. It took me a couple months to get comfortable.”

Prior to this book, her experience was with an author’s more limited role in the production of a journal, where writers submit a single, stand-alone journal article without collaborating on the other articles.

Roberts reconciled her mixed feelings by seeing the value of group collaboration from the two disciplines of biology and library science, each adding a necessary viewpoint, and by realizing that the purpose of “Handy Biology” is that a reader can open it anywhere and find enjoyment and information at the same time.

“We want to encourage readers to love biology as much as we do, and to get excited about it,” Roberts said. “I’m known among my friends for having these ‘biology moments,’ when I’ll say, ‘Ding, ding, ding, did you know that Darwin’s favorite nickname was Stultis the Fool, for his wild experiments?’ In two minutes you can learn something and tell that to someone else,” in effect, spreading the appreciation for biology, she said.

“Laurel calls them ‘cocktail tidbits,’ where you can impress your friends at a cocktail party,” Bobick said.

The collaborators also agreed not to avoid controversial subjects such as evolution, stem cell research, cloning and genetics.

“For example, if you can talk about how cells reproduce and talk about how cells transfer DNA from one generation to the next, from that we can build a framework of how evolutionary change can occur,” Roberts said. “We’re giving you the facts but without them being given as an argument: This is how cells do it. If you don’t want to agree with the application of the facts [to evolution], with the big idea, at least don’t deny these facts. People can draw their own conclusions or move on to something else.”

Similarly, despite today’s fast-moving biological developments, Roberts said the authors were not overly concerned that the book would rapidly become dated.

“With biotechnology, for example, we wanted to give the basic methods and then some of the neat applications,” she said. “What’s interesting about biotechnology is that it’s built on some pretty simple ideas: basically how bacterial cells work; why they grow, how they produce products. Using straightforward techniques, those simple things have been manipulated to allow us to produce human insulin, for example, which is produced by bacterial cultures.

“So we wanted readers to get the basic idea, which is cut, paste and copy: You cut a gene, you paste it into another genome and then you let it copy, or you move a gene from a petunia into a pea plant.”

The authors did not worry about being comprehensive, because the biology and its applications are always changing.

“We try to tell people how to make pasta, without worrying about how pasta can be used,” Roberts said.

Both authors were ecstatic when the book came out in October. But the year-long intensive project was wearing on their friendships at times, they agreed.

Bobick said, “Many times I’d be working on one part of the book and my wife, who was working on another part, would come into the room and say, ‘The next time that you ask me to do a book with you, I’m absolutely going to say no,” or ‘You’re lucky this marriage survived.’

“But I was the one ‘married’ to Sandy for the year,” Roberts quipped.

“Having been through this before, I’d say, ‘You know, Sandy, wait until the book comes out. You’ll take it and show it to your colleagues and co-workers and if they oooooh and ahhhhh, you’re going to forget all about how much work it was,’” he said.

“It’s like childbirth,” added Roberts. “It’s very painful, but when you have the product, you forget about what it took to get there. My goal going in to this project was to come out of it with the same number of friends as I went in with, and I did that,” she said.

—Peter Hart

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