Date: Sept. 10, 2002 Contacts: Vanee Vines, Media Relations Officer Andrea Durham, Media Relations Assistant (202) 334-2138; e-mail <firstname.lastname@example.org>
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Biology Majors Need More Than Biology to Succeed
A better understanding of DNA, new laboratory techniques, and greater computer power have revolutionized the field of biology in recent years, leading to achievements like the mapping of the human genome. This revolution has also changed the way biologists work, forcing them to develop know-how in other scientific disciplines. Math and computer models, for example, are crucial when trying to decipher the role played by a single gene among hundreds of thousands, and laser beams are being used by biologists to manipulate molecules. Undergraduate biology education, however, has not kept pace with these changes.
To better prepare students for careers in biology, especially biomedical research, colleges and universities should re-evaluate their curricula and teaching approaches for biology majors, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. Mathematics, physics, chemistry, computer science, and engineering should all be incorporated into biology courses and lab experiments to the point that "interdisciplinary thinking and work become second nature [for biology students]." Independent research should be encouraged and seminars highlighting cutting-edge developments should be offered to buoy the interest of undergrads in biological discovery.
Most colleges and universities require biology majors to take courses in mathematics and the physical sciences, but faculty often do not integrate these subjects into biology courses. This can give students a shortsighted view of the connections between scientific disciplines that are at the heart of today's biological research, the report says. It acknowledges that incorporating other disciplines into a biology class is not easy, especially for professors who are not well-versed in other topics. To overcome this, school administrators, funding agencies, and professional societies should work together to develop new teaching materials and to encourage collaboration among professors from different disciplines. Also, faculty development opportunities must be provided to improve the interdisciplinary knowledge and teaching capabilities of biology professors. In particular, the report recommends the establishment of an annual summer institute to offer faculty a venue for sharing ideas and to facilitate the development of innovative courses.
Laboratory courses and experiments should likewise be as interdisciplinary as possible, again to reflect the real world, the report says. Students can also gain real-world experience, as well as a deeper appreciation for how biology is applied to everyday problems, through independent research, which they should be encouraged to pursue early on in their education. Academic credit should be given for independent research done in collaboration with faculty or with off-campus researchers.
Noting that many pre-med students major in biology, the report says medical school admissions requirements and the Medical College Admissions Test, or MCAT, are hindering changes in undergraduate biology curriculum, in part because professors feel pressure to cover material on the test to the exclusion of other topics. Medical school admissions criteria and MCAT questions should be reconsidered in light of the reforms called for in the report.
The report includes 12 case studies highlighting innovations in undergraduate biology education. The study was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. A roster of the committee that wrote the report follows.
NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL Division on Earth and Life Studies Board on Life Sciences
Committee on Undergraduate Biology Education to Prepare Research Scientists for the 21st Century
Lubert Stryer1 (chair) Winzer Professor School of Medicine, and Professor of Neurobiology Stanford University Stanford, Calif.
Ronald Breslow1 University Professor, and Professor of Chemistry and Biology Columbia University New York City
James Gentile Dean of Natural Sciences Hope College Holland, Mich.
David M. Hillis Director School of Biological Sciences, and Roark Centennial Professor Section of Integrative Biology and Institute of Cellular and Molecular Biology University of Texas Austin
John Hopfield1 Howard A. Prior Professor in the Life Sciences, and Professor of Molecular Biology Princeton University Princeton, N.J.
Nancy Kopell1 W.G. Aurelio Professor of Mathematics and Science, and Co-Director Center for BioDynamics Boston University Boston
Sharon Long1 Dean School of Humanities and Sciences, and Professor of Biological Sciences Stanford University Stanford, Calif.
Edward Penhoet2 Director Science and Higher Education Programs Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation San Francisco
Joan Steitz1 Investigator Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Henry Ford II Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry School of Medicine Yale University New Haven, Conn.
Charles Stevens1 Investigator Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Professor Salk Institute for Biological Studies; and Adjunct Professor of Pharmacology and Neuroscience University of California San Diego
Samuel Ward Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology University of Arizona Tucson
RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF
Kerry Brenner Study Director 1 Member, National Academy of Sciences 2 Member, Institute of Medicine