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News from the National Academies

Date: Sept. 10, 2002
Contacts: Vanee Vines, Media Relations Officer
Andrea Durham, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Publication Announcement

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.

Read the full text of Bio 2010: Undergraduate Education to Prepare Biomedical Research Scientists for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site of by calling (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


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