What is Biology?
Biologists study the vital processes of all organisms and the environments in which they flourish. They study living things at levels ranging from interactions among whole populations of organisms to the molecular mechanisms of cellular chemistry. Biologists also investigate more global processes, from ecology and adaptation of life (evolution) to its continued preservation (conservation).
Why Consider a Biology Major?
An Exciting, Fascinating, Rapidly Changing Field
Biology is an exciting, active field, with new research tools leading to new understanding of how organisms function at all levels. No other field of modern science is changing so rapidly. No matter what area of the life sciences you choose to study, the future is likely to be exciting—and different.
A Chance to Pioneer New, Important Discoveries
You can become one of the pioneers who continue 21st-century advancements. Biology has already witnessed vast new insights in Cell Biology, Computational Biology, Microbiology, Endocrinology, the Nervous System, Brain Function, Genetics, Molecular Evolution, Ecology, Genetic Engineering, and Plant Biology.
On the horizon are more advancements in these and other areas vital to the understanding, survival, and prosperity of life. Your future research might win you a Nobel Prize, as earned by Professor Emerita Rita Levi-Montalcini, a member of our faculty for 25 years. Her prize-winning discovery of nerve growth factor (NGF) in the 1960s provided the basis for understanding how nerve cells are guided to their destination during embryonic development.
You Can Begin Diverse Careers With a Major in Biology
A biology major can prepare you for a very broad range of careers. Here are some professions toward which our graduates have applied their biology major:
- Animal Breeder
- Biological Patent Lawyer
- Biological Research
- Equipment Designer
- Genetic Engineer
- Healthcare Administrator
- Industrial Hygienist
- Medical Illustrator
- Occupational Therapist
- Physical Therapist
- Scientific Editor/Writer
Biology at Washington University
For you to have a successful, productive, and creative career in biology, or in related professions such as biochemistry, medicine, and biological engineering, you need an exceptional educational foundation. Our tradition of excellence, combined with a deep commitment to both classroom teaching and fundamental research, can make a big difference in your future.
Our professors regularly bring the excitement of discovery and the latest knowledge into the classroom. Professors here are part of a department recognized nationally and internationally for its teaching and research programs in plant, evolutionary, molecular, cell, neuro-developmental, microbial, and environmental biology.
Professionals in Their Fields
Our professors are active in their professional areas of expertise, serving on review committees for such federal agencies as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the United States Department of Agriculture. Yet, most teach basic undergraduate courses, including the introductory biology sequence.
Faculty Who Care About Your Success
Faculty are available on a regular basis to meet with you should you need advice about courses, careers, study methods, etc. They take time to make sure you get what you need.
Help and Flexibility to Design Your Program
You will find the individual instruction from our faculty an important and stimulating part of your undergraduate experience. The biology department has a highly personalized and effective advising program that makes liberal use of electives to define your interests and abilities, to find a research mentor, and to provide general advice about your major.
You normally begin your work in biology in the spring of your first year with basic courses in chemistry, physics, and mathematics as part of the requirements for a biology major. The combination of required courses and electives you choose will vary depending on your personal interests and goals. Following the completion of the basic core require-ments, at least 18 units in advanced biology courses are required. These majors fall within the general field of life sciences:
- Ecology and Evolution
- Environmental Biology
- Genomics and Computational Biology
An Honors Program
An honors program, with additional requirements, is available for highly motivated students. At least two semesters of independent research and a thesis are required for honors.
If you have exceptional high school training, you may take the Advanced Placement (AP) Examination in Biology given for secondary school students by the College Entrance Examination Board and administered by the Educational Testing Service in May each year. Check with your high school counselor for the date and registration requirements.
With a grade of 4 or 5 on the Biology Advanced Placement Exam, you will receive six units of college credit.
Biology & Biomedical Sciences—Our Partner
Biology is part of the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences, which includes pre-clinical departments at our School of Medicine. These departments provide faculty, advanced level courses, and research opportunities for you as an undergraduate. Any capable student who wishes to engage in laboratory research under the guidance of an experienced mentor has ample opportunity.
Major Areas of Study in Biological and Biomedical Research
- Computational and Systems Biology
- Developmental Biology
- Evolution, Ecology, and Population Biology
- Molecular Biophysics
- Molecular Cell Biology
- Molecular Genetics and Genomics
- Molecular Microbiology and Microbial Pathogenesis
- Plant and Microbial Biosciences
Discover Research Opportunities
A great way for you to get ideas about the direction you would like to take and to familiarize yourself with the wide range of research occurring at Washington University is to enroll in one of our Freshman Seminars in Biology or Imaging Science during your first semester. These one-unit courses invite different faculty members to discuss current work in their labs. Another first-year seminar in problem-based learning examines specific biological problems in depth, with topics changing from year to year. We also offer a first-year FOCUS program called “Phage Hunters” in which students engage in a research project during their first year.
Learn by Doing
Participating in research in an area that has sparked your interest can be the most engaging part of your undergraduate study. In addition to bringing classroom learning to life, doing research is a great way to gain experience in using the scientific method to make new discoveries.
Hands-on laboratory research includes acquiring technical skills, reading and evaluating articles in scientific literature that are relevant to the project being undertaken, gaining experience in design and conduct of experiments, learning to evaluate experimental data in relation to existing knowledge, and expanding skills in communicating results of research both orally and in writing.
Discover Vital New Information
Working with your chosen faculty mentor, you could make a vital discovery that influences the direction of biology and/or biomedical research for years to come. Our undergraduate students who engage in a research project are not simply lab assistants; they are lab participants in the research itself. With an important breakthrough, you might be invited to co-author a paper to be published in a professional journal or presented to a group of interested scientists at a professional meeting.
Gain Real Experience
When it is time for you to declare your major or to find a job after graduation, there is nothing like real work experience to give you proper guidance. In addition to the on-campus research opportunities outlined above, some part-time employment positions for undergraduates exist within the biology department. You will also have hands-on opportunities listed below.
- Summer research fellowships
- The department’s Biology Club
- Using the state-of-the-art computerized study and
learning center located in the biology building.
- Off-campus educational and research opportunities at
such locations as:
- the world-renowned Missouri Botanical Garden
- the St. Louis Zoo
- Tyson Research Center
- Danforth Plant Science Center
- Internships in your field(s) of interest
If you want to take biology courses to enhance your other area(s) of study, you may want to consider a minor in biology. There are specific course requirements, which include three introductory level biology courses, two introductory level chemistry courses, and two advanced biology courses selected from an approved list.
The department offers a number of courses every year for nonmajors.
Use Other Specialized Facilities
Within the biology department’s interconnected buildings, at the medical school, and at our off-campus facilities (listed above), we offer very specialized facilities including a DNA
facility, Genome Sequencing Center, Plant Growth Facility, Plant Tissue Culture Facility, and Computing Facility.