The biological sciences major is intended for the biology student who wishes to develop an individualized combination of courses at the advanced level. The student is free to plan a curriculum of great breadth or to choose an area of specialization not offered as a major by the department. Most of the undergraduates in our department choose the biological sciences major. This major is suitable for those planning a career in which general familiarity with biological topics is desirable, such as jobs in scientific journalism, biological and pharmaceutical supply industries, biological or medical research, scientific libraries and museums, or in any industry where the products or by-products have potential biological impact. Completing the biological sciences major fulfills the basic science requirements for admission to medical, dental, and other health professional schools and to graduate biology programs.
This major is closed for enrollment as of fall 2019. Students enrolled in the program prior to fall 2019 have the option to complete this major or to transfer to the Computational Biology major. Students who choose to complete the Bioinformatics major must do so by the end of summer 2023.
Bioinformatics is the theory, application and development of computing tools to solve problems and create hypotheses in all areas of biological sciences. Biology in the post-genome world has been and continues to be transformed from a largely laboratory-based science to one that integrates experimental and information science. Bioinformatics has contributed to advances in biology by providing tools that handle datasets too large and/or complex for manual analysis. Examples of some of these tools include assembly of DNA sequences of entire genomes, gene finding algorithms, microarray expression analysis, molecular system modeling, and biomarker discovery from mass spectra. Computational tools are central to the organization, analysis, and harvesting of biological data at the level of macromolecules, cells, and systems. Consequently, there is a growing need for trained professionals who understand the languages of biology and computer science. Biologists trained in more traditional programs may not have a working knowledge of statistics and algorithms, whereas computer scientists trained in more traditional programs may not have a working knowledge of the chemistry and biology required in the field.
Computational biology is a growing field of study in the life sciences. This major, which is administered by the Department of Biological Sciences in the Dietrich School and the Department of Computer Science in the School of Computing and Information, trains students in the computer programming, laboratory techniques, and other skills they will need to succeed in graduate school and in the workforce.
Ecology and Evolution
The field of ecology explores the interactive web of organisms and the environment. Studies in evolution consider the processes by which modern organisms have developed from ancestral ones. The ecology and evolution major is a good choice for students interested in the fundamental questions of the evolutionary origins of organisms and how they survive, or don’t survive, in their changing habitats. Within this major, students have the opportunity for in-depth study of the morphological and physiological adaptations of a variety of animals, plants, and microorganisms to a changing world; the ecological relationship of organisms from the individual to the global scale; and the mechanisms that drive evolutionary change.
Employment opportunities in the ecological sciences have increased greatly in recent years. There continues to be a demand for well-trained professionals at all levels (BS, MS, and PhD). Government environmental agencies, commercial consulting and testing firms, waste management industries, research laboratories, and natural history and science museums are just a few of the career opportunities. Graduate departments of ecology, evolution, environmental sciences, genetics, botany, public policy, and public health are actively seeking well-qualified students. The required chemistry, physics, and mathematics courses incorporate the requirements for admission to medical, dental, and other health professional schools. An ecology and evolution major could also serve as a springboard to a career in law.
Microbiology is the study of the biology of microscopic organisms: bacteria, viruses, algae, fungi, and protozoa. The methods used to study and manipulate these minute and mostly unicellular organisms differ from those used in most other biological investigations. Recombinant DNA technology uses microorganisms, particularly bacteria and viruses, to amplify DNA sequences and generate the encoded products. Moving genes from one microorganism to another permits application of microbial skills to solve medical and environmental problems. Many microorganisms are unique among living things in their ability to use gaseous nitrogen from the air or to degrade complex and resistant macromolecules in such materials as wood. By rearranging the genes that control these and other processes, scientists seek to engineer microorganisms that will process wastes, fertilize agricultural land, produce desirable biomolecules, and solve other problems inexpensively and safely.
Microbiologists pursue careers in many fields, including agricultural, environmental, food, and industrial microbiology; public health; resource management; basic research; education; and pharmaceuticals. Jobs in all these fields are available at the BS level as well as the MS and PhD levels. The microbiology major also incorporates the requirements expected for admission to medical, dental, and other health professional schools and to graduate schools in microbiology, molecular biology, biochemistry, and related disciplines.
Molecular biology emphasizes the study of molecules that make up an organism and the forces operating among these molecules. Increasingly, molecular biologists can also explore the genetic control of these molecules and thus define the developmental, cellular, and subcellular changes that occur during the dynamic processes of life. Virtually every question, whether in biochemistry, cell biology, developmental biology, or some other biological discipline, applies molecular biology, often as the prime approach, in its solution. Biochemical and molecular developments have revolutionized biological research, fueling the explosive growth in the biotechnology industry and rapid increase of molecular medicine.
The molecular biology major, with its two tracks (biochemistry or cell and developmental biology) provides a strong background for many science careers. Both tracks incorporate the requirements expected for admission to medical, dental, and other health professional schools and to graduate schools in biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, and related disciplines. Positions for molecular biologists at the BS, MS, and PhD levels are available in the biotechnology industries as well as in universities, medical schools, hospitals, government laboratories, research institutes, and public health institutions.
For more information on the Department of Biological Sciences and the majors it offers, see www.biology.pitt.edu.