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New York City
November 2003

So You Want to be a Biology Major?

by Sarah N. Lynch

Since high school, Pascale Chrisphonte said she has been intrigued by biology.

Now a senior at Barnard College on the pre-med track, Chrisphonte’s passion for the topic has only increased.

“In high school I always loved biology,” Chrisphonte said. “I took AP bio and I loved my freshmen year of biology. I think it’s really fascinating how the body works. What’s good about biology is that it’s a piece of a whole. You can take things apart.”

Contrary to popular belief, not all biology majors are on the pre-med track. In fact, according to Barnard College assistant professor Hilary Callahan, an undergraduate degree in biology is very broad-based.

“Biology is a liberal arts major, so that’s something important to emphasize,” Callahan said. “It’s a major like any other major, and it’s not designed as a pre-professional major.” In fact, there are myriad career options for biology majors.

“You can become a science writer, a researcher, you can work for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or work for the government on bio-terrorism,” Chrisphonte said. “There are a lot of openings. You don’t have to become a doctor. I knew a bio major who worked at the Central Park Zoo. You can do plant biology and work in a green house.”

But what kinds of courses do biology majors have to take, and how rigorous is the workload?

Callahan said that for many biology majors, especially those who are pre-med, a biology major may have quite a number of credits to juggle. “A lot of biology departments will require you to take chemistry and a lot even require organic chemistry,” Callahan said. “Some even require you to take physics. That’s for the major and it’s also for a pre-med roster.” Callahan said that in addition to these broad classes, students also have to take a number of biology electives in many diverse areas.

“Any department will offer fairly standard courses,” she said. “Any department will have genetics, ecology and also cell or molecular biology. Another thing that’s really common is the breadth requirement—you have to be broad. Even if a student loves ecology, she still will have to take molecular biology as well.”

In addition to the major requirements, students interested in pre-med must also complete a year of biology with lab, a year of chemistry with lab, a year of organic chemistry with lab, a year of physics with lab, a year of English and a year of either calculus or statistics, according to Chrisphonte.

Callahan said that some students enroll in biology hoping to avoid math, but they should be aware that math plays an important role in biological studies. As an undergraduate at Yale, one of the reasons that Callahan decided to major in biology was actually because she loves math.

“Sometimes people choose biology thinking it’s less math than chemistry or physics or engineering, but a good math background is very important for success,” she said. “You always need it. People get overwhelmed in classes. To think it’s just plants and animals and microscopes is a big misconception. There’s a lot of data to analyze and there’s theory.”

Callahan also recommends that students who pass their AP or IB high school biology courses should not skip their introductory biology courses when they start college. “Every school is different, but it’s college level so it’s rare to be exempt from intro,” she said. “It’s not usually wise to place out. It will give you what you need to know if you plan to major.” But even if the math and the sciences are not a student’s greatest strength, it does not mean that he or she can’t succeed. “Quite frankly, I didn’t make all A’s,” Chrisphonte said. “I didn’t make C’s, either, but I worked, kept my eye on the goal and I’m not the bomb at science,” she said with a laugh. “It doesn’t come naturally.”

Although unsure about what area of medicine she will pursue her college internship experience at Bellevue Hospital in the summer of 2002 has intensified her interests in both public health and obstetrics.

Chrisphonte said the internship was important because it has only solidified her decision to pursue medicine and it gave her confidence. “You have to be tenacious,” she said. “You have to know this is what you want to do.”#

Sarah Lynch is a senior at Barnard College and an intern at Education Update.

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