September 2011

Undergraduate BMB programs

What makes them distinct? What makes them complete?


A campus tour


An enthusiastic young undergraduate is leading a group of high school students and their parents on a tour of Generic State University.

As they walk across the quadrangle, the undergraduate confidently points out building after building as his audience inquires: Where is the psychology department located? Is that the biology building? Where's English? Where's biology? Where's engineering? Where is the department of molecular biology? 

"I don't think we have one," the undergraduate replies.

"Where do students go if they are interested in studying enzymes, lipid metabolism or gene regulation?"

"I'm not sure. Some major in biology. You can major in biochemistry through the chemistry department, but you still have to take P-Chem…"

A heterogeneous array of program models

For the bulk of the 20th century, colleges and universities were organized on modular principles. Every subject area taught was the responsibility of an autonomous academic department possessing its own faculty, staff, unit leader and space. Large departments often merited their own buildings, with the collateral benefit of enshrining their disciplines in brick and mortar for generations to come.

As new disciplines emerged – aeronautical engineering, psychology, computer science – during the steady expansion of the 1950s, colleges and universities added new departmental modules.

Eventually, however, spiraling fiscal constraints rendered expansion by addition increasingly impractical, driving institutions to seek ways of covering new areas by rearranging or repurposing assets within the existing unit structure. As relative latecomers on the scene, biochemistry and molecular biology programs followed a variety of paradigms.

Many schools, especially the larger research universities, established classic autonomous departments. Other colleges and universities elected to add BMB to the portfolio of existing departments, with biochemistry frequently falling under the purview of the chemistry department and molecular biology under that of the department of biology.

In some cases, the title of the department was expanded to acknowledge the addition; in others, it was not. Another popular option, especially among smaller colleges and universities, was to assign responsibility for the BMB major to a consortium of two or more departments that usually includes both chemistry and biology.

Does heterogeneity matter?

Do these various models affect the quality of BMB education nationwide? Does adding two or three BMB courses to the basic chemistry or biology curriculum offer the same learning opportunities as an integrated BMB curriculum designed from the ground up?

Some of these structures expose students to a diverse community of BMB faculty members. Others, however, make-do with one or two token biochemists or even some part-time instructors.

While many faculty members and instructors working as outliers within biology, chemistry or other departments are remarkable educators, it is difficult to believe that programs trying to get by with limited personnel and resources can maintain consistently high levels of quality as readily as dedicated units that award BMB top priority and access to the physical and human infrastructure generally associated with an autonomous department. This is not to say that departmental structure somehow guarantees quality instruction.

Heterogeneity lies in the definition of the degree itself. While many schools award a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry and molecular biology, others award degrees in biochemistry alone or molecular biology alone. How do they differ? Are the core concepts and expected competencies associated with a B.S. in molecular biology or biochemistry consistent across colleges and universities?

Should we care?

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education and Professional Development Committee is committed to advancing the quality of our discipline. Undergraduate BMB programs allow for the imaginations of aspiring biochemists and molecular biologists to become either further inspired or to grow stale. Students either lay a foundation of analytical reasoning skills, quantitative analysis, chemical functionalities and structural principles that promote success in the workplace and graduate and professional schools or simply get by through rote memorization and other tricks of the trade.

So, yes, ASBMB has a stake in the institutions and members who perform the vital task of preparing our next generation of scientific leaders.

When it comes to the issue of program infrastructure, accreditation programs such as the one being developed by ASBMB have proved successful in setting threshold standards for personnel, curriculum, etc. The American Chemical Society, for example, specifies that an accredited department must have at least four dedicated faculty members. The ACS also goes so far as to suggest a preferred suite of major instruments and require that libraries provide access to at least 14 journals recommended by the ACS Committee on Professional Training.

While we do not propose to be as proscriptive and detail oriented as ACS, there are several areas in which ASBMB would like to make its influence felt. Therefore, for a student to qualify for an ASBMB accredited degree, he or she must graduate from an eligible program. Key elements of an eligible program should include:

  • • 400 or more hours of hands-on, experiential learning across science, technology, engineering and math disciplines,
  • • access to extracurricular research opportunities such as undergraduate research or internships,
  • • professional-development opportunities for faculty members,
  • • opportunities for students to develop written and oral communications skills, and
  • • three qualified faculty members.

This last element is perhaps the most problematic to deal with. For many small schools, it may be difficult to identify three full-time faculty members, or the equivalent, whose primary allegiance is to the BMB program. Many small programs are getting by with only one or two faculty members. Should they be penalized just because they are small – a metric that does not correspond with quality? On the other hand, setting standards for the sole purpose of not leaving someone out is hardly an approach that can be expected to earn credibility and respect or to promote aspirational change.

The EPD is interested in hearing your ideas about what criteria should be used to identify programs that meet the expectations of the ASBMB community and why. Simply send an email to

Peter-KennellyPeter J. Kennelly ( is professor and head of the department of biochemistry at Virginia Tech and serves as the current chair of the Education and Professional Development Committee of the ASBMB. 

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