September 2011

Undergraduate BMB programs

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?

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