September 2011

Undergraduate BMB programs

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 pjkennel@vt.edu.

Peter-KennellyPeter J. Kennelly (pjkennel@vt.edu) 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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