Biology major may split

Ten years after two departments decided to offer a single Biology major, professors in those departments agree the major should be split in two.

The University’s Committee on Majors is currently reviewing a proposal — submitted by the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Departments — to create separate biology majors. Currently, biology majors choose either an MCDB or EEB track, but three professors interviewed said a split would give the departments flexibility to make their own decisions about requirements, such as a reduction in the number of required courses for each major.

“I think there’s a sense of both faculties that they can deliver a better program if they pursue independent majors than if they pursue as a joint major,” said Leo Buss, former director of undergraduate studies for the EEB Department.

Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph Gordon said that if the Committee on Majors approves the proposal, which he said would create a “more usual arrangement” than the current system, faculty members would vote on the proposal at an upcoming Yale College faculty meeting. Should the changes pass the faculty vote, the two separate majors would be offered next fall, Ronald Breaker, chair of the MCDB Department, said.

Breaker added that faculty members in the two departments have been discussing the potential division for nearly a year.

The two departments merged their majors about 10 years ago because they wanted to expose students to both fields of biology, Breaker said. That proposal, which was approved, cites a concern that the two majors were overspecialized and did not convey to students the “underlying cohesiveness” of evolutionary and molecular biology. The two separate majors would still have a foundation in both branches of biology through introductory courses, but Breaker said the separation would allow the departments to better tailor requirements for their respective fields.

Though the two tracks within the current major share the same senior requirements and prerequisites, Buss said the tracks already differ significantly because they have different core and elective classes.

“Operationally, they have behaved as two distinct units from the outset,” Buss said.

Having two separate majors, Buss said, would remove “constraints on innovation” by streamlining the process of altering required courses. For example, two EEB professors said that their department would like to add more courses that involve fieldwork, but those types of changes have to be negotiated by both departments. Buss said having so many faculty members involved slows the process, explaining that “the bigger the ship, the harder it is to steer.”

Departments would also have more flexibility to adjust their requirements to better prepare students for changing medical school requirements, Buss added.

Professors in both departments said they have considered modifying the introductory biology sequence to lessen the number of required courses. But, they added, the split would enable the two departments to make adjustments individually. For example, material covered in a genetics course that students in both the MCDB and EEB tracks must take under the current system could be turned into a more advanced elective, while its basic principles could be added into an introductory course, Breaker said.

Five students interviewed who are majoring in biology said they already view the MCDB and EEB tracks as essentially separate majors and do not think an official splitting of the major would cause significant changes.

“When I talk about my major, I identify as MCDB, not biology,” Helen Jack ’12 said.

Catherine Sheard ’12 said she would appreciate if the major were split so that she could feel comfortable listing “Ecology and Evolutionary Biology” as her major on her resume.

All five students said the prerequisites of the current biology major focus primarily on molecular biology, but all three EEB majors interviewed said they feel they receive personalized attention within the biology major since their track has fewer students.

Yale’s Department of Biology split into the two separate departments 15 years ago, Breaker said.

Comments

  • River_Tam

    > Five students interviewed who are majoring in biology said they already view the MCDB and EEB tracks as essentially separate majors and do not think an official splitting of the major would cause significant changes.

    Yeah, I didn’t even realize until this article that these two things were technically the same major. If I recall correctly, there are “tracks” within each of these separate branches.

    Tracks within branches within majors?

  • theAvenger

    Another insightful and necessary comment by River Tam.