At Harvard, biology is an endangered species. Next fall's wide-eyed freshmen will have to head down the street to Massachusetts Institute of Technology if they want to concentrate (Harvard-speak for major) in the subject, because it will no longer be offered in Harvard Square.
This change was puzzling to my editor, who concentrated in biology at Harvard, and to me, a 2005 graduate with a degree in biochemistry. So I consulted Robert Lue, my former advisor and cochair of the Life Sciences Education Committee. "One of the problems with biology was it was too broad, too amorphous," says Lue, a senior lecturer on molecular and cellular biology. "I mean, what is biology?"
Harvard professor Douglas Melton, perhaps best known for his advocacy of embryonic stem cell research, assembled the committee two summers ago in an attempt to answer that question. Over the course of almost weekly meetings lasting two to four hours, its members set to work rethinking how undergraduates should learn the life sciences. In April, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted unanimously for this latest idea on how to do it best: a "life sciences cluster" that includes concentrations in chemical and physical biology, organismal and evolutionary biology, human evolutionary biology, molecular and cellular biology, and neurobiology. These team up with plain old chemistry and biologically oriented tracks within anthropology and psychology.
In addition to unleashing an army of new acronyms, the change would seem to balkanize students interested in different areas. After all, shouldn't even the most reductionist molecular biologist have a solid grounding in ecology and evolution? But Lue says the concentration(s) formerly known as biology should be "far more reflective of what is true of 21st century science: the notion that integration and interface between different fields has become increasingly important." That requires, for example, bringing evolution to bear in a course on neurobiology. Biology at Harvard isn't dying; it's being redefined.
The move goes hand in hand with sweeping course changes that began in the freshman curriculum last year with the birth of "Life Sciences 1A/1B." The buzzword here is interdisciplinary as well: The courses are team taught by faculty from multiple departments and use broad themes such as the biology of HIV and AIDS, and cancer and drug development, in 1A, to teach concepts such as protein folding and nucleophilic attack. The hope is that a first-year course that treats the life sciences as a whole, framing material within questions you'd see on the cover of Time, may lure even the non-high school lab rat.
The committee will next apply its wand to second through fourth years, intermixing disciplines in courses and instituting original research requirements. The former is an ambitious goal, especially because it will require more professors to teach more courses and will challenge them to make connections outside their disciplines. A hard sell for such a research-focused university, perhaps, but Lue says many professors are eager to jump on board.