FAQs: Navigating Biology

Beginning in Biology: Course Selections

Nine different concentration programs are offered in the Biological Sciences

Concentration Program Planning

Research Opportunities for Undergraduates

Study Away and Abroad

Doubling up

Pre-Meds and Other Health Careers

Additional Information

Beginning in Biology: Course Selections*

Q1: I am a freshman. Where should I begin right away if I want to pursue the biological sciences?

For course titles mentioned here, refer to the Biology Course Offerings
Depending on AP or Placement, first and second semester options suitable for Firstyears are listed below. Courses with * do NOT require or expect AP or equivalent but for the others, AP is required or strongly recommended. For very strong students with AP, the following courses are additional options but are mainly taken by sophomores and beyond: BIOL 0470 (Genetics); 0530 (Immunology); 0410 (Invertebrate Zoology); 0430 (Evolution of Plant Diversity); 0480 (Evolutionary Biology).

Here are suggestions for First-Year students.
BIOL 0190 Foundation Courses:

Some are First-Year Seminars (FYS); many welcome students with or without AP or IP placements.

BIOL 0190E:
Botanical Roots of Modern Medicine (FYS)
BIOL 0190F:
Darwinian Medicine (FYS)
BIOL 0190H:
Plants, Food and People
BIOL 0190P:
Development of Scientific Therories: Context and Individuals (FYS)
BIOL 0190Q: Climate Change and Species Extinction
BIOL 0190U: Plant Development, Structure and Function

BIOL 0190R and BIOL 0190S:

These are half-credit, research-based courses for beginning students.
Phage Hunters, Part I and II (FYS)
FALL Options

NEUR 0010 The Brain: An Introduction to Neuroscience
BIOL 0170 Biotechnology in Medicine
BIOL 0180 The Biology of AIDS
BIOL 0380 The Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease
BIOL 0390 Vertebrate Evolution and Diversity
BIOL 0400 Biological Design: Structural Architecture of Organisms

-for extra enrichment

These are half-credit, research-based courses geared for beginning students and designed to be taken in addition to a four (4) course load.

BIOL 0150A:
Techniques and Analyses Using DNA-based Biotechnology
BIOL 0150C:
Methods for Extraction and Analyzing Secondary Metabolites of Medicinal Plants
BIOL 0150D:
Techniques in Regenerative Medicine: Cells, Scaffolds and Staining
SPRING Options

BIOL 0200 The Foundations of Living Systems
BIOL 0320 Vertebrate Embryology
BIOL 0420 Principles of Ecology
BIOL 0475 Conservation Medicine
BIOL 0500 Cell and Molecular Biology
BIOL 0510 Introductory Microbiology

(All Biology programs require some Chemistry, beginning with CHEM 0330. Please refer to the Chemistry Department for placement test information, and information about taking CHEM 0100 on the web. CHEM 0100 does NOT carry concentration credit towards any Biology programs.)

Q2: How do AP credits count in biology programs?

*BIOLOGY – score of 4 or 5 replaces BIOL 0200; and counts as a concentration credit.
*CHEMISTRY AP – placement into CHEM 0330; else take Placement exam. Note: CHEM 0010 does NOT carry concentration credit in Biology programs.
*PHYSICS AP – replaces PHYS 0030, and permits placement directly into PHYSICS 0040.
*MATH AP – score on AP test determines placement in math. Placement beyond Math 0170 means that biology program prerequisites are already satisfied.
NOTE: IB and A-levels offer similar placement, beyond BIOL 0200; for other sciences, check with those departments.

Q3: Even if I have advanced placement credit for biology, should I take BIOL 0200 anyway?

In most cases, NO. Students should not repeat a course where there is already placement credit-- this counts toward the concentration program. The AP provides an actual concentration credit equivalent to BIOL 0200, and students may therefore branch out right away. See biology course suggestions above!

Q4: How is the biology curriculum structured (beyond the introductory level)?

The Intermediate-level courses are numbered >0200 but <1000, and offer a substantial and rigorous view of the various subdisciplines in the biological sciences. These are the springboard for Advanced-level offerings, which are numbered 1000-2000. Graduate level courses, >2000, may also be taken by advanced undergraduates. Biology courses numbered below 0010 are for a general, non-concentrator audience.

Q5: How about Physics? Is it required?

Physics is required for some, but not all biology concentrations. (It is required for most health careers as a requirement.) Courses:  PHYS 0030, 0040 (or 0050, 0600 or ENGN 0300, 0400.). For some students, PHYS 0040 may be taken before PHYS 0030, but this is not recommended unless students have prior high school physics experience. Many Biology students complete the chemistry sequence before embarking on the Physics.

Q6: Should I take more than one science course each semester?

It depends on the situation and student, so it is best to use judgment and assess workload in individual courses and proceed with some caution at first. In biology programs, doubling up (and occasional tripling up) of science courses is expected. At each stage of academic planning, student will be counseled about what combinations of courses are strategic, manageable, or necessary.  Advice is tailored to the individual student and circumstances, so ASK an expert advisor.

Q7: What are the pre-med (or pre-dent, or pre-vet) requirements?

“Pre-Med” is NOT a concentration, but it is a set of course requirements, dictated by and agreed upon by most medical schools.  As an undergraduate, you can concentrate in ANYTHING, and ALSO fulfill pre-health careers coursework.  If you happen to choose one of the biological sciences programs, you will find that some of these courses form part of your concentration program.  For details, please refer to the Health Careers Office, or the site: http://www.brown.edu/Administration/Dean_of_the_College/hco/

*In general, these are the pre-health careers requirements: CHEM 0330, 0350, 0360; BIOL 0280 (Biochemistry is recommended); PHYS 0030, 0040; at least one semester of calculus (MATH 0090; sometimes 0100 as well); at least two biology courses, (with laboratory); two English courses. Some vet schools add biochemistry and/or microbiology to this list. Dental requirements are similar to premed.

Q8: As a science student, must all my courses be taken for grades, or is S/NC option possible?

While either option is available for most* courses, the reality is that for pre-professional students, most science courses would be expected to bear letter grades.

*A few courses are mandatory S/NC and Course Performance Reports can always be requested.

Q9: Must courses in the concentration necessarily be taken for a grade?

No! But use judgment, due to future plans for graduate professional school.

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Concentration Program Planning

Concentration Page

Q10: Which is better, an AB or ScB? What's the difference, anyhow?

You will hear many opinions on this but here is the truth: Neither is inherently better! The program you pursue should above all reflect your interests, abilities, time constraints, other interests, and career goals.

AB programs, offered in Biology and Human Biology,  permit more time for pursuit of a liberal education outside the sciences. Also, AB programs may be enhanced (for example, by adding courses beyond the minimum number required; by adding additional pre-med or other preprofessional required courses; and by including or adding a thoughtful research project “capstone”.)  In the case of our Human Biology program, the AB reflects an interdisciplinary program that is largely driven by the social sciences and humanities theme courses related to the program’s biology core.

The ScB programs include a rigorous assemblage of biology coursework supported by the physical sciences. This degree is intended to signify that the student has become a specialist in the sciences, based not only on breadth, but depth and focus. The ScB Biology programs already include most of the required courses for students aiming at medical, dental, veterinary or graduate schools in the biological sciences. However, graduate and professional schools are more concerned with these factors: challenging thoughtful courses; well-rounded skills; focus; sophisticated research experience; interesting extracurriculars. These factors are much more important than AB vs ScB degrees, and may be achieved with either.

Q11: When and how do I file a concentration, get an advisor, etc.?

By the time you reach your fourth semester, you will have a pretty good idea which program is the best choice. The first formal step in filing your concentration is to schedule an appointment with Dean Thompson. This meeting will involve a detailed analysis of your goals and constraints, and will yield a decision as to which program appears to be the best choice for you. One of the results of this meeting will be a mapping out of your general (sometimes specific) requirements needed for the completion of your selected program, over the remaining semesters. Finally, students will be assigned to a concentration advisor via the online "ASK" system, and proceed with meeting their assigned advisor. All students should be aware that the initial plan of the concentration is just that: a first draft. Even after filing the program and its approval, there will be considerable changing of courses, or even switching of programs. This is normal, and relatively uncomplicated. The academic process continues evolving, and the final form of your program may not be settled until your eighth semester.

1. For sophomores contemplating biology programs, Dean Thompson is available for advising at every stage of planning.

- For appointments and office hours call phone 863-3133; the office is located at Arnold Lab, Suite 122.
- Email is invited at: Marjorie_Thompson@brown.edu and will ensure a rapid response by Dean T for brief questions.

2. Sophomores:

A. For developing concentration plans:
Schedule an appointment with Dean Thompson (see above). We will map out possible paths, consider what will be the "best fit" program for your interests, goals, achievements and constraints, including possible study abroad. These appointments are comprehensive and involve all aspects of concentration planning until fourth semester.

B. In your fourth semester, we will have a meeting that will address more detail about specific courses planned for the remaining four semesters. You will then be assigned a faculty concentration advisor (either Dean or another of the faculty assigned to our programs/class year), and proceed to actually filling out and submitting the concentration forms.

3. Contact your assigned concentration advisor (see B, above) for a meeting, and formalize your concentration plans with the paperwork and signatures following a discussion. Along with Dean Thompson, your advisor will be working with you from now on, through until your graduation.

*Concentration forms must be completed by the beginning of the preregistration period of your fourth semester (check dates for specifics, for each academic year is slight different.).

Course work for concentrations in the biological sciences is offered jointly by departments including: Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Molecular and Cell Biology and Biochemistry; Microbiology and Molecular Immunology; Molecular Pharmacology, Physiology and Biotechnology; Neuroscience; and Pathology. Opportunities to focus within any of these areas are available from within the curriculum as well as individual research projects.

*There are TEN different standard programs, each with unique characteristics, and all solid, rigorous programs. Link here for descriptions: http://biology.brown.edu/bug/concentrations.

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Research Opportunities for Undergraduates

Q12: Are there research opportunities for undergraduates?

Yes! The opportunities are numerous, diverse and accessible to undergraduates.  

As of 2011-12, we introduce a new series of research minicourses for freshmen and sophomores interested in an early, experience-appropriate activity. These are described under the sections for BIOL 0150, are limited enrollment and carry half credit  per semester. These are designed to be taken in addition to a regular four course load. Also, two of the sections of BIOL 0190 (R and S) offer a full year research experience aimed at first year students. 

For more advanced students, when more experience and focus is attained, we offer a multitude of opportunites for individual  projecs for credit. Students find suitable projects using our vast searchable database, and form collaborations with BioMed faculty  who are performing cutting edge investigations. Over 170 students per semester enroll in these projects via BIOL 1950/1960 (one-full credit PER semester; generally at least two semesters are expected, and of upper level students in particular). BioMed sponsors are drawn from basic sciences (see the department listings here: http://biology.brown.edu/bug/departments, to clinical (hospital based). Many students add a research summer as well. These projects serve ScB students as required Capstones, and are also the vehicles for completing Honors theses (information here http://biology.brown.edu/bug/honors).

Q13: Where can I find information about this?

The RESEARCH PROJECTS COLLECTION is a compendium of the research activities of all BioMed faculty who sponsor student projects. The information can be browsed from the website, and can be used to identify volunteer (non-credit) research opportunities summer projects, BIOL 1950/1960 projects, and Honors projects. View the Collection here: http://biology.brown.edu/bug/ugres

Q14: What is the difference between Independent Study and Honors?

Mostly, scope and depth. Directed research culminates in a thesis and is the ONLY route to Honors in biology. Honors is based on a substantial research project that usually lasts for two semesters or more. Learn about Honors at: http://biology.brown.edu/bug/ugres

Q15: How can I find out about summer internships?

Our office maintains an extensive library called BIOLOGY INTERNSHIPS. It is an indexed collection of hundreds of opportunities, national and international. View it here at this page.

Students are invited to make use of the RESEARCH PROJECTS COLLECTION, explained in “Research Opportunities for Undergraduates” above. During spring semester, a compilation of summer jobs at Brown is assembled as well, and is available for Brown student access. There is also a listing of positions for graduating students.

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Studying Away and Abroad

Q16: Is it possible to concentrate in biology, and also study abroad?

Yes! This is both possible and common. Students may even incorporate portions of their concentration programs from courses taken abroad or away from Brown. However, planning is recommended, due to numerous considerations and time factors involved in planning for study away. NOTE: Courses transferred back to Brown will appear on the official transcript, but grades are all converted to "S."

Q17: Can credits be transferred from other schools or programs?

Yes. With approval, appropriate courses may transfer with Brown tuition credit (stipulations are set by the University) and/or for concentration credit. This may include certain summer courses and study abroad programs, but usually not programs completed prior to matriculation in college. Courses that may be transferred include those taken in study abroad or study away programs, and summer courses. Note: summer research programs are a special category that are subject to a specific policy. Details of this policy may be requested at the Biology Undergraduate Affairs Office.

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Doubling Up

Q18: If I complete two concentrations within four years, does that mean I get two diplomas?

No. There is a big difference between concentration and degree. For four undergraduate years including at least one completed concentration program, and a minimum of 30 tuition credits, a single baccalaureate* degree is awarded (i.e. four undergraduate years yield one college degree).

* The baccalaureate degree will therefore be In Artibus (AB) or In Scientia (ScB).

However, some students complete more than one concentration program within a four-year period (“double concentrators”). In these cases, all concentrations completed will be indicated clearly on official transcript. But, regardless of how many concentration programs are completed, there is still one baccalaureate degree earned, not two. However, the official external transcript will denote all concentrations completed.

Q19: What if I complete an AB and an ScB program, ALL within four years? Then what will my diploma say?

Your transcript will list both programs officially. But for your diploma, you will choose whether it will say Baccalaureato In Scientia or Baccalaureato In Artibus.

If a student completes the two programs by taking an extra year (a fifth year, hence minimum of 38 credits), then two degrees, AB and ScB may be conferred. (An extra year includes full charges for tuition and expenses.)

Q20: So, why would anyone spend the fifth year, if essentially the same thing is possible in four years?

Because in some cases there just isn’t enough time for a student to do all that is desired or required for both programs within four years. So having that fifth year makes this possible, but at a more relaxed pace, and with more time for depth of study in each program. The rationale for doing this should be discussed with an advisor and a member of the office of the Dean of the College. In a given academic year fewer than one percent of total graduates do this. On the other hand, double concentrators are fairly common throughout the University, and represent about 15-20% of biology concentrators.

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Pre-Meds and Other Health Careers

Q21: Who handles pre-med and other health careers?

The Office of Health Careers operates under the auspices of the Dean of the College office. A member of the staff is available for consultation in navigating the planning for coursework, the MCATs (or VATs or DATs), appropriate timing of the application and suitable schools, organizing letters of recommendation, and assembling the application package.

oversees the planning and application process.


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