School of Biology celebrates 50 years

In 2010, the School of Biology celebrated 50 years of being an academic and research department at Tech. Founded in the 1959-60 school year, the school has grown from its five founding faculty members to a research faculty of 30 and a combined undergraduate and graduate student body of over 550.

“I came to campus on a visit in the spring of 1986, after I had accepted the job offer to start as an Assistant Professor in Biology that fall. I got lost on campus and stopped a couple of students to ask how to get to the Biology building. The two students looked at each other, then shrugged and one of them said, ‘I didn’t know Tech had Biology,’” said Jung Choi, an associate professor in the School of Biology, of his first visit to his department more than 20 years after its creation.

The school now participates in nine collaborative research centers, including the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Genomics; the Center for Ribosomal Evolution and Adaptation and the Ovarian Cancer Institute.

The school conducts research with other schools ranging from engineering to chemistry and physics. The School of Biology works with engineering disciplines, such as ChBE, EE, ME, BME and CE, according to Terry Snell, Interim Chair of the School of Biology.

Within the School of Biology alone, the faculty participates in multiple research projects, including studies in drug discovery, astrobiology, biodiversity, computational biology, biosystem regulation, cancer research and genome decoding.

While professors, research faculty members and graduate students are invested in these projects, they receive assistance from undergraduate Biology majors as well.

One of the main features of the school’s curriculum is the requirement of research experience, either by the production of an honors thesis through work in a research lab or by the completion of a project laboratory course that is a guided research experience.

“All of our graduates have conceived of a biology problem, designed an experiment to test a hypothesis…that all culminates with a presentation, both oral and poster,” Snell said.

Snell also said that at least 60 percent of the biology majors become involved in a research laboratory at one point in their undergraduate career.

The research activity within the school generated $12.3 million during the fiscal year of 2010, compared to the $1.8 million a decade before in 2000. Most of this money is extramural, coming from grants and contracts, according to Snell.

Alumni donations are small for now because the existence of the School of Biology is such that its first graduates are just now retiring.

The style of thinking required for standard laboratory courses has changed over recent years to match this theme of research.

“Our laboratory courses now require our students to think like scientists and design their own experiments rather than follow prescribed ‘cook book’ directions. Our students also practice critically evaluating biological literature,” said Jennifer Leavey, a senior academic professional in the School of Biology.

The biology major allows for students to participate in a wide range of organizations beyond research.

“As the number of Biology faculty increases, there will be even more opportunities for students to engage in scholarship through undergraduate research and to innovate through programs like the iGEM competition,” Snell said.

Tech’s School of Biology presently No. 56 in the nation, rising from a No. 72 ranking in 2005, according to Snell.

“The outlook for the school is to continue to develop biology, leveraging assets of Tech, to produce a highly and nationally ranked program,” Snell said.

Snell indicated that computation, engineering and research would continue to be the emphasis of the program.

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