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New degree program blends biochemistry and biology to solve modern problems



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Students do a molecular analysis of a protein. A new molecular life sciences program will begin in the fall of 2018.  Photo courtesy of Anna Powell Teeter Buy Photos

A new undergraduate degree program in molecular life sciences will begin fall 2018, connecting the fields of biology, chemistry, medicine and biotechnology.

The program, a collaboration between the Department of Biology and the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry, builds a foundation in biology and biochemistry, but seeks to apply those skills to modern problems, James Drummond, director of molecular life sciences, said.

"It's meant to connect the molecular advances of the last several decades and modern health and connections to our world," Drummond said. 

Undergraduates can either choose a concentration in molecular and structural biology or developmental and cellular biology. 

According to the department’s website, the molecular and structural biology concentration will teach students how advanced technologies such as genome sequencing and bioinformatics have affected modern life-sciences research. 

The developmental and cellular biology concentration is for students interested in cell biology, developmental biology, genetics and molecular biology.

Justin Kumar, a professor who helped design the developmental and cellular biology concentration, said the new program is streamlined. Rather than broadly covering biology or biochemistry, the program focuses on cutting-edge technologies and exciting sciences that are related to development in human disease. 

Drummond said the program is unlike anything offered at Big Ten Conference schools or in the Midwest because of its interdisciplinary approach. Drummond said he believes IU is not competitive with other campuses because IU only offers a classical degree in biology and a degree in biochemistry.

“If we had a contemporary molecular degree option, we could pull in students who might otherwise go to other Big Ten schools.”

The program includes five new 400-level courses, including M-420 Genome Duplication and Maintenance, M-430 Advanced Gene Regulation and M-450 Molecular Mechanisms of Cancer. The courses are open to all eligible students, not just students in the program. 

In part, the new program is also beneficial for faculty, Drummond said. After an external review of the biotechnology undergraduate degree program, the reviewers said the faculty were not teaching to their areas of expertise. 

After the review, Drummond began work on the program, which allows faculty to put what they’re doing as researchers into a degree program for undergraduate students. 

"In the classes, we can start to talk about our research,” Kumar said. “We can bring in research from our colleagues from other universities, and really give the students a birds-eye view of what we do on a daily basis, and maybe excite them about their futures in medicine and academic science."

With a biochemistry degree, Drummond said, students are learning many of the same things he learned 40 years ago. He said this program isn’t meant to just cherry-pick exciting technologies, but to help students learn to solve problems in these fields. 

“It’s going to be a challenging degree,” Drummond said. “I hope that by having a degree like this, it will attract students who want a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding life sciences.”

A photo caption has been clarified to reflect the photo was provided by Anna Powell Teeter. 

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