Biology Major

We offer students a vibrant, highly research-based program with a strong focus on molecular and cellular biology. Through our rigorous sequence of course and lab work, our students develop a solid grounding in biological principles and master experimental methods. For many majors, our distinctive emphasis on hands-on training translates into a deep and abiding interest in biomedical research.

State-of-the-art facilities and unparalleled direct access to high-tech instruments are additional hallmarks of our program. We also offer concentrations and minors for majors interested in exploring more specialized areas, including biochemistry and biophysics, scientific computing, neuroscience, environmental studies, and health studies.

Curriculum & Courses

Our faculty are accessible and engaged teachers and researchers. They teach courses at every level while advancing cutting-edge research in partnership with students in their labs.

Biology majors pursue a program of interconnected classroom and lab work. In preparation for the biology curriculum, students must complete a natural science course (with lab) in the freshman year. Sophomores enroll in a year-long combined lab and lecture course, Biology 200, which introduces cell biology, genetics, biochemistry, cellular metabolism, and cellular regulation. As juniors, they complete multiple half- semester courses covering key topics in greater depth and take the department’s signature “Superlab” class. In this intensive year-long lab, they investigate significant research questions in half-semester modules. For majors, this is vital firsthand experience using leading-edge research techniques in the context of current biological questions and theories. The curriculum is also flexible enough to allow majors to study abroad in their junior year. In their senior year, majors expand their critical and creative abilities through advanced-level seminar courses in which they explore contemporary developments in a particular area of biology. They also develop and write a research-based thesis.

  • Major Requirements

    • Both semesters of BIOL H200 and BIOL H201. Successful completion of a one-credit natural science course (which includes a laboratory experience) at Haverford, Bryn Mawr or Swarthmore College is a prerequisite for enrolling in BIOL H200.
    • A minimum of a one-credit chemistry course (with associated lab).
    • At least one semester of advanced coursework (200 level or higher) in a natural sciences course outside the biology department. Courses crosslisted in biology may not be counted toward this requirement.
    • Two semesters of the junior laboratory, BIOL H300 and BIOL H301.
    • Four half-semester 300-level advanced topics courses (selected from BIOL H311-H329). Occasionally, an upper-level course from Bryn Mawr or Swarthmore may substitute for one or two of the half-semester lecture courses, but only with the specific permission of the student’s major advisor. Students are encouraged to take additional topics classes beyond the minimum of four to enhance their biology experience.
    • One half-semester 450-level seminar course in the Haverford Biology Department (chosen from BIOL H450-H463-; no substitutions permitted). Students may take additional seminar courses to enrich their knowledge of the discipline.
    • A minimum of two 400-level Senior Research Tutorial credits, generally taken over both semesters of the senior year, including active participation in weekly lab meetings and submission of a notebook and a thesis describing the progress and results of the project. The tutorial may be taken for single or double credit each semester.
    • Senior Department Studies, BIOL H499.

    In addition to the required courses, the Biology Department strongly recommends a year of physics, a course in probability and statistics, and advanced coursework in another natural science department.

    Department policy is to limit study abroad biology major credit to a maximum of two 31X/32X courses and one Superlab quarter (with rare exceptions of a full semester Superlab credit).

    Senior Project

    The senior thesis is a major component of a year-long research experience that is the capstone of the Biology major at Haverford. The process begins in the junior year, when students and faculty work together to distribute students evenly across all the available Senior Research Tutorials for the following year (each faculty member normally supervises four to six students in all).

    During the senior year students enroll in a Senior Research Tutorial (numbered BIOL H401-H411, depending on the faculty mentor) which is taken for a minimum of one credit in each semester of the senior year. The Senior Research Tutorial involves 10 hours of laboratory work per week per credit, and is completed under the guidance of a faculty mentor.  Students may elect to increase their commitment to their research project by enrolling in 1.5 or 2 credits of Senior Research per semester, for up to four credits in the senior year. In addition, all seniors must take Senior Departmental Studies (BIOL H499), which is a pass/fail, half-credit course taken for a full year in parallel with their Senior Research. This senior seminar course provides an opportunity for all majors to be trained in lab safety, hear invited seminar speakers, and to present thesis proposals as well as the results of senior research work.

    Thesis Content

    Fall Semester

    In the fall, all senior majors complete at least one credit of Senior Research Tutorial during which they begin an original research project that will be continued throughout the year. In the Senior Research Tutorial, students participate in weekly laboratory meetings, keep a laboratory notebook as a record of their work, and interpret and analyze their data. In the fall semester students write a formal project proposal and also present their proposal as a short talk to the department during Senior Departmental Studies.

    Spring Semester

    In the spring, all majors complete a second semester of Senior Research Tutorial and participate in Senior Departmental Studies. Students continue the research projects started in the fall under the guidance of their faculty mentor. Senior majors write a final thesis and present a scientific poster describing the results of their research project. They submit their lab notebook as a permanent record of the work they have completed in the lab.

    Thesis Preparation (prior to senior year)

    Preparation for thesis research begins with the introductory course for biology majors, BIOL H200/BIOL H201, and builds in each course thereafter, so that all of the departmental learning goals are consistently reinforced. For example, all students in laboratory courses (such as BIOL H200/H201 and BIOL H300/H301 ) work with a lab partner or in small groups so that they learn to work collaboratively. At the same time, students are also called upon to present their work individually and to maintain their own research lab notebooks, so that they learn to work independently and are responsible for all parts of the project. The students participate in directed journal clubs in BIOL H200/H201 and majors in upper-level courses read and critique research papers from the original scientific literature, presenting their analyses to the class.

    The BIOL H31x/H32X courses, typically taken during the junior year, are based on current research in biology, with an emphasis on integrating this information into a broader understanding of biological topics. The primary focus in these courses is not simply the information itself but rather on how it was determined experimentally. This emphasis provides the students with the skills needed to understand how research is done.

    BIOL H300/BIOL H301, the junior-level laboratory course, is intentionally modeled on the work that students are expected to conduct for their senior research thesis, and can be described as a class-based research experience. The emphasis in this year­long course, which is required for all Biology majors, includes the acquisition of new research techniques but places greater emphasis on hypothesis—testing, data analysis, experimental troubleshooting, record keeping, and oral and written presentations. The projects in BIOL H300/H301 are designed to be intellectually open-­ended; students share results and insights, and work to understand the current literature and to connect their findings to what is already known.

    Senior Project Learning Goals

    The learning goals for the senior thesis include:

    • increasing intellectual independence and initiative.
    • developing creativity and rigor in experimental design, execution, and interpretation.
    • ensuring reproducibility of experimental results, accurate record keeping, and productivity.
    • understanding and participating in collaborative and ethical conduct of research
    • learning to present research orally, visually, and in writing.

    These are criteria by which the department can assess the students’ maturation as scholars.

    Senior Project Assessment

    The department has developed criteria for evaluating the research proposal and thesis, as well as a grading rubric that is distributed to students at the start of their senior year (available on the departmental website).  Each faculty member plays a role in the assessment of senior work, which consists of:

    • faculty supervision of weekly laboratory work that includes maintenance of laboratory notebook and participation in lab meetings.
    • formal project proposal, including written proposal, and oral presentation to the department in the fall.
    • poster presentation summarizing research results in the spring semester.
    • evaluation of written thesis based on set criteria and grading rubric provided to students at start of senior year.

    See the Biology Department website for detailed grading guidelines and standards used in evaluating the senior project (PDF download).

    Requirements for Honors

    Due to concerns about equity and fairness regarding the use of GPAs to make distinctions between students, the department does not award GPA-based honors in biology. We do, however, award graduation prizes in biology to recognize growth and accomplishment within the major.

Associated Programs and Concentrations

Research & Outreach

In this research-intensive major, students routinely frame their own experimental questions and use current techniques to search for answers, a process that culminates in their senior research project.

A senior thesis is required of all majors and is based on original research conducted in the laboratory of one of our faculty members. A few students each year elect to pursue their senior research in an off-campus laboratory, in which case they are assigned an on-campus mentor. The year-long research and writing process, which includes participation in our 400-level senior research tutorial and one-on-one meetings with a faculty advisor, affords seniors invaluable mentoring as well as significant independence.

Our seniors routinely produce theses of exceptionally high quality, resulting in presentations at local and international meetings and publications in peer-reviewed journals.

After Graduation

Our majors graduate prepared to build on the exceptional foundation they have laid at Haverford. Roughly 35% attend medical school, while close to 25% go on to graduate school. Others draw on the problem solving, critical thinking, data evaluation, and communication skills cultivated in our program to pursue careers in fields such as teaching, law, public health, and science writing.

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