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Department of Biology

Undergraduate Handbook

Biology Undergraduate Handbook

Welcome to the Penn State Department of Biology

Biology is the study of living organisms - what they are, where they live, how they evolve, and how they reproduce, grow and develop. With an enrollment of about 1,000 students, the biology major is the largest major in the Eberly College of Science.

The biology program is designed to give you both the breadth and depth of knowledge you'll need to understand current biology at all levels of integration. As a freshman and sophomore, you will complete the same rigorous requirements as other science students, including calculus, inorganic and organic chemistry, and four core biology courses. In your junior and senior years, you will focus on an area of biology that reflects your academic interests and goals.

This handbook is designed to provide you with information about the bachelor's degree in biology. Additionally, you will find information on the opportunities available for students in the college.

We hope you use this information to develop your personal goals at Penn State. You will also find information here about the Department of Biology Undergraduate Advising Office and how they can make your time at Penn State a success.

Biology Program Goals

The Penn State Biology program aims to provide students with an overview of the general principles of biology, including molecular, cellular, genetic, organismal, community and evolutionary perspectives. With this broad goal in mind, biology graduates will: understand the dynamic nature of biology; see how the scientific principles of nature further the understanding of life; and appreciate how these principles provide an essential pillar of knowledge for society.

After completion of the core courses, students focus their last two years of study in one of six biology options. Students investigate current scientific knowledge in this area by constructing a flexible academic platform supporting future career paths. Graduates of the Penn State Biology program will: Have acquired diversified knowledge appropriate to their individual goals; understand formal experimental design through laboratory experiences and authentic research opportunities; have the ability to analyze, interpret and summarize data in order to solve problems relevant to the discipline; be effective in communicating biological concepts and ideas using both oral and written formats with the highest academic integrity; and have a foundation to pursue career paths in professional schools, graduate schools, or entry into the workforce.

Biology Academic Advising

The faculty of the Department of Biology Undergraduate Advising Office welcome you to Penn State! We are here to help you reach your academic goals.

Upon completion of New Student Orientation (NSO), or entry into the biology major, you will be assigned an academic adviser through LionPATH. As an advisee, you should: acquire the information needed to assume final responsibility for course scheduling and successful completion of all graduation requirements; seek career information needed to meet your goals; become knowledgeable about the relevant policies and rules of the University and academic program; be prepared with accurate information when contacting the adviser; and consult with an adviser at least once a semester to decide on courses and discuss career plans.

Please use Starfish to schedule an appointment with any biology adviser. The Department of Biology Undergraduate Advising Office is located on the second floor of the Ritenour Building.

Scheduling Suggestions

It is essential to complete prerequisites for courses. You should take the required 100- and 200- level courses during your first two years. Postponing, or dropping, these courses without consulting with an adviser may result in future scheduling difficulties. Be sure to plan ahead and meet with an adviser for assistance.

The Biology Core Courses

The biology core courses are designed to introduce students to the fundamental concepts in the major discipline of biology. Each core course includes a lecture and lab.

BIOL 110 - Basic Concepts and Biodiversity: This course introduces the features of life and basic genetic processes. These concepts are used to explain the processes that contribute to the biodiversity of species we observe in the world today.

BIOL 220W - Populations and Communities: This course focuses on the linkages between organisms and the environments in the world's ecosystems. It demonstrates the relationships between ecology, population genetics, and evolution.

BIOL 230W - Molecules and Cells: This course explores the cellular phenomena of molecular genetics and metabolic interactions. The goal of the course is to provide an understanding of the unifying principles of life as they apply to the molecular mechanisms of organism function.

BIOL 240W - Function and Development of Organisms: This course introduces the physiology and developmental processes of animals and plants. Processes discussed include reproduction, gas exchange, excretion, nutrition, responses to the environment, and hormonal control.

Entry into the Major and Options

Students enter the Biology major after their second semester and must meet the following requirements: cumulative GPA of at least a 2.0; completion of BIOL 110, CHEM 110 and MATH 140 (or MATH 140B) with a "C" or better; completion of either BIOL 220W, BIOL 230W, or BIOL 240W with a "C" or better.

Students entering as a pre-major from another Penn State program must have a GPA of 2.0 and a "C" or better in MATH 140 (or MATH 140B). After entry into the major, students declare a Biology option based on personal goals.

To graduate with a Biology degree, students must: Have a "C" or better in BIOL 110, 220W, 230W, and 240W, CHEM 110 and 112, and MATH 140 (or MATH 140B); earn a cumulative GPA of at least 2.0; and complete 124 allowed credits.

Choosing Your Biology Option

Biology options are designed to help you focus your upper- level studies based on your academic goals. Upon official entry into the Biology major, you will be asked to declare from one of the following six options: General Biology, Ecology, Genetics and Development, Neuroscience, Plant Biology, and Vertebrate Physiology.

General Education Requirements

All students completing a B.S. degree at Penn State must complete 45 general education credits distributed between two components: skills (15 credits) and knowledge domains (30 credits).

SKILLS (15 credits total): Writing/Speaking (GWS) 9 credits and Quantification (GQ) 6 credits.

KNOWLEDGE DOMAINS (30 credits): Health and Wellness (GHW) 3 credits, Natural Sciences (GN) 9 credits, Arts (GA) 6 credits, Humanities (GH) 6 credits, Social and Behavioral Sciences (GS) 6 credits.

ADDITIONAL REQUIREMENTS (10 credits): First-Year Seminar (S, T, X, or PSU) 1 credit, United States Culture (US) 3 credits, International Culture (IL) 3 credits, Writing Across the Curriculum (W, M, X, Y) 3 credits, Integrative Studies (N or Z) 6 credits.

Flexibility of General Education Courses

Penn State wants you to use general education courses to explore academic areas and discover new things. You may, with the permission of your adviser or dean representative: substitute a 200- to 400- level course to fulfill a general education requirement; substitute foreign language at the twelfth credit level proficiency (eg. SPAN 3) for three credits in any general education category; or substitute basic trainings as a veteran, reservist, or national guardsman to fulfill your GS requirements.

Move 3 Substitution

You may substitute a third course in one of the knowledge domain areas of Arts, Humanities, or Social and Behavioral Sciences for one of the requirements. For example, you may complete nine credits of GA, six credits of GH, and three credits of GS, using one of the GA classes to partially fulfill your GS requirement.

With these exceptions, you may not eliminate any general education areas. For example, you may not use a foreign language and a third GA/GS course to eliminate your humanities requirement.

Disallowed Courses From the Biology Major

Credits from the following courses will not apply toward graduation for Biology majors: BMB 1; BISC 1, 2, 3, 4; BIOL 11, 12; CAS 126; CHEM 1, 101, 108; ENGL 4, 5; ESL 4; CHEM 106 (only 4 of 5 credits count); MATH 140A (only 4 of 6 credits count); MICRB 106, 107, PHSC 7, PHYS 1; LLED 5, 10; SC 295, 395, 495; MATH classes under 140 (Some of these courses may count with approval from the dean's office); and STAT 100.

Transferring Credits

You may earn credits at another college or university while enrolled at Penn State. At least 36 of your last 60 credits must come from Penn State courses in order to successfully graduate. Use the following guidelines to transfer credits.

Use the Penn State Transfer Credit Tool to determine which courses at other institutes will count at Penn State.

If courses are not listed in the Penn State Transfer Credit Tool, you must have the course evaluated (see below).

Only courses with a "C" (2.0) or better will transfer. A GRADE OF C- WILL NOT TRANSFER.

Transferred courses will only transfer credits; grades WILL NOT appear on your transcript.

Some courses will transfer as specific courses (e.g., ECON 102), while other transfer as general (GEN) credits.

Please see an adviser if you have questions BEFORE taking a course to ensure that credits will count towards graduation.

Evaluating Courses

If you want to take or have already taken a course and it is not listed on the Penn State transfer tool, you must have the course evaluated by the following procedure:

  1. Submit a copy of the course description and syllabus, including laboratory syllabus, to the appropriate department
  2. If the course is a biology course, also include a petition form and submit the material to the Department of Biology Undergraduate Advising Office in the Ritenour Building.

After evaluation, it is your responsibility to follow up with your adviser to ensure that the proper changes were made to your audit.

FRI - Freshman Research Initiative in Life Sciences

FRI is an exciting program in the life sciences that introduces freshman to research tools and methodologies and provides an opportunity to work directly with a faculty member on original research. This first year experience in engaged scholarship can lead to additional research opportunities, the potential to continue involvement in the FRI through peer mentoring and teaching assistant positions, and the ability to earn credits towards a Science Research Distinction (SCIRES) Certificate.

During the first semester in the FRI, students are registered for an embedded laboratory within BIOL 110. In this semester, students will work on two major research projects (1) a group project to look at your personal genome and (2) an independent project of the student's own design. In addition, students will learn how to find, read, and cite peer-reviewed research papers, how to write a research proposal and how to communicate your research findings to others.

In the second semester, students are registered for an embedded laboratory within BIOL 230W and supervised research credits (BIOL 296). During the second semester, students will be involved in faculty research working on group projects, designing independent projects, and continuing to gain skills in writing proposals, research reports, and communicating their results. First-year FRI student comment: "It was a class that opened my eyes to what research could be."

The Biome: Special Living Option for First-Year Biology Students

First-year students interested in biology are invited to live in the BIOME Special Living Option. This space, located in Shulze Hall in Pollock Halls, is dedicated to creating a strong academic community, while fostering some fun aspects of the discipline. Students will benefit academically from study groups (most of your neighbors will be in the same classes), tutor opportunities, and review sessions.

Students can also opt to participate in the "Living Learning Cohort" that allows students to take the same sections of core courses like BIOL 110, CHEM 110 and PSU 16. On the social side, residents will participate in . monthly dinners with faculty, guest speakers, and other community builders. Join the BIOME and get the most out of your biology first year experience! For more information, please contact the BIOME adviser: Malissa Martin at

Study Abroad

Education abroad programs enable students to enrich their on-campus studies through an academic experience in a foreign country. The Eberly College of Science Office of Science Engagement has several "science partner" institutes, where upper-level science course equivalents have been established: University of Leeds or University of Sussex - England, National University of Singapore - Ken Ridge, Singapore, University College of Dublin - Ireland, and Victoria University - Wellington, New Zealand.

Students may also study abroad for the spring semester of their sophomore year through the Biology Track at ISI Florence, Italy, or study abroad for just over winter break, spring break, or during the summer through one of Biology's short-term study abroad courses.

It is best to plan early and meet with our advisers when planning a semester for study abroad. For more information, please contact Joel Waters (, Biology Academic Adviser.

Global Opportunities

BIOL 475N Anatomy in Italy

This courses explores the origins of human anatomy as a modern science in the context of renaissance-era Italy, especially its culture, art, and history. During the in-class portion of the course, students will participate in discussions of science, history, and art, prepare and lead presentations on assigned topics, and peform human cadaver studies. During spring break, students will travel with the instructors to Italy and study in Verona, Bologna, and Florence. While in Italy, students will compare and contrast anatomical waxes to modern representations, analyze the anatomy of Michelangelo, da Vinci, and other artists, and discuss the historical circumstances that gave rise to, supported, and sometimes hindered the development of anatomy as a science.

BIOL 498 Biology of Eco-Health

This three-week summer session course is taught entirely in Tanzania during the first summer session and focuses on the connections between the environment, conservation, and human health in the dry savanna ecosystems of East Africa. In addition to lectures and discussions, this exceptional opportunity allows students to participate in guided field studies in the Kilimanjaro-Amboseli ecosystem and connect with local communities living in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. The course will include guest lectures by local experts in biology, health, and conservation, and visits to research institutions, national parks and a medical clinic.

BIOL 483 Coastal Biology

BIOL 483 is an intensive field course designed to introduce participants to the Caribbean coral reef biome and other near-shore environments such as rocky shores, mangroves and seagrass beds. The trip occurs during spring break and will take us to the beautiful island of Curacao, part of the Netherland Antilles in the Southern Caribbean.

BIOL 416 Biology of Cancer

The course covers selected topics in cancer biology as well as cell and developmental biology. A major goal is to understand molecular and genetic mechanisms important for animal development and tumorigenesis. This course is designed to be part of Penn State's Education Abroad Program and lectures will be done in Beijing, China in July. Penn State students will take this course together with local students from Peking University, which is one of the best universities in China. In addition to the group discussions, students will have a guest lecture from Peking University faculty and visit a local research facility. Moreover, students will visit a number of historic and cultural attractions, including the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall. Through those activities, students are expected to gain unique and first-hand experience and knowledge about biological research in China today, Chinese culture, and people who live there.

BIOL 499A Tropical Field Ecology

This course is an intensive introduction to the tropical biodiversity taught in Costa Rica over the winter break between the fall and spring regular semesters. Enrollment is limited to 20 students.

BIOL 497 Biological Oceanography Techniques

Students will study biological oceanography as they learn skills to sail an ocean-faring sailboat. The cruise will begin on the 30th of December, from St. Croix (U.S. Virgin Islands) and will sail through the British Virgin Islands to reach the final destination of St. Thomas. Students will partake in lessons on biological oceanography and hands on experience conducting experiments on physical and oceanographic experiments.

  • physical and geological data collection
  • sea water chemistry analysis
  • plankton tows
  • snorkeling on Caribbean reefs
  • sailing training

The course will be taught by Dr. Mónica Medina, in addition to SEA faculty. There are 22 open slots available and the application process is competitive.

New Biology Courses

New, advanced courses are continuously being developed by faculty in the department. These courses are all initially listed as BIOL 497 before receiving permanent course numbers, but their specific titles and topics are listed in LionPATH. When you are scheduling your upper-level courses, be sure to look at the available BIOL 497 courses in addition to our regular 400-level classes. Descriptions of the most recently added courses can be found on the New Courses page.

The Penn State Tri-Beta Honor Society

In April 2016, Penn State - University Park was recognized with the Theta Delta Chi chapter of the Tri-Beta National Honor Society. Beta Beta Beta (TriBeta) is a national honor society founded in 1933. It is focused on students dedicated to improving the understanding and appreciation of biology study and extending boundaries of human knowledge through scientific research.

Members of Tri-Beta pursue three goals: to promote scholarship in the biological science; to promote the dissemination of biological knowledge; and to encourage research. For more information about membership or events, please email current officers at

Research Opportunities

Penn State is a center for top-ranked research in the life sciences. The collaborations between students and faculty drive innovative research in our field. We encourage students to participate in research projects here at Penn State or in other areas. Participation provides students with an opportunity to combine classroom knowledge with practical applications of science through hands-on experience.

Independent Research (BIOL 296/496)

BIOL 296/496 provides students with credits for completing independent research with a faculty member at Penn State. You are not limited to working in the Department of Biology and we encourage you to explore opportunities in departments outside of the college. For example, students have successfully completed research in entomology, nutrition, animal science, anthropology, plant pathology, poultry science, and biobehavioral health.

There are several steps involved with this course:

First, create a list of potential faculty members and become knowledgeable in their research. The Department of Biology website,, and the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences website,, offer descriptions of faculty member's research. You can also explore the website of individual departments for more details.

Second, contact faculty you are interested in working with in person or by phone. DO NOT SEND MASS EMAILS. This is an ineffective way to contact faculty members.

Third, if you choose to work with a Biology faculty member, register for BIOL 296/496 by filling out the proper form and returning it to the Department of Biology Undergraduate Office (located on the second floor of the Ritenour Building) by the 12th week of classes. If you choose to work with a faculty member outside of Biology, please contact the appropriate department for further instruction.

Cooperative Education Program

The cooperative (co-op) education program in the Eberly College of Science allows students to integrate the Penn State education with related work experience. Students involved in a co-op alternate semesters of classes with semesters of workplace experience at places like GlaxoSmithKline and the National Institute of Health. Students involved with co-op are enrolled in SC 295, 395, or 495 and maintain full-time status. For information, please call the Office of Science Engagement at 814-865-5000 or visit

Internships and Externships

Externships are "day in the life" observations in a student's area of interest. Positions are short-term, typically one to four days, after freshman or sophomore year.

Internships are longer positions than externships, typically offered in the summer. These positions are open to any student in the college, although certain positions and employers will have minimum GPA requirements and major and/or course preferences. Please see the Office of Science Engagement (814-865-5000) for more information.

Careers in Biology

Graduates from the Penn State Department of Biology can purse a variety of exciting and fulfilling careers. The Office of Science Engagement provides career services such as creating resumes and cover letters.

Health Care (40%): Biology provides excellent preparation for professional schools including medical, physician assistant, dental, and optometry schools. About 80% of Penn State Biology majors who apply to medical schools are accepted, above the national average of about 42%. Other career paths include allied health fields ranging from physical therapy to genetic counseling programs.

Research (25%): Entry-level biology positions after graduation are often in the research sector. Positions are found in industry, government, nonprofit or academia. The Department of Biology provides a variety of research experience opportunities to prepare students for these positions or graduate work in research.

Teaching (10%): A biology degree provides a strong foundation for teaching positions. High school-level positions most often require certification available through a secondary education program or master's degree in education. Teaching at the college level typically requires a Ph.D.

Other Options (25%): Biology graduates also work in sales with supply or pharmaceutical companies. Genetic counseling has become a popular career, requiring a two-year graduate program. Graduates can pursue positions in agencies, such as the FDA or EPA, or non-profit groups, such as conservancy organizations.

Become Party of Our Instructional Team

The Department of Biology is constantly dedicated to improving our learning environment. One of our focuses is to create student-centered classrooms and laboratories with active learning experiences. Part of this process is to include successful, current undergraduate students as peer leaders, learning assistants (LAs), or teachings assistants (TAs) in large and small class settings. These students help facilitate group assignments and discussions, thereby giving students a change to practice with material while surrounded by helpful resources.

LAs and TAs become integral parts of the instructional team and gain valuable experience in leadership, communication skills and application of knowledge. The experience also provides the opportunity to get to know faculty beyond traditional interactions. Each semester, we have over 100 dedicated students involved in our instructional teams.

We encourage students to consider being party of team! If you are interested, contact one of the biology core course instructors.