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New evolutionary biology option looks to the future of science

January 28, 2009 By Kiera Wiatrak

Charles Darwin would be proud of the way the biology major has evolved during the last academic year.

Biological sciences departments are now offering an evolutionary biology option for biology students who choose to focus their advanced studies on evolution rather than on a broader spectrum of topics.

In addition to preparing students for graduate studies in evolution, the option allows students the opportunity to gauge a better understanding of a topic that is relevant for understanding many different aspects of science.

“[Evolution] is one of the important sub-areas in biology,” says David Baum, associate professor of botany. “It’s a sub-area that often doesn’t get taught very well, very consistently.”

Baum chairs the Evolution Coordinating Committee, which teamed up with the university’s Biology Majors Committee to design the new option. The final paperwork went through over the 2007–08 academic year.

“We are really pleased to offer this option to students,” says Nicole Perna, associate professor of genetics and evolution option representative on the Biology Majors Committee. “There was strong support throughout campus that made it possible.”

Requirements for the option include an undergraduate seminar in evolution created specifically for the evolutionary biology option and at least three intermediate or advanced courses with a focus on evolution. Students are also encouraged to conduct a senior thesis or do an independent study researching evolution.

UW-Madison biology student Jeremy Berg points out that evolution is a unifying theory in the sciences.

“As far as biology’s concerned, evolution is kind of the big concept that holds everything together,” he says. “Evolution answers the big ‘why’ behind just about every question in biology.”

Berg intends to declare the option and hopes to continue studying evolution in graduate school.

“The undergraduate seminar course can really be transformational for students,” adds Perna, noting that students attend weekly research presentations by prominent evolutionary biologists, postdocs and graduate students from on and off campus, and spend time talking with presenters afterward. “This is a great opportunity to get to know the evolutionary community and gain an appreciation of the scope of ongoing research.”

In addition to preparing students for graduate studies in evolution, evolutionary biology option student Alan Vanier adds that the option has benefits across a wide spectrum of possible professions.

“Having a skill background that is adept to evolutionary biology can help someone no matter if they become a doctor, a vet, a scientist or just want to understand the organic world and how it is affected through time by the environment and the genetics involved,” he says.

But more than just benefiting his students, Baum hopes emphasizing evolution in the college classroom will have a wider impact on how society understands science, especially when considering the controversial debate over the legitimacy of evolution.

“Eventually one hopes the level of the debate will be a bit higher,” he says. One of the goals of the option is to “not just change and improve what’s happening on campus in evolution, but to kind of have it spread out to make sure all undergrads go off with a better understanding [and] work with high school teachers, work with middle school teachers, give outreach lectures—that kind of stuff.”

As the option gains momentum, Baum intends to create more classes focusing on evolution and bring in more advisers for option students.

Also, Baum hopes the option garners more interest as it becomes more public.

“I’d like to see a consistent class size of students committed to evolution,” he says. “And I guess I would like to see us turning it into a culture so they can actually talk to one another, interact as a cohort, work together, socialize.”