Department/Program Home Page

Department/Program Description

These are thrilling times to study biology. Advances in molecular biology, epigenetics, and bioinformatics are leading to extraordinary new insights in every field, from evolution and ecology to development, cell biology, genetics/genomics, and neuroscience. These research areas are providing essential information as we address the urgent challenges of biodiversity conservation, global climate change, epidemiology, and human health and well-being. Biology is also at the heart of new ways of understanding ourselves as human beings in relation to other living things. Connections between biological disciplines are raising key questions in new ways, while biological knowledge has become fundamentally integrated with social and medical ethics, public policy, and journalism.

The Biology Department offers a broad range of courses that emphasize the process of scientific inquiry and current experimental approaches. Our courses also consider real-world implications of biological issues: the ethics of embryonic stem cell research, gender issues and reproductive technologies, the AIDS epidemic, and the impact of human activity on natural communities. Biology courses can be the start of a dedicated career in research, medicine, conservation, public health, bioethics, sustainable resource use, and many other areas. They can also bring the intellectual excitement of these investigations to students whose major focus is in the arts, humanities, or social sciences. We welcome students of all backgrounds and interests to join us.

Courses for Non-Majors

The following courses do not have prerequisites and, as such, are appropriate for non-majors.

BIOL106 The Biology of Sex 1
BIOL137 Writing About Evolution 1
BIOL140 Classic Studies in Animal Behavior 1
BIOL145F Primate Behavior: The Real Monkey Business (FYS) 1
BIOL149 Neuroethology: Sensory Basis of Animal Orientation and Navigation 1
BIOL173 Global Change and Infectious Disease 1
BIOL181 Principles of Biology I: Cell Biology and Molecular Basis of Heredity 1
BIOL182 Principles of Biology II 1
BIOL186 Introduction to the Biology of Nutrition and Impact on Human Health 1
BIOL197 Introduction to Environmental Studies 1
Student Learning Goals
The Biology Department expects its majors to develop a broad and integrative understanding of the theory and practice of biology across a range of disciplines and levels of biological organization. The curricular requirements of the major are designed to provide enough flexibility for each student to choose a disciplinary emphasis of most interest and fulfill the additional expectation of achieving some depth of knowledge in a particular area through a relatively intensive classroom or laboratory experience. In this context, we want our students to develop skills in critical and quantitative thinking, creative problem-solving, and intuition for the process of scientific reasoning. We also encourage our students to engage in ethical thinking about biological research and the role of biology in society and sustainability. A complete program of study in biology entails the application of these skills to designing or conducting original research (including scholarly research via scientific databases), writing about and orally communicating scientific concepts, as well as the comprehension and critical interpretation of primary scientific literature. Our ultimate goal is, therefore, to train students to use their biological knowledge and skills to become effective, scientifically informed citizens and professionals.
Admission to the Major

Students are encouraged to begin their major in the first year so that they can take maximum advantage of upper-level biology courses and research opportunities in later years. However, the major can certainly be successfully completed if begun during sophomore year, and many students are able to combine the biology major with a semester abroad.

A prospective biology major begins with a series of two core introductory courses. Students should begin the core series with BIOL181 and its associated laboratory course, BIOL191, which are offered in the fall semester. BIOL181 is offered in a number of small sections rather than a single large lecture class. These small sections allow for problem-based learning at a more individualized pace as students master the first semester of university-level biology. Students should enroll separately for the lab course, BIOL191. These courses do not have prerequisites or corequisites, but it is useful to have some chemistry background or to take chemistry concurrently. In the spring semester, the prospective major should take BIOL182and its laboratory course, BIOL192. An optional spring course, BIOL194, is offered to students of BIOL182 who wish a challenging reading and discussion experience in addition to the lectures.

Major Requirements

The biology major's program of study consists of the following:

Note: No more than three of these mid-level courses (listed above) may be counted towards the six advanced elective requirement.

  • IMPORTANT INFORMATION FOR DOUBLE MAJORS: At least two elective courses (200-level and above) that are counted toward the biology major cannot be simultaneously used to fulfill any other major.
  • In addition, if a student is double-majoring in biology and NS&B, NS&B/BIOL213 cannot count toward the six electives required for the biology major; however, NS&B/BIOL213 will fulfill the Column 2 breadth requirement.
  • Two semesters of general chemistry (CHEM141-CHEM142 or CHEM143-CHEM144)
  • Any three additional semesters of related courses from at least two different departments:

  • Biology majors are allowed to apply at most one elective course or one cognate course taken credit/unsatisfactory toward fulfilling the major requirements; however, this is discouraged because good performance in major courses is an important aspect of a student's transcript.
  • A strong chemistry background is especially recommended for students planning to enter graduate or medical school. Most medical and other health-related graduate schools require two years of college-level chemistry, including laboratory components, as well as a course in biochemistry.
  • Students planning to go on to medical, dental, or other health professions graduate school should note that a year each of introductory biology, physics, and math (such as calculus or statistics) and two years of chemistry (general and organic) are required for admission, including any laboratory components.

Electives may be chosen from among the following courses at the 200, 300, or 500 levels. See WesMaps for current course offerings. The courses are grouped thematically for your convenience only.


BIOL212 Principles and Mechanisms of Cell Biology 1
BIOL218 Developmental Biology 1
MB&B/BIOL232 Immunology 1
MB&B/BIOL237 Signal Transduction 1
BIOL245 Cellular Neurophysiology 1
BIOL334 Shaping the Organism 1
BIOL325 Stem Cells: Basic Biology to Clinical Application 1
BIOL340/540 Issues in Development and Evolution 1
BIOL343/543 Muscle and Nerve Development 1
BIOL/NS&B345 Developmental Neurobiology 1


BIOL214 MacroEvolution, Pattern and Process 1
BIOL215 Evolution in Human-Altered Environments 1
BIOL216 Ecology 1
BIOL220 Conservation Biology 1
BIOL235 Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy 1
BIOL254 Comparative Animal Behavior 1
BIOL290 Plant Form and Diversity 1
BIOL310 Genomics Analysis 1
BIOL316/516 Plant-Animal Interactions 1
BIOL318/518 Nature and Nurture: The Interplay of Genes and Environment 1
BIOL327/527 Evolutionary and Ecological Bioinformatics 1
BIOL340/540 Issues in Development and Evolution 1
BIOL346 The Forest Ecosystem 1


MB&B208 Molecular Biology 1
BIOL210 Genomics: Modern Genetics, Bioinformatics, and the Human Genome Project 1
BIOL/MB&B265/COMP113/CIS265 Bioinformatics Programming 1
BIOL327/527 Evolutionary and Ecological Bioinformatics 1
MB&B/BIOL231 Microbiology 1
BIOL310 Genomics Analysis 1
BIOL327/527 Evolutionary and Ecological Bioinformatics 1
MB&B333/533 Gene Regulation 1
MB&B394 Advanced Laboratory in Molecular Biology and Genetics 1
E&ES280 Introduction to GIS 1
MB&B306 Epigenetics 1


NS&B/BIOL213 Behavioral Neurobiology 1
BIOL/NS&B224 Hormones, Brain, and Behavior 1
BIOL235 Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy 1
BIOL/NS&B239 Functional Anatomy of the Human Brain 1
NS&B/BIOL243 Neurohistology 1
BIOL/NS&B245 Cellular Neurophysiology 1
BIOL/NS&B247 Laboratory in Neurophysiology 1
BIOL/NS&B250 Laboratory in Cellular and Behavioral Neurobiology 1
BIOL/NS&B252 Cell Biology of the Neuron 1
NS&B/BIOL254 Comparative Animal Behavior 1
BIOL290 Plant Form and Diversity 1
BIOL/NS&B299 Waves, Brains, and Music 1
NS&B/BIOL328 Chemical Senses 1
BIOL/NS&B345 Developmental Neurobiology 1
BIOL/NS&B351 Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 1
NS&B/BIOL353 Neurobiology of Neurological Disorders 1
NS&B/BIOL360 Calderwood Seminar in Public Writing: Neuroplasticity and the Brain 1


Cross-listed courses that are included on the list above are automatically credited to the biology major. At least two elective courses (200-level and above) that are counted toward the biology major must be used to fulfill only the biology major and cannot be simultaneously used to fulfill another major.

Depending on the student’s specific program, and with prior permission of the chair, up to two biology courses from outside the department may be counted toward the major. Two Wesleyan courses that fall into this category are ANTH202 and ANTH349.

Additional courses that may be credited to the major: BIOL242, E&ES234, MB&B228, CHEM323 and CHEM383, and ECON300. MB&B228 may be counted as long as neither MB&B208 nor CHEM383 is counted toward the major.

Biology majors are allowed to apply at most one elective course taken credit/unsatisfactory toward fulfilling the major requirements; however, this is discouraged because good performance in major courses is an important aspect of a student’s transcript.

Courses in the BIOL 400 series (such as research tutorials) contribute toward graduation but do not count toward the major.

Capstone Experience
As a capstone experience, senior biology majors are encouraged to participate in one of the following opportunities for intensive scientific engagement: a hands-on laboratory or field course, participation in lab research (typically begun prior to senior year), or enrollment in an advanced (300-level) seminar or class. A series of faculty-student dinners during fall and spring of senior year provide further opportunities to discuss emergent scientific issues and approaches and their relation to students’ career goals.

To be considered for departmental honors, a student must

  • Be a biology major and be recommended to the department by a faculty member. It is expected that the student will have at least a B average (grade point average 85) in courses credited to the major.
  • Submit a thesis based on laboratory research, computational research, or mathematical modeling. The thesis is carried out under the supervision of a faculty member of the department.
Advanced Placement

Students who have received a grade of 4 or 5 on the AP exam may receive one University credit toward graduation.

Students with a score of 4 or 5 may place out of one of the two Introductory Biology courses - BIOL181 or BIOL182 but must first consult with an instructor teaching these courses. 

Students interested in placing out of MB&B181 in the fall semester should contact Professor Michelle Murolo ( regarding the placement exam. 

No follow-up course is required. These courses are considered essential background for our upper-level courses; students are highly encouraged to enroll in both semesters.

However, we recommend against this for almost all students, especially those who may be interested in the biology major. Although some of the MB&B181/BIOL181 material will be familiar from a high school AP course, the depth and rigor of MB&B181/BIOL181 provide a strong foundation as you move forward to more advanced courses. Alternatively, students with AP 4 or 5 may consult individually with the BIOL182 faculty regarding placing out of this second-semester introductory course. However, both courses are considered essential background for our upper-level courses; students are highly encouraged to enroll in both semesters.


Dr. Neil Clendeninn Prize. Established in 1991 by George Thornton, Class of 1991, and David Derryck, Class of 1993, for the African American student who has achieved academic excellence in biology and/or molecular biology and biochemistry. This student must have completed his or her sophomore year and in that time have exemplified those qualities of character, leadership, and concern for the Wesleyan community as shown by Dr. Neil Clendeninn, Class of 1971.

The Peirce Prize. Awarded in successive years for excellence in biology, chemistry, and geology.

Transfer Credit
Up to two outside credits for biology courses may also be applied from another institution (during a study abroad program, for example). Prior permission must be obtained from the departmental liaison Professor Michael Singer ( to ensure creditability of specific courses from other institutions. Information and a downloadable form can be found here
Related Programs or Certificates

Environmental Studies Certificate. The Environmental Studies (ENVS) program is interdisciplinary and offers both a certificate and a linked major. The ENVS linked major is a secondary major and requires a student to also have a primary major in another department, program, or college. ENVS majors write a senior thesis or essay in environmental studies that is mentored by a professor in another department, program, or college (e.g., biology). There is also an opportunity to earn an ENVS certificate, which does not require a senior thesis or essay. See:

Informatics and Modeling Certificate. The Integrative Genomic Science pathway within this certificate will be of particular interest for life science majors. See

Neuroscience and Behavior Program. Several faculty members in the Biology and Psychology Departments also participate in the Neuroscience and Behavior Program that, at the undergraduate level, constitutes a separate major. Information about that program can be found at

The graduate program is an integral part of the Biology Department’s offerings. Not only are graduate students active participants in the undergraduate courses, but, also, upper-level undergraduates are encouraged to take graduate-level courses and seminars (500 series). Research opportunities are also available for undergraduates, and, frequently, these involve close interaction with graduate students.

BA/MA Program


This program provides an attractive option for life science majors to substantially enrich their research and course background and to earn an advanced degree while at Wesleyan. Students are advised to begin research by their junior year if they intend to pursue the BA/MA in biology. Seniors can apply by December 1 and will be notified of their status by the end of January. Admission is competitive and based on GPA, faculty recommendations, and research experience.

Additional Information
The seminar series features distinguished scientists from other institutions who present lectures on their research findings. One objective of these seminars is to relate material studied in courses, tutorials, and research to current scientific activity. These seminars are usually held on Thursdays at noon and are open to all members of the University community. Undergraduates are especially welcome.

Graduate Program

General Introduction


The Biology Department offers graduate work leading to the degree of doctor of philosophy. The primary emphasis is on an intensive research experience culminating in a thesis, though the student will also be expected to acquire a broad knowledge of related biological fields through an individual program of courses, seminars, and readings. The low student-faculty ratio in the department ensures close contact between students and their dissertation advisors. Faculty and invited outside speakers offer regular research seminars, and graduate students present their work as it progresses at a biweekly departmental colloquium. Additional courses and lectures of interest offered by other departments are also available to biology students. All PhD students are required to teach 3 semesters (2 in the introductory series) with faculty training and supervision. Teaching assistants are involved primarily in preparing materials for, and assisting in, laboratory courses and in evaluating student work. In the later years of the PhD program, some classroom teaching opportunities may be offered. Students are encouraged to spend a summer at the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole, Cold Spring Harbor labs, or another institution offering specialized graduate courses. Funds are available to support such coursework and to facilitate student travel to scientific conferences.


The Biology Department offers graduate work leading to the degree of Master of Arts through the BA/MA program.  The program has a strong research orientation.  It also includes course work, seminars, and, in some cases, teaching.  A student hoping to enter this program will be expected to discuss the intention to do so with a research advisor in the first semester of their junior year to permit the design of an acceptable program.  The Biology Department may grant the degree of Master of Arts to students in the PhD program who do not complete the PhD.



The PhD is a research degree demanding rigorous scholarly training and creativity; the result is an original contribution to the candidate’s field. The student and a faculty committee will work out a program of study for the first two years at the time of matriculation. This program will take into account the student’s proposed field of interest and prior background in biology and related sciences. No specific courses are required, but, rather, a subject-matter requirement is used to ensure a broad background. Before taking the qualifying examination, all students must have at least one substantive course above the introductory level (at Wesleyan or elsewhere) in each of five subject areas: genetics/genomics/bioinformatics, evolution/ecology, physiology/neurobiology/behavior, cell biology/developmental biology and biochemistry/molecular biology. The adequacy of courses that have been taken at other institutions will be evaluated by the faculty committee through its meeting with the student. Students whose focus is bioinformatics may substitute two upper-level courses in computer science for one of these five areas. 

All PhD students must take a minimum of two 1 credit advanced (300 or 500) lecture, lab, or seminar course approved by the First Year Advisory committee. At least one of these should be taken during the student’s first year. Departmental and interdepartmental seminars and journal clubs are included in the program, and additional individual reading in particular areas may also be required. First-year students are exposed to research in the department through usually two, occasionally three, one-semester lab rotations or research practica. Toward the end of each semester of the first year, each student will meet with an evaluation committee of the faculty to review progress and to discuss any modification of the proposed program.

Working with the First-Year Advisory Committee, graduate students design their own program of courses to complement and strengthen their previous background knowledge. All students are required to participate in one of the journal clubs, during which recent journal articles are presented and discussed. Three journal clubs meet weekly over lunch:

  • Ecology/Evolution
  • Cell/Development/Genetics
  • Neuroscience/Behavior


Students in the BA/MA or terminated Ph.D. programs are required to earn a minimum of 6 credits in addition to the 32 necessary for the Wesleyan BA. Three credits will be earned through Journal Club I & II (BIOL509, BIOL510; 0.25 credits x 2 = 0.50), Advanced Research (BIOL549, BIOL550;1.0 credit x 2 = 2.0) and Research Seminar (BIOL557; 0.50 credits). The remaining credits will be earned through lecture, lab, or seminar courses (200, 300, or 500-level) determined by the student and mentor; a minimum of two of these must be one-credit courses. MA credit will only be awarded for academic work in which grades of B minus or higher have been earned. A student in the BA/MA program who earns more than 32 credits during the BA may apply any excess credits toward the MA, providing that they are relevant to the research area and they have not been used to fulfill an undergraduate major requirement.  

Progress and Qualifying Exams

A PhD student’s career in the Department of Biology at Wesleyan University is divided into three phases:  

1.   Preparation, rotations, and Qualifier exam

Students are required to spend a one-semester rotation in two research laboratories during their first year. A third rotation is occasionally appropriate. After settling into a lab, a qualifying examination will be taken at the end of the second year. The examination is designed to test the student’s knowledge of biology and ability to think critically. It includes a written research proposal, followed by an oral examination to discuss the proposal and evaluate the student’s breadth in biology. The examination will be administered by four faculty members of the department (or associated departments and including the advisor), chosen by the student and his or her research advisor. The examining committee will include the research advisor and one member whose research field is clearly outside the student’s area of special interest.

2.    Active PhD thesis research

Within a year of passing the Qualifier exam the student should meet with a thesis committee selected in consultation with his/her advisor to discuss research progress and proposed research. The student should submit to the committee an updated thesis proposal.  The thesis committee will include the thesis advisor and three additional members; at least two of the latter three must be a member of the Biology Department Faculty. The 3rd member may be from another Wesleyan Department or another institution if appropriate. The committee will meet with the student twice a year thereafter, or more frequently if it is appropriate.

3.   Preparation of the PhD thesis and defense 

The thesis committee determines when sufficient experimental work has been completed and must approve the final written document. After the committees determination, a public thesis defense will be scheduled. 


A 3-member committee of the faculty will be established upon acceptance into the BA/MA program. The candidate will be in contact with their committee in early stages of research and meet with them in the second semester of their MA year.   This committee determines when sufficient experimental work has been completed and must approve the final written document. Students in this program will be expected to submit a MA thesis describing the research which they have carried out in partial fulfillment of the degree requirements.



A minimum of three semesters as a teaching assistant is required.


There are no requirements for BA/MA candidates to teach although the opportunity may arise.   




PhD students start their research experience with two or more semester-long practica in laboratories. These are designed to provide complementing experiences to prepare students for their thesis research. Research projects are available in the following areas:

  • Aaron Lab—epilepsy, the hippocampus, and the cortex
  • Burke Lab—development and evolution
  • Chernoff Lab—conservation, evolution, and genetics of fish
  • Cohan Lab—evolutionary genetics and speciation of bacteria
  • Coolon Lab—ecological and evolutionary functional genomics
  • Devoto Lab—muscle development in zebrafish
  • Johnson Lab—regulation of cell movement during development
  • Kirn Lab—developmental neurobiology of vocal learning in songbirds
  • Naegele Lab—development of GABAergic interneurons and neural stem cell therapy
  • Melón LabNeurobiological mechanism that drive sex differences in the development of disorders associated with alcohol exposure
  • Singer Lab—evolution and ecology of plant-animal interactions
  • Sultan Lab—evolutionary ecology of phenotypic plasticity in plants
  • Weir Lab—molecular genetics; bioinformatics

All PhD students present their research in bi-monthly seminars attended by all members of the department, to encourage students to become fluent and comfortable with their presentation skills.


All MA students present their research in bi-monthly seminars attended by all members of the department, to encourage students to become fluent and comfortable with their presentation skills.



The most important requirement is a PhD thesis, an original contribution to biology that merits publication. The candidate will receive advice and guidance from the thesis director but must demonstrate both originality and scientific competence. Normally, the candidate will choose a thesis topic during the second year of graduate work in consultation with appropriate faculty.  The thesis committee determines when sufficient experimental work has been completed and must approve the final written document.  At this point a public defense will be scheduled after which the documents will be signed if the candidate has fulfilled all the requirements. 


Students in this program will submit a MA thesis describing their research and give a public presentation during the BIOL557seminar describing the research they have carried out as partial fulfillment of the degree requirements. 



This program provides an attractive option for life science majors to substantially enrich their research and course background and to earn an advanced degree while at Wesleyan. Students are encouraged to begin research by their sophomore year if they intend to pursue the BA/MA in biology. Admission is competitive and based on GPA, faculty recommendations, and research experience. For information about the BA/MA Program:]

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