Life Sciences at Whitman

Many students choose to study the life sciences in college. There are many reasons to follow this path; understanding the basis of life and the principles central to body function have numerous applications both inside and outside the academic sphere. Having a knowledge of the life sciences is important to general health and well-being, and many job opportunities are available to those familiar with these fields of inquiry. Careers in medicine, healthcare, medical research, biotechnology, agricultural science, environmental science, and sustainability are all well-served by a background in the life sciences.  

Whitman has extremely strong life-science programs. The three distinct major departments I will be discussing below are biology, environmental studies-biology, and BBMB (biophysics, biochemistry, and molecular biology). Note that Whitman does offer a few other combined plans (Biology-Geology and a few 3-2 programs I’ll briefly mention at the end), but I’ll stick to describing the more popular ones in this blog.

The biology major at Whitman is a comprehensive program that emphasizes an understanding of biological principles across many different levels of observation, from molecular to ecological. The introductory biology series requires students to take Biological Principles, the Biological World, and Genetics. From there, students are required to take classes to fill credits from 3 levels of biological study: molecular/cellular, organismal, and ecology/evolutionary. A full year of general chemistry with labs and one semester of organic chemistry are required. Two semesters of college calculus, or one semester of calculus and one of statistics are required as well. The department strongly encourages that students take physics and computer science courses as well, but these are not required. Seniors in the biology program are required to complete a thesis project, as well as an oral exam. The thesis usually consists of an independent research project and full-length written report in the style of a journal article or other scientific publication. Many students choose a different major and fill the requirements of the biology minor as well. The biology minor follows the same path as the introductory biology series. Students are required to take Biological Principles, the Biological World, and 8 more credits of upper level biology courses.  

The ES-Bio program is offered through the Environmental Studies program with a concentration on biology. Students in this program take a series of foundation level courses in Environmental Studies, including classes focusing on writing, critical thinking, and other electives. Students take the same three classes for the intro biology series (Principles, World, and Genetics,) and then take 3 credits of cell/molecular, 4 credits of organismal, and 8 credits of ecological/evolutionary biology. They also are required to fill introductory chemistry and organic chemistry credits. Students taking this major are strongly interested in the applications of biology to environmental, sustainability, and conservation principles. All students in this program are required to complete a senior thesis as well.

BBMB is a unique program at Whitman that emphasizes the interface between microbiology, physics, and chemistry. Many students choose to declare BBMB because it fulfills many of the credits required for entry into medical school (that’s not to say that you can’t get those same credits with any other major). BBMB emphasizes principles from genetics, biotechnology, and structural biology. It’s not as comprehensive as the general biology program, but instead ‘zooms in’ and focuses primarily on the micro-level side of things. The BBMB major requires that students take a full year of general and organic chemistry with labs, mathematics through calculus 3, and 2 semesters of physics. The BBMB program is extremely powerful, and offers very deep, broad inquiry into the life sciences.  All seniors graduating from the BBMB program are required to complete a thesis project as well.

It’s important to note that Whitman does offer combined plans with a few different fields as well. Furthermore, Whitman offers 3-2 combined programs with partnering graduate schools (an oceanography program with UW and a forestry program with Duke). If a student chooses to pursue one of these programs, they will complete 3 years of college at Whitman before transferring to the partner institution, where they will complete 2 more years of instruction. Upon graduation, they will be awarded a bachelor’s degree from Whitman and a masters from the partner institution. These are very specific programs that don’t allow for a great deal of flexibility from students. They have their own requirements that can be found online or listed in the full Whitman catalogue. These programs do, however, allow students streamline their college experience and maximize their time spent at both institutions in pursuit of undergraduate and graduate degrees.

I personally recommend that any student interested in the life sciences (or any student interested in Whitman at all) thoroughly read the most recent catalogue. All programs of instruction at Whitman are listed there and described in much more detail than I ever could in this blog post. What’s more, every single class offered at Whitman is described there as well! The link to this year’s catalogue is listed below:


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