Be prepared to study life... in the fast lane

Forget drawing flowers and dissecting frogs - biology now leads the way for modern science. Thanks to DNA and genetics, the world's your oyster.
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The Independent Online

Remember those halcyon days of school biology? Drawing flowers, and dissecting frogs? Nowadays, biology is much more than all that. It is at the cutting edge of science worldwide, encompassing medicine, the human genome project (soon to be finally unveiled) and the environment. It even helps your language skills.

Remember those halcyon days of school biology? Drawing flowers, and dissecting frogs? Nowadays, biology is much more than all that. It is at the cutting edge of science worldwide, encompassing medicine, the human genome project (soon to be finally unveiled) and the environment. It even helps your language skills.

"Biological sciences encompass a wide range of life sciences," says Professor Steven Edwards of the school of biological sciences at Liverpool University. "In this department we cover everything from genes and proteins to the environment and evolution."

This very breadth can lead to problems. "Students aren't really taught the subjects in any depth at A-level," says Professor Edwards, "so we have the option of an umbrella registration code which allows students to defer their choice of specialisation until the end of the first or second years, and that allows them to find out what they like and don't like."

Inevitably, the biological sciences have strong links with medicine. At the University of Wales, Cardiff, there are both honours and masters degrees in the biomedical sciences. "Most of our graduates end up working in NHS hospitals," says Dr Bert Morgan, admissions officer at the school of applied sciences. "Or if someone works in immunology in a hospital, and is already a graduate, they will get extra qualifications by doing a masters in immunohaematology with us, the other specialist routes being medical biochemistry, microbiology and pathology."

Bioinfomatics is one of the fastest growing research areas, says Dr Nick Mann, reader in the department of biological sciences at Warwick University. "The biggest change at the moment is the ability to obtain large amounts of sequential information from DNA so you can actually study complete genomes of organisms including human beings. Obviously there are health implications for this, but there are also fundamental implications in how we understand the way processes operate in organisms." Warwick has introduced a new undergraduate degree in computational biology, recognising the huge demand for graduates with both biological and computer skills.

Biological research has never been more vibrant, says Dr Finbarr Hayes of the Department of Biomolecular Sciences at UMIST. "We have a leukaemia research fund group here and they attract a lot of interest from students wanting to do postgraduate degrees. We also have a strong interest in molecular microbiology, where we look at microbes, bacteria, fungi and so on, and we have an interest in analysing the structure and function of various biological materials."

Mark Rapson is just finishing the second year of his PhD at Warwick. "I did my degree in biological sciences at Warwick, including a year working in Vienna for the pharmaceutical company Novartis." He is now researching phage therapy, looking at how biophages infect and kill viruses. He is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council in conjunction with a CASE award from the Ministry of Defence, and when he obtains his PhD he wants to stay in research, hopefully in the US. He says, "I think it's just amazing how complicated animals and the human system are, that there are so many individual cells that all work together."

For Cassandra Pateman, also doing a PhD at Warwick, a love of animals propelled her towards a first-class degree in microbiology and virology. "My mum is a vet, and I've always had a lot of animals about," she says. But her PhD goes way beyond Animal Hospital. "I'm looking at the regulation of intracellular signalling pathways," she explains.

However, it is important that the biological sciences do not neglect more ecological, field-based work, says Dr Rupert Ormond, Director of the University Marine Biological Station at Millport in the Firth of Clyde. Financial constraints can limit the amount of field work offered by universities. But Millport, which is run by Glasgow and London universities, provides a valuable national resource. Many universities use the station for week-long courses, and there are around 10 resident PhD students. "The Firth of Clyde has got this very complex coastal formation - there's islands, lochs, sandy beaches, rocky shores, estuaries and the North Atlantic drift comes up towards the west coast of Scotland bringing quite a variety of species that you don't get on the east coast."

Until she started her degree in ecology and conservation at Sussex University, Hazel Burton was a zookeeper, "but I was a bit frustrated at seeing animals in cages". She plans to do a PhD at Sussex and has already got some vacation work lined up. "I've got a job with Leeds University studying butterflies on the South Downs, and then, in September, I go to Tanzania to study tropical ecology for a month. I couldn't have done either without a degree."

Sussex also offers an honours course combining biology and North American studies, or European studies. "It is quite a demanding combination," says Dr Libby John, senior lecturer in ecology. "The students have to do some politics and history in with the science and they have to spend a year abroad."

Biology graduates are in demand across a wide variety of fields. "Students have to be able to deal with numbers and statistics," says Dr Ormond, "but most biology is written up using text. Biology tends, more than any other subject, to produce graduates who are both literate and quantitative."

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