Why biology is the ultimate 21st-century degree

A-level students suspect it's a subject that will lead them to the dole queue, but there has never been a better time to study the science of life
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The Independent Online

Which academic discipline is at the cutting edge of scientific research and development, is a magnet for ever-increasing research funds and covers a range of topics from the human genome project to conservation? The same subject that, when quizzed, many A-level students say will likely leave them on the dole and will require years of further study to gain them a decent chance in the job market.

Which academic discipline is at the cutting edge of scientific research and development, is a magnet for ever-increasing research funds and covers a range of topics from the human genome project to conservation? The same subject that, when quizzed, many A-level students say will likely leave them on the dole and will require years of further study to gain them a decent chance in the job market.

How has this myth come about? The answer is a lack of understanding of what "biological sciences" entail, or the lucrative opportunities available. "The school of biological sciences is such a wide-ranging entity," says Dr Peter Dyrynda, a lecturer in environmental and marine biology and zoology at the University of Swansea. "We have departments specialising in anything from cancer research to marine conservation. With the combination of this range of disciplines and the popularity of issues surrounding conservation and wildlife, I would say we have one of the largest student groups on campus."

The increasing popularity of the subjects offered by Swansea over the past five years does not, Dr Dyrynda says, follow a logical pattern. However, the chance to learn about how man affects the environment around him, and the historic breakthroughs in genetic research, are fuelling this surge of interest.

So why do A-level students have a negative view of it? It is well documented that traditional science subjects are losing out in the chase for the new generation of undergraduates - this year's UCAS applications show a 4.4 per cent fall in applications for a biology degree. Whether it be down to the poor career prospects that traditional science students are perceived to hold, or that traditional sciences are just plain out of fashion, students seem not to be aware of the breadth of opportunities awaiting them. "Students are not taught the range of subjects at A-level that we offer," says Professor Steven Edwards at Liverpool University.

But once aware of the possibilities, students are impressed. "I specialised on the molecular side and spent a year working in industry. That year was phenomenally useful," says Rachel Curwen, a biology graduate from York University.

Biological sciences cover everything from conservation biology to molecular biology. Dr Dyrynda is keen to point out the differences between environmental biology and environmental science. "Where environmental science can cover the political aspects of conservation, we look into the specific biological side to it. We look at the level of environmental threats on a global scale and how they affect plants and animals, and issues surrounding biodiversity."

Undergraduates need have no worries in taking on such a 21st-century degree. The job market is particularly secure for graduates. Obviously, there is a large market for trained graduates in the pharmaceutical or biotech industries. However, the analytical and team-working skills required for all science studies mean that jobs in management and financial services are not beyond the realms of possibility. One biological sciences graduate from Lancaster University, Sarah Wilkinson, has recently started as a trainee manager at the John Lewis store in London.

Students must be committed to what they are studying. Graduates of the biological sciences tend to be committed types, working for the love of their environment rather than material gain. Many, though, go on to further study, and there has never been a more vibrant time for research in this area.

Last month, £33m was awarded to British scientists and companies to help them explore the benefits of gene discoveries. This award forms the biggest single research initiative from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Scientists across the UK are being invited to apply for a share of this funding to investigate how new information about genes can improve human health and develop new industrial products.

The resources available to assist postgraduate students to further research goals are increasing and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. At the University of Swansea's school of biological sciences, total income has more than doubled in five years to £8.1m.

Medical research is one of the fastest growing areas of research, and the almost daily digest of new discoveries relating to the human genome is creating a snowball of interest and further financial backing. "The biggest change is the ability to obtain large amounts of information from DNA, so you actually study complete genomes of organisms, including human beings," says Dr Nick Mann, a reader in biological sciences at Warwick University.

Exciting stuff, then. But just to highlight the vast range of subjects you could study - if you are brave enough - you could become a member of the Royal Entomological Society for the day on Saturday 24 March and feast on a meal of insects.

The meal is part of a conference organised by Peter Smithers of Plymouth University's biological sciences department. The serious side is the study of invertebrates in caves - known as biospeliology - in the tropics. The stir-fried insects demonstrate the high protein content indigenous peoples in the tropics gain from them. Those interested should contact the Mr Smithers at the university.

Maybe you are not turned on by the idea of studying the taste of insects. But for those who are passionate about conservation, medicine, or just simply fascinated by the mechanics of life itself, there's never been a better time to delve into the science behind biology.

c.brown@independent.co.uk

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