URI expands molecular biology program to serve wider range of students

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KINGSTON, R.I. – October 23, 2013 — The University of Rhode Island’s Department of Cell and Molecular Biology is expanding its offerings to appeal to a wider variety of students by providing them with the option of focusing their studies on microbiology, biochemistry or biotechnology.

“We reexamined our major to see if it appealed to the students we want to serve, and we found that we would be much more successful in attracting students if we offered a biochemistry track instead of just microbiology,” said Gongqin Sun, chair of the department. “At other New England universities, biochemistry is a very popular option.”

The three tracks in the revamped new major in cell and molecular biology share a core in the molecular basis of biological processes, while each has a different emphasis. Sun said that microbiology focuses primarily on “the world of microbes,” like bacteria and viruses. Biochemistry, on the other hand, examines all organisms, with an emphasis on higher organisms, such as humans. Biotechnology focuses on the applications of biological tools and knowledge.

“Biochemists study the molecular processes that are the basis of life,” Sun said. “So it appeals to students who are interested in the biochemical changes that turn normal cells into cancer cells, for instance, or the biochemical processes that lead to obesity. The photosynthesis of plants is biochemistry, too.”

The expansion of the program was approved by the Rhode Island Board of Education earlier this year. The program historically has had about 80 undergraduate students enrolled, with 25 to 30 graduating each year. Due in part to the realignment, this year’s freshman class is the largest in recent memory, with 31 enrolled.

“Most high school students interested in biology don’t know about the various areas within biology, so we tend to get more students transferring into the department after they take a couple of our courses and decide they like it,” said Sun.

According to the URI professor, students in his department typically follow one of three career paths: they go to medical school to become a doctor, continue on to graduate school to become a researcher in academia, industry or hospitals, or they enter the workforce after completing a bachelor’s degree to work in the pharmaceutical industry, government agencies, or environmental protection.

“Those who want to go to med school have to take the MCAT entry exam, and much of the content of that exam is covered in the courses in our major – immunology, biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology,” Sun said.

The program’s graduates have had great success in recent years in being accepted to prominent medical schools. All four from the department who applied to medical school last year were admitted, including Sun’s son Kevin and sophomore Shayla Minteer, who was accepted through Brown’s Early Identification Program. Of the four medical students now enrolled at Brown Medical School from URI, three are from the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology.

Kathleen Maher, chair of URI’s Health Professions Advisory Committee, which provides guidance to students who apply to medical school, agrees. “While pre-medical students may select from the full range of available majors on campus, the biochemistry track of the new cell and molecular biology degree is clearly the most biomedically relevant program of study on campus. It provides an excellent foundation for medical school training, as well as a robust preparation for the required MCAT, which is unveiling new exam content in 2015 to reflect recent changes in medical education. The major is also an ideal match for students wishing to pursue a career in biomedical research.”

“Just as cell and molecular biology grew out of biochemistry and microbiology, our field continues to evolve,” added Sun. “Biomedical research is still in its infancy; we’re just beginning to understand the basis of many diseases, with many new medicines being developed. And we’re at the core of Rhode Island’s knowledge-based economy. We’re serving a growing market.”