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Virginia Tech to offer bachelor's degree in systems biology

April 1, 2016

John Tyson teaches a class
William Baumann, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, teaches a course in systems biology. A new bachelor's degree in systems biology is offered through the College of Science. Photo by Melissa Ripepi.

Students who find it difficult to choose a "favorite" type of science — because they love them all — might find a new bachelor's degree in systems biology the best fit. 

Using skills and techniques from biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, statistics, and computer science, systems biologists study the complex networks of interacting components in living organisms to understand how these systems sustain life.  

The College of Science at Virginia Tech now offers a bachelor’s of science degree in systems biology in line with its mission to promote cross-disciplinary science education through the Academy of Integrated Science.  Current students can begin working toward the degree this fall.

The curriculum includes courses in integrated science, mathematical modeling, professional writing, ethics, and bioinformatics and prepares students for a multitude of science-based careers or graduate education, including medical school.

The program requires students to complete a year’s worth of research with a faculty mentor
during their senior year, according to John Tyson, University Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences in the College of Science and director of the new degree program.

“The systems biology degree will be a great program of study for students who want to apply powerful ideas from the mathematical and physical sciences to understand interesting and important problems in the life sciences. A systems biology degree will prepare students for an exciting career in modern medicine, agriculture, bioengineering, or molecular biology,” said Tyson, who is also affiliated with the Fralin Life Science Institute and the Biocomplexity Institute.

About 10 faculty members are associated with the degree program, including David Bevan, professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate.

"Much has been learned about biological systems through the reductionist approach, in which individual components of systems are studied in great depth,” said Bevan. “However, we now have the computational resources to also consider entire systems of components, whether the systems consist of cells, organisms, or ecosystems. This systems biology approach enables an understanding of the complexity of these systems that cannot be achieved just from cataloging the individual components."

“I already love biology, and systems biology is a way for me to learn more about how scientists use information and programs in order to better understand biological processes,” said Michael Haverty of Vienna, Virginia, a junior majoring in  systems biology in the College of Science.  “It has also allowed me to meet great people, and I believe it will grow into a popular degree at Virginia Tech."

“I started my college education in pursuit of an engineering degree, but when I learned about systems biology, I felt it better fit my needs and interests,” said Camille Schrier of Newtown, Pennsylvania, a sophomore majoring in biological systems and biochemistry.  “Systems biology is extremely interdisciplinary and combines biology, chemistry, and computer science to solve and model relevant biological problems. The program falls somewhere between engineering and traditional biology. I very much enjoy learning about the new techniques used in modeling biological systems, and their real world applications. I am combining this major with a biochemistry degree and hope to work in the pharmaceutical industry.”

For more information, please visit the program website or contact John Tyson at tyson@vt.edu.    

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