Our guide to biology
Hotcourses Editor

Our guide to biology

First published date November 28 2013 Amended date January 29 2015

Biology is about understanding life in all its weird and wonderful ways. It’s about finding answers to questions like, why do hummingbirds have long beaks? Why did I just sneeze? Why am I attracted to that girl or guy? If you find yourself wondering about the way the world works, then biology may be for you.

But biology is not taught just to make us go ‘Wow!’ It helps us understand the world we live in and the impact we have on it. And we can use this deeper understanding to make a difference.

The role of the biologist is becoming more and more essential. We face a host of environmental problems such as global warming, rainforest destruction and overpopulation. Biology can help solve these problems. In doing so it keeps the world diverse, exciting, healthy and fun.


What do you actually do on a biology course?

As biology is about life, it covers a massive area. So normally students can choose to study the topics they prefer. The options are endless, from human health to fish parasites, from genetics to flowering plants. Life is everywhere.

A university course lasts three years. In the final year you have to carry out a research project. This involves designing an experiment, conducting your own research and writing a report of the results. You have a lot of freedom to focus on the topic that most interests you. And if you’re lucky, you might even have the chance to travel. Who knows? You might find yourself researching in the African savannah or the mountains of Peru!


Where could a biology course lead?

People who study biology could find themselves working anywhere. Biology opens up many avenues, even in non-scientific areas. It is a highly respected degree because it shows that you can research a topic, analyse data and learn a lot of information. But most importantly, it shows that you have a curious, inquisitive mind.

Some biology graduates go on to work as biologists. They spend their days researching in the lab or out in the field. A biologist is always trying to work things out and solve problems. How can we prevent malaria from killing one child every minute? Why are some species, like the cheetah, dying out? What are the real dangers of global warming?

Some biology graduates decide to retrain and become a doctor or vet. If you have a biology degree it usually means you skip a year at veterinary or medical school.

You might want to tell the world all you know about the natural world. You might become a science journalist or wildlife filmmaker. You might even find yourself at the BBC.


What kind of person do I need to be?

The first question to ask yourself is, ‘Am I interested in the way the natural world works?’ If the answer is ‘Yes’, you’re on the right track.


As a biologist you must be:

·         patient – to get accurate results you have to repeat an experiment over and over again.

·         prepared to study other subjects like chemistry, geography and maths.

·         creative, although people often forget that – coming up with fascinating questions about the world, and thinking how best to answer those questions, is a very creative process.


How can you choose the right biology course for you?

When choosing the right course, think about what really interests you. If you particularly like birds, then study somewhere that is well known for research in birds. If you prefer biochemistry, then choose a course that enables you to work in a biochemistry lab. Some courses even offer the option of a ‘year in industry’, an extra year spent working in a company. Choose the course that best suits your interests.


Let’s see what a biology graduate, Harry Collins, says about his biology course.

Where did you study biology? The University of Bristol.


What was the high point of the course? The practical project that we did in the final year. We had to choose the project ourselves. I was particularly interested in molecular biology, so I decided to map the genetics of a new species of trypanosome (a parasite that causes sleeping sickness). The project required a lot of work and was very challenging. But the chance to work on a novel project where you have a high level of autonomy was very stimulating.


What was the hardest part of the course? The course was very varied and we covered a large range of subjects, which means that come exam time you have to remember a lot of information. This was particularly tough in the second year of the course when we had nine exams.


What do you do work in now? I am currently working for a software company that creates data processing systems. It certainly has very little to do with biology.


What is the strangest thing you learnt on the course? That the Latin name for a black rat is Rattus rattus.


A quick quiz about famous biologists

1.    Who came up with the theory of natural selection?

2.    Who is considered the father of genetics? (Clue: he did a lot of work with peas.)

3.    What did Alexander Fleming discover?

4.    What animal is Jane Goodall an expert in?

5.    Which two geneticists described the structure of DNA?

(Answers: 1. Charles Darwin 2. Gregor Mendel 3. penicillin 4. chimpanzee 5. Francis Crick & James Watson)


By Nick Kennedy

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