What Is Biology About?
Biology is the study of biota – living things. This includes humans, animals, plants, bacteria and viruses, together with their constituent parts (cells, organs, etc.). Biology also includes the study of the non-living components of living things, such as DNA, proteins and carbohydrates.
Like all science, biology is driven by curiosity. Biologists explore questions like:
- How did life begin?
- What role does a particular organism play in its ecosystem?
- How do nerve cells create feelings and actions?
- What is the cause of aging?
- What kinds of microorganisms live in our organs and how do they affect our health?
Biologists also develop new technologies and medical treatments, slow the spread of viruses, and come up with solutions for environmental degradation. Biology is the fourth most popular college major in the US (and the second-most popular, nursing, is a kind of applied biology).
Why Biology is Important
Biology is immensely practical. Every aspect of human health, from cancer to cavities to mental illness, is at least in part a biological phenomenon. That’s why every medical career begins with a strong foundation in biological science. For non-biologists, a basic grasp of biology can help with managing nutrition, stress, exercise, and other day-to-day health decisions.
Biology helps us manage not only human health but also the health of the global ecosystem. Agriculture, the foundation of all commerce, is a kind of applied biology: using science to improve the yield, efficiency, and sustainability of the crops that feed us. And biological phenomena like viral pandemics, climate change, pollution, and deforestation pose real and immediate threats to our health and to the world economy.
But beyond its practical value, biology has a kind of intrinsic beauty that has drawn in curious humans for thousands of years. Some of the oldest human art depicts animals and some of our most beloved traditions revolve around the biological process of growing and consuming food.
Our religions reflect a deep reverence for the mysterious process by which a tiny seed grows into a crop of wheat or olives. Any child in a zoo or hiker in a national park is experiencing some of the grandeur that captivates biologists.
Branches of Biology
Life works at different scales. At the smallest scale, it consists of chemicals: tiny molecular machines like DNA, RNA, and proteins whose behavior sets the conditions for all living processes.
Those molecules in turn are organized into cells, cells into tissues, tissues into organs, organs into bodies, bodies into populations, and populations into ecosystems. So when scientists divide biology into subfields, one method is to base the subfields on different scales, such as microbiology or ecology.
Another way of subdividing is to focus on the intersection of biology with another field, like physics or statistics. Because living organisms are so complex, they can be studied from an almost infinite variety of angles. So over the last few decades a huge number of subfields have sprung up to deal with the intersection between biology and other traditional sciences.
Scientists in fields like biostatistics and biophysics bridge the gaps between the living and nonliving worlds and develop new technologies for life science.
Alternatively, biologists can be subdivided based on the specific phenomena they study.
Zoology, botany, and mycology, for example, are broad fields defined by their focus on specific organisms (animals, plants, and fungi, respectively).
Genetics and developmental biology, on the other hand, are focused on general processes that can apply across different kinds of organisms.
A few important subfields of biology are:
- Microbiology: the study of microorganisms like bacteria and amoebas.
- Molecular biology: the study of biological molecules like DNA or hemoglobin. Molecular biology includes the cutting-edge science of genetics.
- Zoology: the study of animals. This might include animal behavior, animal health (i.e. veterinary science), animal growth and development, or anything else related to the animal kingdom.
- Medical science: various fields of applied biology fall under the broad heading of medical science. They include direct experiments on proposed new drugs as well as more basic research into the fundamental nature of illness.
- Behavioral biology: the intersection of biology and psychology. Behavioral biologists use biological methods to study how and why animals (including humans) act the way they do.
- Evolutionary biology: the study of how living things have changed (and continue to change) over time. Evolutionary biologists might work with fossils or ancient DNA, or they might use comparative methods to derive insights about the evolutionary past from living organisms.
- Developmental biology: the science of growth and development. This field has obvious medical implications, since a healthy growth process is critical for a healthy body and mind. But developmental biology has also yielded a surprising wealth of insights into other areas, especially genetics and evolution.
- Ecology: the science of ecological relationships. This is where biology blends into environmental science, and research in this area has important implications for the health of the planet.
A lot of biology students imagine that medical school is their ultimate goal, but there are plenty of fulfilling health careers besides being a doctor. Nurses, physical therapists, and even counselors depend on a deep knowledge of biology and its applications to human health. There’s plenty of demand for medical personnel: multiple studies have found shortages in nursing, for example, which creates opportunities for smart and compassionate students of biology.
Some biologists prefer the lab over the clinic. For those with keen analytical skills, attention to detail, and a capacity for teamwork, biological research can be a great career option. Biological researchers and lab technicians might work in pharmaceutical laboratories coming up with new medicines, or in an environmental lab monitoring the health of a local fish population. They might also work in a forensics lab, analyzing biological materials from crime scenes.
Education and Outreach Careers
For some biologists, communication is the most exciting part of science – convincing others to share your enthusiasm for biology and helping them understand what it means for their lives. That might mean teaching biology in a high school or middle school, or doing independent outreach as a health educator, genetic counselor, or park ranger. Or, if writing is your thing, there’s always science journalism and content creation.
Paths to Biology
For any career in biology, the road starts with college – nearly all biology careers require at least an Associate’s degree, and often a Bachelor’s or Master’s. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to major in biology. Sometimes an adjacent field is a better fit: environmental science, for example, or psychology. If you’re not sure which way to go, a course or two at a community college is a great, low-cost way to explore your options.
One of the biggest barriers to entry in biology is memorization. Biology classes are typically memorization-heavy, and many students are turned off by the sheer volume of information.
This is a shame, because people can lose their natural excitement about the living world in the bewildering jumble of enzymes and amino acids. (A 2016 study found that college biology textbook introduced 1500-2000 vocabulary words – 4x as many as a computer science textbook and closer to the figure for a foreign language.)
So if you do want to pursue life science, always try to remember why you’re pursuing it – the curiosity or passion for helping others that first got you excited about biology – and keep that in mind if you get discouraged about all the memorization.
Remember that your education might feel like it’s all about memorizing terms, but your career will be about excitement and curiosity.
Thonney, T. (2016). Analyzing the Vocabulary Demands of Introductory College Textbooks. The American Biology Teacher, 78(5), 389–395.
Registered Nurses : Occupational Outlook Handbook: : U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov)