The Major

The Biology major provides students with a broad base for understanding principles governing life processes at all levels–molecular, cellular, organismal, and ecological. An evolutionary perspective guides all areas of the curriculum–development, behavior, physiology, genetics, and more.

Getting Started in Biology

It is preferable for students who plan to major in biology, or think they may be interested in doing so, to take Biology 101 and 102 during their first year at Williams. It is also possible to begin the Biology major during the sophomore year, although students should understand it may require taking two or more biology courses during several semesters.

All students are welcome to take Biology 101, regardless of high school preparation in biology. While a placement exam is not necessary to enroll in Biology 101 or Biology 102, it is required to place out of Biology 101 or 102. The placement exam is offered during First Days.

It is possible to take Biology 102 in the spring before taking Biology 101. If you plan to do so, please check with the BIOL 102 instructors to make sure your high school background prepares you for taking the course out of sequence.  It is also possible to take Biology 203 (Ecology), and/or Biology 204 (Animal Behavior) without prerequisites but with the permission of instructor.

Major Requirements

The Biology major is satisfied by nine courses:

Required Core Courses

  • BIOL 101 The Cell
  • BIOL 102 The Organism
  • Two 200-level electives with lab in which at least one faculty member is a member of the Williams College Biology Department. (Tutorials and independent studies may not be used to fulfill this requirement)
  • Two 300-level electives. (Both of these must have an associated lab component.)
  • One 400-level seminar course. (Honors Thesis BIOL 493 and 494 do not fulfill this requirement.)
  • Two additional BIOL courses, which can be at the 200, 300, or 400-level, OR one such course plus two semesters of Organic Chemistry (CHEM 156 and 251) OR General Chemistry II and Organic Chemistry I (CHEM 200 and 201). The Honors Thesis will fulfill one of these credits.

Please note the following:

  • A student who places out of BIOL101 and/or BIOL102 (by passing the placement exam) must still take nine BIOL courses to complete the BIOL major.
  • The two Chemistry courses (CHEM 156 and CHEM 251, OR CHEM 200 and CHEM 201) combined, can be counted for one of the additional elective courses for the BIOL major. However, the college does not allow the same course to count toward fulfilling the requirements for two majors (“no double-counting”). This means that if you are a BIOL and CHEM major, you cannot count CHEM 156 and CHEM 251 as an elective toward the BIOL major.
  • Some BIOL courses do not count toward the BIOL major, so-called “non-major” courses (for example, BIOL 133, 134, and 135).
  • Additional guidance, and complete course descriptions, can be found in the Biology Course Catalog section.

The Major with Honors

The Biology Major with Honors consists of 10 courses plus a required WSP course. In addition to the requirements listed above for the BIOL major, honors students carry out a year-long independent research project (by enrolling in BIOL 493, 031, and 494) that culminates in a written honors thesis.

Enriching Your Biology Major Experience

  • Majors are strongly advised to take two semesters of chemistry, a statistics course, calculus, and physics.
  • Courses in related disciplines bring breadth of understanding to Biology. The most directly relevant disciplines include Anthropology, Computer Science (Bioinformatics), Chemistry, Cognitive Science, Environmental Studies, Geosciences, Mathematics, Neuroscience, Physics, Public Health, and Statistics.
  • Consider a concentration in an interdisciplinary program such as BIMO (Biochemistry and Molecular Biology), ENVI, NSCI, Public Health, or other related programs in the sciences.
  • Students interested in pursuing careers in medicine should consult the Pre-health Requirements, which list required and recommended courses in and outside of Biology.
  • Consider pursuing Honors Thesis Research in your senior year.

Research As Part of the Major

  • Independent research is not required for completion of the major. However, students thinking of attending graduate school are strongly advised to pursue independent research for at least one semester or summer.
  • Students can take research courses for academic credit (Independent Study: BIOL 297, 298; Honors Thesis: 493, 494). Note that only one such course may count toward the nine-course major requirement for the 10-course major with honors.
  • Students can also gain research experience during Winter Study by taking BIOL 22 Introduction to Biological Research or by pursuing an off-campus internship with a WSP99 project.

Biology Department Learning Outcomes

Biology is the fundamental study of life and living systems.  The educational goals of our curriculum foster student excitement about biology and promote science as a process and way of knowing, not merely content knowledge.  We offer a strong foundation in biology to prepare for diverse and successful careers and to enrich our students’ lifelong engagement with the world, in all its diversity and complexity.

We have framed the educational goals for our majors as six skills-based learning outcomes.

  • Students will use an integrative approach that spans from molecular to ecosystem levels in order to understand the broader context of biological systems.
  • Students will learn proficiency in reading, understanding and critically evaluating scientific literature across major areas of the curriculum.
  • Students will learn to generate question-oriented hypotheses and models, to develop an experimental design, and to collect and analyze data.  This includes the importance of a statistical sample, the meaning of statistical significance and how to apply statistical treatments to different data sets.
  • Students will demonstrate the ability to work both collaboratively and independently on research.  Students’ proficiency in research will include understanding a research topic and the methods that allow them to problem-solve and take ownership of a project.
  • Students will be able to communicate their discoveries clearly and explicitly, both orally and in writing, following conventional scientific formats.
  • Students will incorporate current and future societal and global challenges into their approach to biology.