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Biological Sciences

Student in Michael Barresi's lab

The Department of Biological Sciences treats the life sciences in all their breadth and diversity, including the study of molecules, cells, whole organisms, ecosystems, plants, animals and microorganisms. The requirements for the major in the biological sciences provide both a solid foundation in biology and opportunities to pursue special interests.

The major embraces three broad core areas: cells, physiology and development; genetics, molecular biology and evolution; and biodiversity, ecology and conservation. All majors are strongly encouraged to pursue collaborative research with any of the department’s faculty members who work in areas as diverse as bacterial pathogenesis, ecological impacts of invasive marine organisms, ecology of coral reefs, regulation of photosynthesis, ciliate evolution, muscle biochemistry, mammalian reproductive ecology and the molecular biology of human parasites.

Requirements & Courses

The biological sciences form the foundation of a number of academic disciplines at Smith, including biology, biochemistry, neuroscience, landscape studies and environmental science and policy. The major in biological sciences itself spans organisms from bacteria through plants and animals, levels of organization from molecules and cells through ecosystems, and modern research methods in both the laboratory and the field.

Students in biological sciences master fundamental concepts in introductory courses with associated laboratories or fieldwork. In those courses, students conduct research projects, an emphasis on research that recurs in the upper-level courses that follow. As they choose those courses, they select a track to focus their learning in specific areas (cells, physiology and development; genetics, evolution and molecular biology; biodiversity, ecology and conservation) or instead choose a broad integrative approach that can include an option to prepare to teach at the secondary-school level.

Learning Objectives for the Biological Sciences

  • Broad knowledge of the field of biology and its foundational concepts
  • Deeper knowledge, fluency and ability to creatively engage in a subdiscipline of biology
  • Use of interdisciplinary fields to support an enhanced understanding of the life sciences 
  • Critical thinking and rigorous evaluation of primary scientific research 
  • Evaluation and understanding of one’s own learning process
  • Demonstrated ability using the scientific method, empirical approaches and the generation of original knowledge    
  • Competency in employing standard quantitative and statistical approaches to organize, analyze and interpret scientific data
  • Effective communication of scientific information to academic and general audiences
Ethical Conduct and Civic Engagement 
  • An understanding of science and research ethical considerations
  • Building identity and confidence within the field of the life sciences
  • Understanding and participation in public and stakeholder concerns related to science policy with evidence based approaches 

With a rich array of courses and access to extensive research resources, students in biological sciences graduate with the knowledge and experience they need to begin careers in research, academia, the health professions, the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, conservation, wildlife management, secondary education and many other endeavors.

A quick guide to the Biology  Major (for LAA advisors and first-year students) can be found here.  

The major in biological sciences includes a set of five fundamental courses (biodiversity ecology and conservation, cell and molecular biology, genetics or evolution, chemistry, and statistics) plus courses within one of the five tracks listed below. Biological sciences majors can select courses that prepare them for professional training in medical, dental and veterinary schools; for graduate programs in the various biological disciplines; for high school teaching; and for employment in research labs, pharmaceutical companies and government agencies.

Track 1: Integrative Biology
Track 2: Cells, Physiology, and Development
Track 3: Genetics, Evolution, and Molecular Biosciences
Track 4: Biodiversity, Ecology and Conservation
Track 5: Biology and Education

Specific details about which courses are included for each track can be found below in the Course Offerings tab.


Students should choose their advisers, according to their interests, from the department faculty.

Prospective majors should consult with biology faculty in choosing their courses.

Study Abroad Adviser: Each student should consult their major adviser for any necessary study abroad information and signatures.

Advanced Placement Credit

Students receiving advanced placement on their Smith College transcript for biology (e.g., AP [4 or 5 score], International Baccalaureate, A Levels) may substitute either BIO 130 or BIO132 with a 200- or 300-level course in the same subfield of biology.  In other words, a 200 or 300 level course in ecology, biodiversity, or conservation can substitute for BIO 130; whereas a course in molecules, cells, or systems (physiology) can substitute for BIO 132. Regardless, students are NOT exempt from the BIO 131 and 133 laboratory methods courses.  Please consult with either Prof. Dorit ( or Prof. Hayssen ( if you think you are eligible for advanced placement.

The requirements for the minor in biological sciences comprise six courses chosen in consultation with an adviser. These courses usually include at least one core course and must include one 300-level course. At least one laboratory course is required; one-credit or two-credit laboratories do not count as separate courses toward the minimum of six required courses. No more than one course designed primarily for non-majors may be included. One course from another department or program may be included provided that course is related to a student’s particular interest in biology and is chosen in consultation with her adviser.


Members of the department also serve as advisers for the minor. Students should choose their advisers, according to their interests, from the department faculty.

Director: Laura Katz

430d Thesis
8 credits
Full-year course; offered each year

432d Thesis
12 credits
Full-year course; offered each year


  • GPA of 3.3 for courses in the major taken (including courses in the major taken at other institutions)
  • A thesis proposal (500 to 1000 words) must be approved by the thesis adviser and the members of the department prior to the college deadlines for submission of honors applications.


  • Requirements for the major
  • 8 or 12 thesis credits in the senior year, involving an individual investigation, an oral presentation and a written thesis.


The thesis is graded by two to three readers: the thesis adviser, a faculty member in biology and optionally a third faculty member outside the department.


The final honors determination is based on:

  • Overall GPA (twenty percent)*
  • Final oral presentation (twenty percent)
  • Quality of the thesis (sixty percent)

*The thesis course (430D or 432D) receives a grade which is calculated in the overall GPA.

Smith College Course Search

Smith’s online course search includes course listings (description, instructor and offered terms), department data, information on majors and minors, honors programs and cross-listed and interdepartmental courses. A search function allows you to find courses by course number, department, keywords in the title, term offered, number of credits, fields of knowledge and professor.

Five College Course Guide

The Five College Consortium increases your choices. Four liberal arts colleges—Smith, Amherst, Hampshire and Mount Holyoke—along with the University of Massachusetts, offer joint courses of study as well as certificate programs in interdisciplinary fields. Courses are available at no extra cost to Smith students.

Summer research (SURF) at any point in your Smith trajectory is an outstanding way to enhance your training, to help you explore your own preferences and passions, and introduces you to a network of students and investigators that you will come to rely on as you build your career. Participating in a research project makes you part of the vast and exciting enterprise of knowledge creation. You should be part of that enterprise, and all of us benefit from having you be part of it.

Students who want to participate in summer biology research at Smith should begin this process in late fall or very early in the spring semester. Start by checking out the list of available projects and make an appointment to talk to the appropriate biology faculty member(s) whose projects interest you. This is a critical step: you will not be eligible to apply for a SURF position until you have spoken to the faculty member in charge of the project. In your application, you will have to designate the lab that you wish to be considered for, but you will also have the opportunity to indicate other labs/projects that caught your eye.

Following your discussion with the biology faculty member, you need to fill out an application as soon as possible so that we may inform you of our decision as early in the spring as we can. This makes it possible for you to make wise decisions about your summer and plan accordingly.

Please email for details, access to the list of available summer projects, the application form, and further information about the process.


Lunchbags are a weekly gathering of students and faculty of the Biological Sciences Department. 

Lunchbags have moved to Thursdays and are held from 12:15 - 1:00 pm in McConnell 103 unless otherwise noted. 

Lunch is provided for the first 35 attendees, please bring your own beverage.  All members of the Smith Community are welcome.  For more information, contact  


Mar 23: Life Sciences Jeopardy!

Join the BIO Liaisons as they host the first ever annual Life Sciences Jeopardy game! 

Attendees will be split into teams to answer trivia questions about Smith, the field of biology, our BIO faculty, etc. 

******Winning team will receive a PRIZE!******


Mar 30: Biology Advising Session

This is a great opportunity to meet the BIO faculty and student liaisons and to ask questions.

Please note that this Advising Session does not replace the one-on-one meeting with your academic advisor.


Apr 6: Preliminary Honors Presentations

Vivian Li, Sabra Mouhi


April 13: Preliminary Masters Presentations

Billie Cullison, Jailene Gonzalez, Andrew Gonzalez


Life Sciences Colloquia Presentations are part of the Spring 2023 Mary Elizabeth Dickason King M.D. Annual Lecture Series in the Life Sciences in Memory of Professor Howard Parshley.

Thursdays at 4:30 pm in McConnell 103

Coffee, tea and light snacks will be served in the McConnell Foyer at 4:15 pm 


March 23   Mei Wu, Harvard

"Killing Superbugs by Inducing Bacteria-Specific Phototoxicity"

Chronic wound infections caused by multidrug-resistant (MDR) bacteria, or superbugs, pose a serious threat to public health due to limited treatment options and prolonged care. To address this challenge, we have developed a novel microbicidal strategy by combining two non-antibiotic and natural modalities: blue light and small natural compounds. The combined strategy effectively eliminates a range of MDR bacteria and their polymicrobial biofilms in vitro and in vivo in a safe and rapid manner, regardless of antibiotic susceptibility.  This strategy can also reverse antibiotic resistance.  Several small natural compounds are identified, such as carvacrol and thymol, and they can be photo-catalytically oxidized to a "photosensitizer" that is more effective in killing bacteria than the compound itself when exposed to blue light. We name these compounds "pro-photosensitizers" analogous to the prodrug that is activated only in bacteria. The pro-photosensitizer triggers two autoxidation cycles that interact with each other, resulting in the generation of a high level of cytotoxic reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the presence of blue light.  This phototoxic reaction occurs exclusively in bacteria due to abundant porphyrins-like compounds produced in bacteria over mammalian cells.  The phototoxic reaction can be further augmented by specific compounds that facilitate the synthesis of endogenous photosensitizers.  The microbicidal alternatives are safe and effective in the fight against MDR pathogens, making them a promising option for addressing the challenge of chronic wound infections caused by superbugs.


March 30  ChangHui Pak, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

"Dissecting the Neurodevelopmental Role of Schizophrenia Gene Variant NRXN1 at Single Cell Resolution in iPSC-derived Human Brain Organoid Model"

De novo mutations and copy number variations (CNVs) in NRXN1 (2p16.3) pose a significant risk for schizophrenia (SCZ). How NRXN1 CNVs impact cortical development in a cell type-specific manner and how disease genetic background modulates these phenotypes are unclear. Here, we leveraged human pluripotent stem cell-derived brain organoid models carrying NRXN1 heterozygous deletions in isogenic and SCZ patient genetic backgrounds and conducted single-cell transcriptomic analysis over the course of cortical brain organoid development from 3 weeks to 3.5 months. From the dataset consisting of 141,039 high-quality single cell transcriptomes, we identified that maturing glutamatergic and GABAergic neurons as being consistently impacted due to NRXN1 CNVs irrespective of genetic background, contributed in part by altered gene modules in ubiquitin-mediated pathways, splicing, and synaptic signaling. Moreover, while isogenic NRXN1 CNVs impact the differentiation and maturation of neurons and astroglia, cell composition and developmental trajectories of early neural progenitors are affected in SCZ-NRXN1 CNVs. Our study reveals developmental timing-dependent NRXN1 CNV-induced cellular mechanisms in SCZ at single-cell resolution and highlights the emergence of disease-specific transcriptomic signatures and cellular vulnerabilities, which can arise from the interaction between genetic variants and disease background. Finally, this single cell dataset provides a valuable community resource that allows an in-depth temporal analysis on the genetic effects of schizophrenia risk variants.

April 6  Alex Stevens, University of California, San Diego

"Intracellular Transport Susceptibility to Viral Antagonism"

Viruses interact with the intracellular transport machinery to promote viral replication. Such host–virus interactions can drive host gene adaptation, leaving signatures of pathogen-driven evolution in host genomes. Here, we leverage these genetic signatures to identify the dynein activating adaptor, ninein-like (NINL), as a critical component in the antiviral innate immune response and as a target of viral antagonism. Unique among genes encoding components of active dynein complexes, NINL has evolved under recurrent positive (diversifying) selection, particularly in its carboxy-terminal cargo-binding region. Consistent with a role for NINL in host immunity, we demonstrate that NINL knockout cells exhibit an impaired response to interferon, resulting in increased permissiveness to viral replication. Moreover, we show that proteases encoded by diverse picornaviruses and coronaviruses cleave and disrupt NINL function in a host- and virus-specific manner. Our work reveals the importance of NINL in the antiviral response and the utility of using signatures of host–virus genetic conflicts to uncover new components of antiviral immunity and targets of viral antagonism.


April 20  John T Lill, The George Washington University

"Cascading Effects of an Ecological Pulse: Direct and Indirect Effects of the Brood X Cicada Emergence on an Eastern Temperate Forest"

The simultaneous regional emergence of billions of periodical cicadas results in a massive ecological perturbation of eastern North American forests, the nature and extent of which until now have remained largely unexplored. Once every 13 or 17 years, vast numbers of nymphal cicadas, constituting an estimated 0.5-3.7 metric tons ha-1 of insect biomass, concurrently emerge from the soil and briefly satiate an entire guild of naive consumers, offering a rare opportunity to assess the cascading impacts of an ecosystem-wide resource pulse on a complex food web. In this study, we quantified the effects of the 2021 Brood X emergence, which spanned 15 states in the eastern USA, on components of three trophic levels: the diets and foraging activities of avian insectivores, the density of forest caterpillars that constitute the birds’ usual prey, and the increased damage inflicted by these caterpillars on their white oak host plants. We found that during the emergence, a phylogenetically diverse assemblage of local bird species, spanning a range of feeding guilds and three orders of magnitude in body mass, opportunistically switched their foraging to include cicadas as a significant portion of their diets. This dietary shift, in turn, precipitated an ecological release of avian predation for a community of tree-feeding caterpillars. During the peak of the emergence, bird attacks on plasticine caterpillar models declined three-fold and concurrently, caterpillar densities and accumulated herbivory levels on their host oak leaves more than doubled relative to the same trees sampled in non-cicada emergence years. Because in any given year large areas of the eastern United States are anticipating, experiencing, or recovering from an onslaught of periodical cicadas, developing a detailed understanding of the trophic implications of these emergences is critical for interpreting the population and community dynamics of eastern North American forests. In addition to our scientific findings, I will also discuss our cicada-themed educational outreach activities and materials. 





Margaret Anderson
Professor Emerita of Biological Sciences

Richard T. Briggs
Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences

Michael Marcotrigiano
Professor Emeritus

Robert B. Merritt
Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences

Stephen G. Tilley
Myra A. Sampson Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences

Student Liaisons

  • Eyananda Ahmed '24
  • Valeria Bastardo Brito '25
  • Julian Hernandez '24
  • Shay Iyer ’23
  • Hannah Jaffe '25
  • Daun Lee '25
  • Marge Poma '23
  • Sam Waniewski ’23



Department of Biology
Burton Hall 115
Smith College
Northampton, MA 01063
Phone: 413-585-6598
Fax: 413-585-3786

Administrative Assistant: Elizabeth Iola Sylvan

Current Chair: Robert Dorit,