More Than Just Anatomy
By Leah Davis Christopher
On any given day, students in BYU’s Department of Physiology and Developmental Biology may be studying the regulation of insulin in blood, the movement of muscles during a perfect baseball pitch, or the activity of nervous tissue in electric fish or rat brains. While some students want to become health professionals, others are geared toward a career in biotechnology or the pharmaceutical industry. Students can compare the department’s two undergraduate majors—PDBio and Biophysics—to discover which will enable them to meet their goals.
PDBio Undergraduate Major
The PDBio major synthesizes many science disciplines to study the human body. The 400 students who declare the major each year add several chemistry and physics classes to a course load including molecular biology, evolutionary biology, tissue biology, and physiology.
To fulfill their required 11 credits of mentored laboratory research, students devote about 6 hours per week to projects. Students often help faculty with their research; for example, Dr. Jonathan Wisco’s 20 student researchers help with his projects. Some study Alzheimer’s disease through neuroimaging. Others study behavior by running mice through a radio-alarm maze. Still others perform intricate dissections of cadavers and then virtually map nerves and muscles on computer programs.
Students can also design research projects and work with a mentor. “If a student has a deep desire to do research,” says Dr. Wisco, “and they can come up with a really good, viable, testable hypothesis, then I’ll mentor them.” Other professors do the same, and students often present their research at professional conferences.
The PDBio major is one of several in the college chosen by students pursuing pre-professional tracks in medicine, dentistry, optometry, podiatry, chiropractics, pharmacy, or biotechnology. “Mentored laboratory research often sets students apart as they apply for professional schools,” says Connie Provost, department secretary. Students also gain the training necessary to work in the research community and to pursue other advanced degrees. Some students work toward masters and doctoral degrees in PDBio and Neuroscience that are also offered by BYU’s PDBio department.
Whereas the PDBio major focuses on qualitative research—describing the appearance and activity of the body—the biophysics major focuses more on the quantitative—measuring body functions. Dr. Dixon Woodbury, department chair and Biophysics professor, says that the major attracts “people that are good at math and want to do quantitative research on the life sciences.” The Biophysics major weeds out those unwilling to get technical with the math, physics, and chemistry side of biology—only 15 to 20 students are accepted into the major each year.
Lab research is a strong focus in the Biophysics major. In the lab, students can volunteer, receive course credit, complete an internship, or become a paid team leader. Students often participate in a lab for several weeks to see if the research suits their interests, and they normally do research for a year before becoming a team leader. Professors often serve as mentors for these research teams. For example, Dr. Woodbury guides students as they engineer bacteria that make human-like proteins, study changes in the protein structure at the molecular level, and identify how the structural changes affect function.
Although Biophysics graduates are competitive candidates for professional schools, the Biophysics major is less tailored toward medical careers than the PDBio major is. Instead, students typically aim to work for biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. They also gain academic and laboratory skills useful in graduate programs.
Check out http://pdbio.byu.edu/ AcademicPrograms/Undergraduates. aspx for video clips by department professors answering frequently asked questions about both undergraduate majors.