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Biology majors a vanishing breed

Biology, anyone? Anyone?


    The biology department has witnessed an unprecedented exodus of undergraduate students over the last five years, with the number of majors dropping from 270 in 1998 to just 120 this year.

Two main trends seem to explain the decline: a nationwide drop in the number of students applying to medical school and an increasingly common view among pre-med students that a biology major is unnecessary for their interests or too difficult to earn.


    Ron Grunwald, lecturer and associate director of undergraduate studies in biology, said this latter explanation shows why the number of biology majors has continued to slide at the University despite a recent uptick in medical school applications nationally.


    "Basically, I think what we're seeing for the last couple of years is a shift from students whose primary interest is medicine away from biology... and into other majors," Grunwald said.


    Curriculum 2000 may be one of the causes, Grunwald said, as abundant obligations have made science double-majors difficult to obtain for some students. Also, a biology minor was introduced in 2001, offering an alternative for students who have taken biology coursework but find that a major does not meet their needs. Finally, he said, students may be increasingly heeding the advice of the biology department and Associate Dean of Natural Sciences Kay Singer, who advise pre-med students to choose a major that fits their interests. No major is "better" for medical school, Singer said.


    These causes, unique to Duke and concentrated in recent years, are only part of the story. From its peak in 1998--when biology was the most popular major at the University--to a nadir with this year's graduating class, strong national forces have also been at work.


    Many administrators pointed to a drop in the number of students applying to medical school in the wake of the Internet commerce boom and exploding job market of the mid-to-late-1990s. Although Singer said applicant levels remained relatively constant during and after the dot-com craze, other administrators suggested that the number of pre-med students--and, by extension, biology majors--declined.


    "How many students with the right talent want to take medicine as a career will depend greatly on society," said Dean of Natural Sciences Berndt Mueller, who noted that economics supplanted biology as by far the most popular major during this period. "Students thought they would be rich in a few years [with an economics major].... These kinds of fashions rotate in and out."


    The wild Internet zeal of the 1990s has long passed its expiration date, but trouble in the medical profession itself may have stymied the return of pre-med and biology students.


    Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences William Chafe suggested that the demoralization of doctors in an era of HMOs and malpractice insurance may have had effects all the way down to the undergraduate level. "My impressionistic opinion is that the medical profession has become more of a problem as a career, causing fewer students to be pre-med," he said.


    While acknowledging problems, Singer said that undergraduate students were not fazed in their interest in medical school. At a recent Career Week panel, she said, a group of seven physicians was notably positive about its experiences.


    "[They were] accepting the fact that there were challenges, but they were very upbeat," she said. "I think students listen to that rather than listen to some of the horror stories."

Disgruntlement in the profession notwithstanding, the number of medical school applicants appears to be rebounding, which portends more students in the future for biology. Further good news for biology enthusiasts came this winter, as a Curriculum 2000 review committee announced plans to relax restrictions and perhaps make science double-majoring less burdensome.


    Going from the most popular major on campus to a merely large one has been a mixed experience for the biology department. Biology chair Philip Benfey said he has not observed a considerable change in department atmosphere, and Mueller noted that enrollment figures have not dropped as precipitously as the major.


    Grunwald, however, said certain units associated with the department, such as the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, have been hurt by the drop in interest.


    "There are, in fact, aspects of the biology department that depend upon enrollment and as the total number goes down, those programs have seen a disturbing decline in numbers to the point where there is some concern about viability," he said.


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