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This article discusses how the biochemistry curriculum at Texas A&M University, a large, state-assisted research university, fulfills the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology-recommended guidelines. In addition, the research requirement for our degree, changes we are making to the curriculum, and the effect our large service teaching function has on implementing the guidelines are discussed.

This report is the fourth article in a series illustrating how different departments are implementing the new curriculum in biochemistry and molecular biology recommended by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB)11 . Previous articles have introduced the recommendations [1, 2] and described the implementation in three different departments [35].

Texas A&M University is a Research-I university with land grant, sea grant, and space grant missions. It has over 45,000 students, of which approximately 37,000 are undergraduates. The Department of Biochemistry & Biophysics was formed in 1947 as a graduate-level Department of Biochemistry & Nutrition. In 1968, the name of the department was changed to Biochemistry & Biophysics, and a 4-year undergraduate degree was initiated. Currently, the department has 31 faculty, 170 undergraduate majors in biochemistry, and over 100 graduate students. An additional 15 faculty in other departments at Texas A&M University have joint appointments. In 1988, the department began an undergraduate major in genetics, which currently has 200 students (a graduate degree in genetics is administered by an Intercollegiate Faculty of Genetics with a chairperson elected by the faculty). The department offers Bachelor of Science degrees (and minors) in biochemistry and genetics, and a Master of Science and doctorate (Ph.D.) degree in biochemistry. The most popular alternate degree is the double major in biochemistry and genetics, which, because the two degree plans are so close in requirements, may be completed with one extra semester of course work.

The undergraduate biochemistry curriculum (Table I) is designed to provide a strong science- and research-based education in preparation for graduate school, professional school, or careers in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry. Approximately one third of our majors go on to graduate school and one third to medical school. The degree program in biochemistry is 133 semester credit hours (SCH). Texas A&M University has a core curriculum of 43 SCH for undergraduates comprising six SCH of communication, six SCH mathematics, eight SCH natural sciences, six SCH humanities, three SCH social/behavioral sciences, six SCH history, six SCH political science, and two SCH of kinesiology. In addition, the biochemistry major requires 30 SCH of chemistry, 19 SCH of biology, genetics and molecular biology, and 14 or more SCH of biochemistry, as outlined in Table I. Allied field courses include 11 SCH of calculus (three courses) and eight SCH of physics with a lab. Finally, the biochemistry curriculum has 13 SCH of free electives. Students are encouraged to use these hours to read for a minor in liberal arts or science, to complete a double major or to obtain a second degree, or to take courses allowing specialization in pre-medicine, pre-veterinary medicine, or pre-law, and so forth. Descriptions of the degree program and courses, respectively, are found on the web [6].

The ASBMB Committee spent many hours arguing over the merits of how much chemistry, especially physical chemistry, and how much biology to recommend [2]. The guidelines [1] represent a compromise that is being illustrated by this series of reports [35] on how different departments are handling the implementation. In our department, the physical chemistry requirement is a two-semester course sequence for chemistry majors in an American Chemical Society-approved B.S. degree program, the prerequisites for which include a third semester of calculus. The syllabus includes application of the laws of thermodynamics to gases, liquids, solutions, and chemical equilibrium; kinetic theory of gases and rates of chemical reactions; quantum theory, atomic and molecular structure, spectroscopy; and statistical thermodynamics. Thus, our degree program (Table I) has the “traditional” approach of being biology-light and chemistry-heavy. Our majors take 4 years of chemistry (freshman introductory course, organic, analytical, instrumental, and physical) but, not counting genetics or molecular biology, only one biology course beyond freshman biology, at which point students choose between either microbiology or cell biology (both with labs). In the case of cell biology, for example, this approach allows us the flexibility of not having to teach signal transduction in our biochemistry sequence, although the biochemistry of this topic may be covered in one of our capstone (BICH 407) courses.

Biochemistry and molecular biology are taught in a series of four courses (Table I). All four courses are restricted to majors only or to majors in the molecular life sciences (which includes majors in genetics, molecular and cell biology, microbiology, botany, and zoology). BICH 440 and 441 are for biochemistry and genetics majors only and comprise the classical two-semester biochemistry sequence but without gene structure and function (i.e. physical and chemical properties of macromolecules—proteins, enzymes, nucleic acids, carbohydrates, lipids, and membrane structure; and metabolism and metabolic regulation). GENE 301 and BICH 431 are for majors in the molecular life sciences and cover classical genetics and molecular biology (including gene structure and function). The typical sequence of courses for biochemistry majors will be to complete organic chemistry, genetics, microbiology or cell biology, physics, and calculus by the end of the second year. We encourage students to take physical chemistry and biochemistry (BICH 440 and 441) in their junior year. As pointed out by Bell [3] for the undergraduate program at the University of Richmond (Richmond, VA), in this way physical chemistry is taught in a context that allows students to see the biochemical applications. The ASBMB-recommended lab skills [1] are covered in a number of courses, including the biochemistry labs (BICH 414 and 432; see Table I), as well as in quantitative and instrumental analysis taught by the Chemistry Department. In addition, the degree programs in both biochemistry and genetics require four SCH of research (BICH 491). The recommended advanced topics in biochemistry are taught either in the two-semester sequence or in one SCH capstone course (BICH 407). Students are required to take a minimum of two of these. Topics covered recently have been Great Papers in Biochemistry, Recent Papers by Biochemistry Faculty, Metabolic Control Theory, Proteomics, Genomics, Eukaryotic Gene Expression, Biological NMR, and so forth.

As mentioned above, we require all majors to have a meaningful research experience as part of their degree program. We believe that research-based enquiry within the major hones problem solving and critical thinking skills that are difficult to develop in other environments. We strongly encourage students to begin working in a lab during their freshman year and to spend their summers either in a research lab at Texas A&M University or in one of the numerous Undergraduate Summer Research Programs available at universities and medical schools in Texas or elsewhere. The freshman class, BICH 107 (Table I), is used to introduce students to the discipline and to the research interests of the faculty [7]. Most students elect to take more than the four SCH of research required by the major and spend 2 or more years actively working in a lab. Finally, students are encouraged to complete a senior thesis either through the Office of Honors Programs or through the Department of Biochemistry & Biophysics. Both programs require students to submit a research proposal in their junior year, attend meetings at which they present talks to a lay audience or an audience of science peers, and finally, submit a thesis after completion of the project in their senior year. A faculty committee judges both the proposal and the thesis.

The development and publication of the guidelines [1] was reassuring to me because our program clearly fits. At the same time, the ideas presented in this series of articles has given us pause for thought. For example, we should have more advanced topic courses and perhaps a seminar course. One reason such courses have not been developed more expeditiously is the popularity of life sciences at Texas A&M University. Our department has an awesome responsibility for service teaching in biochemistry, molecular biology, and genetics. Last year, we taught biochemistry (as either a one-semester or a two-semester course) to over 2,000 nonmajors; and genetics and molecular biology were taught to over 1,600 nonmajors. Naturally this detracts from the number of faculty available to teach specialized courses at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

Currently, we do not follow the guidelines [1] by requiring a year of calculus-based physics, although it is strongly recommended. This is because the calculus-based physics courses at Texas A&M University form a three-semester sequence directed toward engineers and are perceived by our students to be “weed-out” courses in which good grades are hard to achieve. Our reasoning has also been tempered by the understanding, perhaps misplaced, that the physics that students need to know will be covered in their chemistry and biochemistry courses. However, in implementing the ASBMB-recommended curriculum, we are encouraging the Department of Physics to begin a two-semester calculus-based physics course for life science majors that will become required for biochemistry (and genetics) majors. An additional change on the horizon is the university-wide implementation of a requirement for writing, through the curriculum. Each student will be required to take two courses within the major in which a substantial portion of the course grade (equivalent to ∼1 SCH) will be based on written assignments.

Table Table I. Curriculum for the Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry
Course numberTitleContent
  • a

    a Number of SCH–number of semesters.

CHEM 101, 102 (8–2)aFundamentals of Chemistry, with labAs recommended by ASBMB
CHEM 227, 228 (8–2)Organic Chemistry, with labAs recommended by ASBMB
CHEM 316, 318 (3–1),Quantitative Analysis, with labQuantitative chemical analysis
CHEM 317, 320 (4–1)Instrumental Analysis, with labInstrumental techniques of quantitative analysis
CHEM 323, 324, 325 (7–2)Physical Chemistry, with labAs recommended by ASBMB
BIOL 113, 114 (8–2)Introductory Biology, with labAs recommended by ASBMB
MICR 351 (4–1) orMicrobiology, with labBasic microbiology and physiology of microorganisms
BIOL 413 (4–1)Cell Biology, with labIncludes protein trafficking, motility, signaling, proliferation
GENE 301 (4–1)Genetics, with labClassical genetics
BICH 107 (2–1)Horizons in Biological Chemistry IIntroduction to biochemistry and molecular biology
BICH 440 (3–1)Biochemistry IPhysical and chemical properties of macromolecules
BICH 441 (3–1)Biochemistry IIMetabolism and metabolic regulation
BICH 431 (3–1)Molecular GeneticsChromosomes, DNA replication and repair, transcription, translation, gene expression
   
BICH 414 (2–1) orBiochemical TechniquesLab techniques in biochemistry
BICH 432 (2–1)Lab in Molecular GeneticsLab techniques in molecular biology/molecular genetics
BICH 407 (2 or more)Horizons in Biological Chemistry IIVariable: directed elective capstone courses
BICH 491 (4 or more)ResearchVariable, may include a senior thesis
  • 1

    The abbreviations used are: ASBMB, American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; SCH, semester credit hours.

REFERENCES

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. REFERENCES