Introducing a new undergraduate biochemistry/molecular biology curriculum recommended by the American Society for Biochemistry and molecular biology (ASBMB)

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Biochemistry throughout much of its history has been a field reserved for postbaccalaureate study. Universities in the United States established biochemistry (often called physiological chemistry) departments in the late 19th century and early 20th century primarily to train students for the M.Sc., Ph.D., and M.D. degrees. Therefore, the curriculum of biochemistry programs and courses was driven by basic research and topics in medical/clinical education. The exact time and institutions with the first undergraduate biochemistry programs are uncertain, but some universities began such programs in the 1950s, while a few liberal arts colleges followed suit in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Perhaps a major impetus for the expansion of undergraduate programs was the publication of Lehninger's Biochemistry, the first textbook that was written and designed with undergraduate students in mind. Lehninger used what he called “molecular logic” to outline the fundamentals: 1) the molecular components of the cell; 2) catabolism and the generation of phosphate bond energy; 3) biosynthesis and the utilization of phosphate bond energy; and 4) replication, transcription, and translation of genetic information. In those earlier days, most students preparing for careers in biochemistry completed a chemistry degree because few institutions offered degrees labeled “biochemistry.” The typical curriculum followed by these students included perhaps one or two semesters of biochemistry crunched in among chemistry (General, Organic, Physical, Analytical, and Inorganic; all with labs), physics, calculus, differential equations, etc. but unfortunately included few, if any, biology courses. Biochemistry students at this time were considered by traditional chemists to be “other,” so the best advice for survival was to read your biochemistry textbook in the privacy of your dorm room late at night, not in the chemistry building.

The 1980s were a major growth period for undergraduate biochemical education. During that time the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) formed the Educational Affairs Committee (EAC) with the goal to study aspects of biochemical education at the graduate and undergraduate levels. Members of the Committee included 14 biochemists from a variety of institutions including major research universities, medical schools, the pharmaceutical industry, and government funding agencies and one member (R. Boyer) appointed from a predominately undergraduate institution. One of our early projects was to begin a study of current requirements for the undergraduate degree in Biochemistry offered in chemistry, biochemistry, and biology departments at United States colleges and universities. Our goal was to design a curricular program for the bachelors degree in Biochemistry to be used as a guideline for academic institutions. (In 1988, after several years of study, the American Chemical Society's (ACS) Committee on Professional Training (CPT) announced the establishment of an ACS-certified bachelors degree in chemistry with biochemistry emphasis to be offered to students in ACS-certified chemistry departments. Although the EAC had been consulted regarding the ACS deliberations, members of the EAC, especially colleagues in biochemistry and biology departments, believed that the ACS degree had only a minimum of molecular life science courses and was not well suited for students who wanted careers in biochemistry and molecular biology.) In 1990, ∼300 institutions were identified that offered an undergraduate biochemistry degree. Most of the programs were in chemistry or biochemistry departments (about 250) with the balance in biology departments. A subcommittee of the EAC studied curricula from all of the institutions and first determined a “typical” or “average” biochemistry curriculum. The ASBMB-endorsed curriculum was completed in 1992, published for comments in Biochemical Education (Ref. 1; now Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, BAMBED) and posted on the ASBMB Web site. The proposed curriculum included a listing of specific courses: Chemistry (Introductory, Organic, Physical, and Analytical; all with labs), two semesters of biochemistry with lab, Introductory Biology, two semesters of advanced biology (preferably Cell Biology, Genetics, or Molecular Biology), 1 year of calculus, 1 year of physics, and independent research. It was also strongly suggested that students learn skills in statistics, computer science, and written/oral communication. The EAC determined that this curriculum should be referred to as “recommended” and be made available as a model for the design of an undergraduate degree. Committee members now define the recommended curriculum as wildly successful as we have offered advice and answered questions from hundreds of colleagues around the world who have asked for further information. We are aware of at least 600 institutions in the United States that now offer an undergraduate degree similar to that recommended. Graduation surveys of United States institutions completed by the Committee indicate that at least 2000 bachelors degrees in Biochemistry/Molecular Biology (BMB) were granted in each of the academic years 2000–2001 and 2001–2002. We have evidence that the degree has served as an important route to graduate school, to medical school, to jobs in biotechnology, and to careers in law and business for thousands of students.

In the 10 years plus since the ASBMB developed the recommended curriculum, the fields of biochemistry and molecular biology have undergone major changes, thus demanding an updated version. Topics that were in earlier years often considered on the fringes of biochemistry (molecular biology, molecular genetics, cell biology, neuroscience, immunology, etc.) were buried in the final chapters of biochemistry textbooks. Many biochemistry authors have now integrated these topics into the main body of their books. Experimental design in basic biochemistry increasingly uses nucleic acids and genetic techniques to study all biological processes including the traditional core topics of biochemistry: structure, metabolism, and bioenergetics. Our students now need to understand both the Krebs cycle and the cell cycle. The ASBMB committee, now called the Education and Professional Development (EPD) Committee, has modified its recommended curriculum by basing it on content (skills and concepts) rather than standard course requirements that tend to vary from college to college. We have also expanded the biological content as compared with the original recommended curriculum and we now label it as a program in BMB. We have attempted to strike a balance between the “new” skills, nucleic acids and genetics, and the traditional skills, enzyme kinetics, structural studies, and ligand interactions. Members of the Committee consider research experience as an essential component of the degree program especially for students with plans to work in the biotech industry or attend graduate school.

We propose to introduce the new BMB curriculum in different media to inform as wide an audience as possible. It is currently available on the ASBMB Web site (www.asbmb.org/asbmb/site.nsf/Sub/UndergradCurriculum?Opendocument). It was published in a recent issue of BAMBED [2] and will soon be printed in the official ASBMB newsletter, ASBMB Today. We also plan to write a series of articles, to be published in BAMBED, that will describe how the updated curriculum may be used in various academic settings. Each article will have a different focus based on the location of the BMB program, for example: 1) a joint chemistry/biology program [3], 2) a program based in a biochemistry and molecular biology department, 3) a program based in a chemistry department, 4) a BMB program at a very large and a medium-sized university, and 5) a chemistry department at a small school.

We encourage comments on the new curriculum and how it may be applied to your particular setting. The EPD is composed of biochemists and molecular biologists working in academic and industrial environments, and we have used our experiences to make the new curriculum as flexible and useful as possible. However, anyone who has served on a committee charged with curricular development is aware of the many voices of discussion, debate, negotiation, and compromise that must be heard. We are especially interested in hearing comments from colleagues in the biotech industry, graduate schools, and medical schools as they will be able to observe, first hand, the “products” of the program. We label the new curriculum as a “work-in-progress” and plan to review it at regular intervals. Please send your comments to one of the EPD members listed below. We seek your advice as we discuss future changes. We hope to print letters, with helpful input, in future issues of BAMBED. The Editors of BAMBED also encourage the submission of manuscripts describing distinctive BMB programs.

During the past decade, we have experienced tremendous growth both in the establishment of new BMB programs at colleges and universities and in the numbers of students enrolled in BMB degree programs and classes. Most colleges and universities have added at least one and sometimes several faculty members in the area of BMB. The EPD Committee believes we will continue to see growth and development in BMB undergraduate programs in the future, although perhaps at a slower pace, and thus, we face many challenges. There is some concern that the characteristics that make BMB unique and distinctive among the life sciences will fade as rapidly developing disciplines like cell biology, genetics, neuroscience, and immunology become more molecular and expand their application of BMB tools/techniques. Many colleges and universities also continue to struggle with the question, where do BMB programs best fit into our traditional (but perhaps outdated) academic departments?: chemistry departments?, biology departments?, joint chemistry/biology programs?, or separate and distinct BMB departments? How can BMB concepts be integrated into our traditional chemistry and biology classes? Can we more effectively blend the structural (chemical) components with the functional (biological) components that comprise BMB and design for our students molecular life science programs that are truly multidisciplinary and integrated? Should ASBMB consider the certification of the new curriculum, or will this actually reduce the potential flexibility, creativity, and uniqueness in the degree? We need to resolve many of these issues so we can offer our students the best possible training for their futures.

Members of the Curriculum Subcommittee of the Education and Professional Development Committee of ASBMB:

Rodney Boyer (boyer@hope.edu)

Ellis Bell (jbell2@richmond.edu)

Joseph Bobich (j.bobich@tcu.edu)

John Boyle (jab@ra.msstate.edu)

Martyn Gunn (jmgunn@tamu.edu)

Joseph Provost (provost@mnstate.edu)

Judith Voet (jvoet1@swarthmore.edu)

Mark Wallert (wallert@mnstate.edu)

Jim Zimmerman (jkzmm@earthlink.net)

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