How the ASBMB recommended curriculum has influenced one sole biochemist


  • Joseph A. Bobich

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Chemistry, School of Science and Engineering, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Texas 76129
    • Department of Chemistry, School of Science and Engineering, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Texas 76129
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Texas Christian University (TCU) 11 is affiliated with the Disciples of Christ Church to the extent that it has a divinity school and, until 5 years ago, the Chancellor always had been a Minister of the Disciples. It has, since its opening in 1873, gradually increased its enrollment to the current 7500 undergraduates and approximately 1000 graduate students. It is classified as a “Doctoral/Research University-Intensive” by the Carnegie Classification of Institutes of Higher Education. The TCU School of Science and Engineering offers Ph.D. degrees in chemistry, physics and astronomy, and psychology, and M.S. degrees in biology, chemistry, geology, mathematics, and psychology. The Department of Chemistry also offers a B.A., an American Chemical Society (ACS)-certified B.S. degree in Chemistry and a B.S. in biochemistry. Roughly half of our undergraduates get ACS-certified degrees. Unfortunately, the department does not yet collect data about what all of our undergraduates do after graduation.

There are 10 faculty members in the Department of Chemistry plus the (currently vacant) Robert A. Welch Chair, along with 17 graduate students. Chemistry majors in the last 3 years have numbered 24, 29, and 25, respectively, but biochemistry majors have grown from five to eight to 11, respectively, perhaps because a 4-year B.S. degree plan in Biochemistry is sent to all entering freshmen. The fact that the numbers of chemistry majors has not decreased, although the number of biochemistry majors has increased, suggests that adding the B.S. in biochemistry may help someday to increase the total number of departmental majors. As seems typical, these numbers are dwarfed by the 327–342 biology majors each year in the same time period (2000–2002).

The TCU biochemistry program has had a tortuous history. Thirty years ago the Chemistry and Biology Departments independently each hired a biochemist, bringing the university's complement of biochemists to three, and a B.S. degree in biochemistry was offered in the Chemistry Department. Gradually, the number of biochemists in the Biology Department was reduced to one and then zero, and it was felt that one biochemist was not enough to offer a viable B.S. degree, so the degree was ended.

The undergraduate curriculum endorsed by the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) and published in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education journal in 1992, was a revelation. By examining the combined offerings of the Chemistry and Biology Departments, TCU could prepare a series of courses that fulfilled the recommended criteria for a viable and valid degree. Shortly thereafter, the B.S. in biochemistry was reinstituted at TCU. The required science and mathematics courses are listed in Table I (note, however, that the five-digit undergraduate catalog numbers have been dropped). Obviously, the degree program closely mirrors the suggestions of the American Chemical Society because it had to be approved by the Chemistry Department, but it was not examined by the Biology Department, hence the requirement for inorganic chemistry, for example.

Biochemistry majors are supposed to take the Honors sections of Introductory Biology, but this requirement can be, and frequently is, waived for transfer students. The first 2 years of biology and chemistry are fairly typical, as far as I can observe. The Honors chemistry sequence includes one 3-h laboratory every week. Organic chemistry is a course used to suggest to lazy or otherwise undesirable students that they should consider other educational opportunities. The physics sequence is calculus-based, and the genetics course and laboratory consist of 3 and 6 contact h, respectively, per week. Introductory physical chemistry course content is more biochemistry-friendly than the alternative first-semester physical chemistry course. The research requirement can be performed with any chemistry faculty member. Students in our Honors program must deliver an oral presentation of their research in the Spring during Honors Week. Undergraduates not in the Honors program have no such requirement for a formal presentation of their work.

It seems to me that the newly revised ASBMB-recommended curriculum [1] will be more beneficial to sole-faculty biochemists and molecular biologists than any other group of biochemists and molecular biologists. A group of researchers and teachers with a communality of interests can, through collegiality and cooperation, successfully develop a curriculum that covers all of the important material. But, as the only biochemist at TCU, I worry frequently about whether my biochemistry sequence covers the important topics or is wandering off into a land whose topology is guided primarily by the voices in my head. That is the principal reason why the new recommendations are so useful to me.

The new ASBMB recommendations also are useful because they include the list of desirable skills that undergraduates should ideally master. In this way, we are reminded that biochemistry and molecular biology are subjects best learned by doing them, and the list provides me with an alternative perspective on the traits we wish to develop in our students.

The new recommendations also help deal with the diversity of backgrounds that the students bring to the biochemistry sequence. If one begins by learning A) what courses the students have had, then B) recommendations immediately suggest what needs to be taught to get the students from point A to point B. For example, my students are primarily chemistry/biochemistry, biology, and neuroscience majors. This mixture almost always requires a lecture on biophysical principles, another on ligand interactions, and several lectures on enzyme kinetics. A disadvantage of adhering to the recommendations is that I see now that I should create a lecture on molecular modeling.

In the past, most biochemistry students were pre-health professions majors, and most went to medical school. Now an increasing percentage of students are going to graduate school, particularly as the psychology department's neuroscience program strengthens, although pre-health professions students remain in the majority.

The latest statistics from the Pre-Health Professions program show that, for the years 1992–2001, the national medical school acceptance rate has ranged from 34–52%, averaging 40.7%, whereas the medical school acceptance rate of TCU students has ranged from 65–94%, averaging 78.9%. Thus, following the ASBMB recommended curriculum seems to have helped to produce healthy results. As our Provost has said, the Pre-Health Professions program at TCU is one of our “steeples of excellence.” I sincerely believe that attempting to adhere to the ASBMB-recommended curriculum has contributed substantially to producing such favorable outcomes.

Table Table I. Science and mathematics courses required for the TCU B.S. in biochemistry, with suggestions for when courses should be taken
Fall first yearSpring first year
  • a

    a Courses such as Immunology, Microbiology or Computer Languages etc. are suggested but not required. Most of the lecture courses are three 50-min-long periods each week. The minimum number of required STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses total 38 h in a 132-h degree.

    General or Honors Chemistry I    General or Honors Chemistry II
    General or Honors Biology I    General or Honors Biology II
    Calculus I    Chemistry Lab. (unless Honors Chemistry taken)
     Calculus II
Fall second yearSpring second year
    Organic Chemistry    Organic Chemistry II
    Organic Chemistry Lab.    Organic Qualitative Analysis
    Physics I    Physics II
    Physics Laboratory I    Physics Laboratory II
     Cellular/Molecular/Developmental Biology
     Probability and Statistics
Fall third yearSpring third year
    Biochemistry I    Biochemistry II
    Genetics    Biochemistry Laboratory
     Intro. Physical Chem with Lab.
     Genetics Laboratory
Fall fourth yearSpring fourth year
    Chemistry Seminar    Undergrad. or Honors Research
    Advanced Inorganic Chem.    Electivesa
    Undergraduate or Honors Research 


  1. 1

    The abbreviations used are: TCU, Texas Christian University; ASBMB, American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.