What is a Molecular Biology Degree?

Molecular biologists study biological systems at the molecular level. In other words, they study life in its smallest forms. With its foundations in chemistry, physiology, genetics, physics, and biology, molecular biology focuses on the molecular control of cellular processes and the interactions between various cell systems. This specialized branch of biochemistry, which has expanded with the discovery of the structure of DNA, is changing the face of all areas of biological and biomedical science and has impacts in medicine, agriculture, and industry.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Molecular Biology – Four Year Duration
The Bachelor’s Degree in Molecular Biology prepares students for entry-level and mid-level careers in cellular and molecular biology, or for advanced study in a master’s program. The undergrad curriculum focuses on the fundamental biological concepts at the molecular, cellular, organismal, and ecosystem levels. Students develop competence in general lab and field skills and learn to apply critical thinking skills and quantitative tools to evaluate biological information.

Here is a sample of an undergraduate molecular biology program:

Core Courses

• Cell Biology with Lab – basic concepts of the structure, function, and reproduction of cells
• Organismal Biology with Lab – biological diversity in plants and animals from an evolutionary perspective; relationships between form and function; relationships of organisms to their environments
• Quantitative Biology with Lab – the application of mathematics and statistics to biology; computer applications lab
• Genetics with Lab – modern molecular and classical principles underlying biological inheritance
• Microbiology with Lab – concepts of basic and applied microbiology including bacteriology, virology, and immunology; microbiological lab techniques
• Molecular Biology with Lab – molecular biology of the gene, gene structure and expression in eukaryotes (organisms whose cells have a nucleus enclosed within a nuclear envelope); techniques to study genomes, genes, and regulation of gene expression
• Research Design – students will identify a problem, conduct a literature search on the topic using databases, design an experiment in a chosen area of the biological sciences, and learn how to present their findings in a research proposal
• Research in Biology – an individual research project, to be accepted by the research advisor

In addition to this core curriculum, students also take a set of related requirements and electives. Here are some examples:

• General Chemistry with Lab
• Organic Chemistry with Lab
• Biochemistry with Lab
• General Physics with Lab
• Pre-Calculus
• Calculus
• Neurobiology
• Medical Microbiology
• Cell Culture and Immunochemistry
• Evolutionary Biology

Master’s Degree in Molecular Biology – Two Year Duration
At the master’s level, molecular biology students typically take some core and elective courses before moving on to seminar style courses. These seminars focus on cellular and molecular research being conducted at their school and on the reading and discussion of published journal articles in the field. The master’s program’s culminating requirement is typically a thesis based on original research. Some schools may offer a non-thesis option.

Here is a snapshot of a possible master’s program in molecular biology:

Core Courses

• Molecular Genetics – the molecular structure of and replication of DNA and its influence in determining the overall makeup of an organism
• Elements of Biochemistry – overview of carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, nucleic acids, and other biological substances and their importance in life processes
• Research – laboratory investigations in one of the department’s research areas
• Advanced Cell Biology – cell structure and biochemistry, as related to specialized cell functions
• Molecular Cell Biology – molecular aspects of cell structure, cell motility (spontaneous movement of a cell); molecular aspects of gene expression including RNA
• Techniques in Cellular and Molecular Biology – laboratory experiences in cellular and molecular biological techniques (examples: DNA/RNA sequencing, immunological detection methods, and molecular cloning techniques)

Electives

• Development and Disease
• Immunology
• Developmental Biology
• Cellular Basis of Human Disease
• Structure and Function of RNAs and Ribonucleoprotein Complexes

Doctoral Degree in Molecular Biology – Five to Six Year Duration
While molecular biology doctoral candidates are encouraged to complete coursework in computational / quantitative approaches, the focus of their studies is a specific area of research, from which they will propose and defend their dissertation.

Sample areas of research include:

• Cancer Biology
• Gene Expression
• Genome Structure, Evolution, and Repair
• Infectious Disease
• Metabolism and Physiology
• Microbiomes
• Plant Molecular Biology
• Prions and Neurobiology
• Stem Cells and Development
• Synthetic Biology

Degrees Similar to Molecular Biology

Agricultural Engineering
Agricultural engineering is the branch of engineering concerned with the design of farm machinery, the location and planning of farm structures, farm drainage, soil management and erosion control, water supply and irrigation, rural electrification, and the processing of farm products.

Biochemistry
The focus of biochemistry is the chemical processes and reactions that occur in living matter. Biochemists apply principles of both biology and chemistry to issues in many different sectors, including the environment, medicine and health, industry and manufacturing, agriculture, biofuels, and marine science.

Biology
A general biology degree program may include subjects like animal biology, invertebrate biology, vertebrate biology, cellular and molecular biology, evolution, microbiology, and ecology.

Biomedical Engineering
Simply stated, biomedical engineering uses engineering to solve health and medical problems. For example, a biomedical engineer might look for chemical signals in the body that warn of a particular disease or condition.

Cellular Biology
Cellular biology is a branch of biology focused on the study of cell structure and function, on how cells form and divide, and how they differentiate and specialize.

Chemistry
Chemistry deals with identifying the substances that make up matter. Degree programs in chemistry focus on investigating these substances: their properties; how they interact, combine, and change; and how scientists can use chemical processes to form new substances.

Genetics
Genetics is the study of heredity. It attempts to answer questions about how inherited traits are transmitted from parents to offspring.

Pre-Medicine
There is no distinct pre-medicine degree. ‘Pre-medicine’ or ‘pre-med’ is merely a term that students planning to go to medical school use to describe their undergraduate studies. In fact, aspiring doctors enter med school having earned many different bachelor’s degrees. A science program such as biology or chemistry is certainly a common choice, but it is not mandatory. In other words, a pre-med student can be a psychology major, a statistics major, or a Spanish major. The key for students is to incorporate into their studies the classes needed to apply to medical school.

Skills You'll Learn

• Attention to detail
• Awareness of ethical issues
• Communication and teamwork
• Computer literacy
• Experiment design and troubleshooting
• Observation, investigation, and problem solving
• Practical lab skills
• Report writing and documentation
• Research and data analysis and interpretation
• Safety consciousness
• Use of statistical tests in data analysis

What Can You Do with a Molecular Biology Degree?

Sectors and industries that hire molecular biology graduates include:

• Bioinformatics
• Biotechnology
• Education / Academic Research
• Government / Public Policy
• Healthcare
• Medical Research
• Pharmacology
• Science Journalism and Writing
• Testing Laboratories

Specific roles / titles for holders of a bachelor’s in the field include:

• Biotechnologist
• Embryologist
• Forensic DNA Analyst
• Molecular Genetics Technologist
• Molecular Laboratory Technologist
• Plant Geneticist
• Research Associate
• Research Technologist

Specific roles / titles for holders of a graduate degree in the field include:

• Animal Geneticist
• Biological System Specialist
• Cancer Researcher
• Clinical Geneticist
• Cytogeneticist
Genetic Counselor
• Human Geneticist
• Researcher
• Statistical Geneticist

Degrees in this field also provide foundations for entry into health professional programs in medicine, dentistry, and public health.

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