MCB Undergraduate Instruction

A cornerstone of the excellence in education for which the University of Illinois is renowned, the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) is the largest school in the University of Illinois College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

MCB student.A cornerstone of the excellence in education for which the University of Illinois is renowned, the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) is the largest school in the University of Illinois College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

It has been more than twelve years since planning began to reorganize the biological sciences programs on this campus. This planning process led to the dissolution of the School of Life Sciences and the formation of two new schools: Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) and Integrative Biology (IB). MCB encompasses the Departments of Biochemistry, Cell and Developmental Biology, Microbiology, and Molecular and Integrative Physiology. This reformation allowed a narrowing of scope and a deepening of coverage in the schools. Although officially established in 2000, the schools of MCB and IB have been operating for eleven years. The Class of 2004 was the first graduating class in Molecular and Cellular Biology.

The MCB undergraduate curriculum is focused on the fundamental structures, functions, and mechanisms of living organisms. The MCB major provides a solid foundation in biochemistry, cell and developmental biology, microbiology, molecular genetics, physiology, and structural biology. Our program prepares students for various biomedical careers, and for medical, dental, veterinary, pharmacy, and graduate schools. MCB students may also choose to pursue traditional or nontraditional careers in education, industry, consulting, law, government, science writing, or other fields. Our courses cover recent scientific discoveries, many of which come from the work of our own faculty members—whom students have the opportunity to work with in both research lab and classroom settings. MCB majors also develop a strong foundation in math and physical sciences, reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of science today.

MCB’s two majors—Molecular and Cellular Biology and the Specialized Curriculum in Biochemistry—are popular choices for university students interested in studying life from molecular through systems levels. These curricula prepare students for a vast array of vocations, as well as providing a solid groundwork for continuing education in an advanced or professional degree program.

The majors’ uniquely structured curriculum style has proven highly effective for students. Undergraduate instruction combines creative instruction with hands-on laboratory experience. Required lab courses immerse students in experimental techniques—experience that is attractive to future employers. Outside of the required coursework track, students can earn course credit conducting research in faculty labs. Student.

Undergraduate instruction is overseen at the school level and the results have been wildly successful. This unified curriculum for undergraduates increases degree recognition among potential employers, broadening opportunities for graduates. Our graduates are highly technically proficient, thoroughly educated in the biological sciences, and have transferable laboratory skills (including the use of state-of-the-art instrumentation) that make them highly attractive to employers. Students’ participation in individual research labs has proven to be the educational experience that best prepares them for a career in science.

With the creation of the MCB program, the core curriculum of biological science coursework required by all students was expanded from two semesters to five. This makes MCB unique among undergraduate programs. Our five-semester core—radically different from the typical two semesters of required coursework—allows for thorough and focused teaching of molecular and cellular biology. We found that even a three-semester core was insufficient to address how biology as a discipline has expanded. This led us to our current program, with a strong foundation of fundamentals which allows the students more flexibility to generalize or specialize with advanced courses in their last three semesters.

MCB courses incorporate a variety of teaching styles. While larger core courses tend to be primarily lecture style, each includes an interactive and engaging discussion session where students are taught to problem-solve and think critically. Core laboratory courses ensure that each student has a hands-on, active experience in the laboratory. Students’ engagement and participation increase as they move into advanced level courses. This increase arises largely as a result of the integration of current topics and research into the curriculum. Students are able to see the importance and relevance of what they are learning, and apply their discoveries to real-world problems and issues.

We offer a broad array of curricular enhancements, including undergraduate research opportunities, honors programs, advising and career workshops, living–learning communities, and MCB-specific education abroad opportunities. We enhance student success and growth by encouraging engagement in MCB, campus, and local community activities. Add to these opportunities strong core coursework and intensive laboratory experience, and you’ll see that our program is superlative.

Students.Our success is enviable. 94% of our students are in good academic standing (2.0 cumulative GPA / C average or higher). 72% have a 3.0 cumulative GPA / B average or higher. Over one third have a 3.5 or better! Our track record is a testament to the strength of teaching and support offered to students in our challenging curriculum.

Transfer students or students who earn college credit for Advanced Placement (AP) biology courses in high school are usually unprepared for the rigor of advanced college-level biology. High school AP biology is a mixture of ecology, evolution, plant and animal biology, and varying levels of molecular and cellular biology. These topics are covered very broadly and lack the depth of our introductory courses in MCB.

Because the way we teach biology is so unique—providing an in-depth focus on molecular genetics, and cellular and developmental biology during freshmen year—most high school students lack the appropriate foundation to waive our core MCB coursework. We try to encourage freshmen and their parents to look at high school AP biology credit as an experience that will help them be more successful students, and not to use it in place of MCB courses.

Another challenge is helping students understand that their undergraduate experience is not a race. The first one done doesn’t necessarily win—in fact students who stay for the entire four years gain valuable experiences (undergrad research, study abroad, leadership experience, community involvement) that can help them with their future aspirations. We encourage students to think about their general education and elective selections as a way to work on areas in which they need improvement—to expand their comfort zone. Students should choose advanced MCB electives based on their interests and long-term goals.

Students can underestimate what is required to be a successful scholar. We try to instill good time management and study skills in our students. They leave our program as independent problem solvers who work well both individually and in groups.

Chart.The number of students enrolling continues to increase, and the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology continues to improve its curricula even as it is increasingly challenged by economic developments. In order to advance our mission, even as campus resources diminish, we continue to look outside the University for continued support. Additional lecture, lab, and discussion rooms along with specialized spaces for student interaction and learning outside the classroom would greatly benefit our students. Other ongoing needs include the acquisition or replacement of instructional laboratory equipment, and direct support for students interested in enhancing their learning experience by working in one of the many MCB research laboratories.

The MCB undergraduate curriculum is designed to impart both the core principles of modern biology and conceptual and analytical skills necessary for a successful scientific career. Focused educational and practical training in molecular and cellular biology prepares students for professional and graduate schools, and many other exciting career paths.

July 16, 2009 All News