(I was sent the following as a comment to this post on Biology at Williams, but thought there was enough here to merit a guest-post. -Will)
While I may not know much about the biology programs at other top liberal arts / ivy league schools, I have majored in biology at Williams and can give my view on the program. My first biology course was through the Summer Science Program 2005. This is a small (~25 students) program for low income and minority students interested in majoring in the sciences. Not everyone is eligible, but I highly recommend this program if you are invited. You will receive a postcard in the mail asking if you are interested. The students live in the dorms on campus over the summer for 6 weeks and take classes by Williams professors to review/learn high school material. It really helped me to ease into college by giving me the opportunity to take classes, meet new people, and manage my time without the pressure of a GPA. The approach to biology was completely different from my high school classes. In high school I was expected to memorize facts and terms, but at Williams, we were given essay questions about biological functions.
Fall of my freshman year, I began working in a biology lab. This was considered my work study job, so I spent about 8-10 hours per week in the lab. The professor worked side-by-side with me teaching me the techniques of the laboratory. I do not know about other liberal arts colleges, but at ivy league and big research universities, you will never even see or talk to the principal investigator (head of the lab). But here at Williams she was the one training me at the bench top.
I had many meetings with my professor where we discussed my interests in the subject. She developed a research project that fit my interests, and I started a large bioinformatics research project on my own. Now, I may not have designed this project, but I said that I was interested in bioinformatics and she told me some of the questions she would be interested in studying from a bioinformatics approach. I continued this research throughout the rest of freshman year and even discovered a few new, previously unknown genes.
In the summer of freshman year, the Williams biology department purchased a real-time PCR machine. This machine is one of the most state-of-the-art, cutting edge technologies, and Williams had just purchased one. They were looking for students to be trained to use it. In a discussion with my professor, we decided it would be complementary to the research I had been doing. I could measure the expression levels of the genes that I had just discovered.
I spent the next year on this project. My professor took me and several students in her lab to a few conferences. We were the youngest people there! It was lots of schmoozing with big name scientists. Everyone we talked to said “and which Ph.D program are you in?” We had to say “Actually, we’re freshmen at Williams College.” It made us realize just how lucky we were to be studying science at Williams. I spent a lot of time on my new project, and I eventually became first author of an article published in the scientific journal entitled Gene.
I have had a great experience in biology at Williams. I have TA’d for a genetics class, something that only graduate students would be able to do at a research institution. I have had the opportunity to actually do research for a professor with whom I have a good relationship. At large, research universities you would be diluting solutions, or ordering supplies. Here at Williams, we are using cutting edge technology, accompanying professors to conferences, and co-authoring journal articles. I have no doubt Williams has many great opportunities in the biological sciences.
This press release has more information about my specific research (for you biology geeks out there).
For more information on science research at Williams, there is a yearly publication that includes research the faculty and students have done over the year. It can be found here.
We have also have a fairly new science center that connects all of the individual science departments.
Best of luck!
Biology and Math major ‘09
09kse (at) williams (dot) edu