April 26-May 2, 2002
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New interdisciplinary major tackles biology issues
Cloning? Stem cell research? Who decides?
Michael Wormington
Photo by Jack Mellott
Professor Michael Wormington is director of the new Human Biology Program.

By Kathleen Valenzi

Some questions aren’t easy to answer. Under what circumstances, if any, is embryonic stem-cell research or cloning acceptable? If medical advances continue to increase human longevity, what challenges should society prepare for in light of a dramatically aging population?

Within these questions lies a tangle of ethical, legal and policy issues. Penetrating the tangle requires not only an understanding of modern biology and its context within the humanities and social sciences, but also an appreciation for the interplay between biology and society at large.

To help create a cadre of scientifically literate individuals capable of dealing with these kinds of knotty issues, the University has created a new interdisciplinary major, Human Biology. The goal of the major is to prepare students for further study in law, medicine, bioethics, public health, health policy and health evaluation sciences, as well as for careers in biotechnology, pharmaceutical development and related businesses.

Because Human Biology is a distinguished majors program, applicants must have attained (and then maintain) a 3.40 or higher cumulative grade-point average.

“This will be a daunting major,” said biology professor and program director Michael Wormington. “Students coming into it from the sciences will find themselves involved in rigorous humanities courses requiring a lot of reading, and that will feel different to them. Students coming in from the humanities will find out right away that this is not a ‘biology lite’ degree. In fact, two years of biology and chemistry are a prerequisite for admission. Our aim is to strike a balance between science and the humanities.”

This spring, 20 second-year students were selected to participate in the program, which begins this fall. Another 20 will be selected next spring for admission in fall 2003, giving the major its full complement of 40 students. As part of satisfying the degree requirements, students will be required to engage in one semester of research or independent study. According to Wormington, “this might take the form of laboratory research, or serving as a student scholar in the Center for Global Health, or engaging in field work with U.Va. faculty in Brazil or Africa.”

During their fourth years, majors will write a thesis and attend the program’s Biology and Society capstone course. “The goal of the capstone course is to bring together biologists, anthropologists, ethicists, political scientists and other members of the University faculty to offer different perspectives on themes like global health or health care in the United States,” Wormington said.

The major will be administered through the biology department, but other departments and centers, such as the Institute for Practical Ethics and the Center for Global Health, will play significant roles.

“I believe that Human Biology will serve as a benchmark for other new interdisciplinary majors currently in development around Grounds,” Wormington added.


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