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Biology is Life: My Concentration

When I got to Harvard, I had no idea what I wanted to study. While a lot of people around me were already sure of which concentration they were going to declare, I spent my freshman year trying to do process of elimination by taking classes in English, math, science, and government. The last subject standing became my concentration: Integrative Biology. IB is part of the Oraganismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB) Department at Harvard, which aims to embrace biology as a whole and connect the many different levels – molecular, cellular, genetic, developmental, anatomical, physiological, ecological, phylogenetic – at which biological systems and evolution are analyzed.

Basically, I study animals and how they came to be. 

I know this sounds awesome on its own, but here are some of my favorite things about IB/OEB just to prove how great it really is, and why I decided that this concentration was right for me.

1. Diversity of classes and interdisciplinary studies   

Biology is a huge area of study with so many distinct disciplines that it can be difficult to get an all-encompassing education in it as an undergraduate. Harvard actually has 5 different biology concentrations! IB concentrators get to take classes in ALL of the different biology departments and count them for concentration credit. I’ve taken a bioethics class in the Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology department, a hormone class in the Human Evolutionary Biology department, and a seminar class in the Neurobiology department. The opportunity to learn about biology beyond what is offered in my own concentration’s department has provided me with an even richer academic experience and helped me bring new perspectives to my studies in IB.

2. Opportunity to focus on something specific

To compliment this wide diversity of course options, IB concentrators can also pick a focus field in which they want to engage with more deeply over the course of their academic career. While some IB concentrators choose to focus on plant biology or marine biology, for example, I have spent my time here focused on vertebrate evolution and paleontology. Essentially, I am most interested in studying how animals with backbones came to be, and what their extinct ancestors were like. In fact, I am writing my senior thesis on the backbones of cats and how they can help us understand the evolution of mammalian locomotion.

In the lab working on my senior thesis research, Summer 2017 

3. Field trips!

Finally, I can’t help but mention the chance to take (FREE!) trips with classmates and professors to apply classroom learning to the real biological world. Because animals, plants, and evolutionary biology are better studied in the field, many IB courses and research labs have field trip opportunities. So far, I have been bug-hunting on the Boston Harbor Islands, whale watching in the Atlantic, behind the scenes at a zoo, and on a week-long fossil dig in the Triassic beds of Arizona! There are also courses that take spring break trips to Panama and Costa Rica for students learning about reptiles and birds.


My Vertebrate Evolution class digging for fossils in Arizona, Spring Break 2016

As someone who went from completely undecided to the (self-declared) most enthusiastic IB concentrator on campus, my advice to other students is always to explore and try new things! Students don’t have to declare a concentration until October of sophomore year – that means you get three whole semesters for exploration! I had never taken a rigorous science class before coming to Harvard, so although I initially felt intimidated by biology, I am so happy that I gave it a shot and I encourage you to try new subjects too.  

About the author

Hi, my name is Sarah Gonzalez and I am a current senior at Harvard living in Cabot House. I am originally from the border town of El Paso, TX, where I grew up riding horses and listening to country... View full profile

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