The Biology Department offers courses in all aspects of biology, from molecular biology and genomics to physiology and behavior, and from microbiology and public health to ecosystems and restoration ecology.
We study all aspects of the living world, from viruses to ecosystems. The department is increasingly engaged in interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary collaborations with departments from all areas of the College. The program in Neuroscience and Behavior, for example, brings together faculty from Biology and Psychological Science to explore the biological basis of behavior; the program in Biochemistry brings together Chemistry and Biology faculty to investigate the intersection of those disciplines at the cellular and molecular levels. Many of us also participate in Multidisciplinary Programs such as Environmental Studies, which brings together the natural and social sciences as well as the arts and humanities to explore relationships between people and the environment, and Science, Technology, and Society, which examines the role of science and technology in society, in its social, political, philosophical, economic, and cultural contexts as well as its ethical and policy implications.
The department’s approach at all levels of the curriculum is inquiry-based, with an emphasis on experimental biology through field and laboratory experiences, data analysis, and discussion of scientific research articles. By the time they graduate, biology majors are adept at analyzing primary literature, designing and critiquing experimental approaches, and evaluating data. Vassar biology graduates may be found pursuing advanced degrees at the finest professional and graduate schools and starting careers in research, medicine, education, and a wide variety of other fields.
In 1865, the year Vassar welcomed its first cohort of students, courses in botany and zoology were offered through the Natural History Department, taught by Sanborn Tenney, professor of natural history. According to the Vassar Encyclopedia, Tenney was an avid creationist, as was Matthew Vassar, the College’s founder, and his anti-Darwinian views helped to secure him the position. Tenney left Vassar in 1868 for a similar position at Williams College, and the man hired to take his place, James Orton, was a personal friend of Darwin’s and a staunch proponent of his theory of evolution by natural selection. Orton taught Darwin’s controversial concepts in his natural history classes at Vassar, but it wasn’t until 1925 that the College offered its first course on evolution—The Origin and Evolution of Man—through the Zoology Department.
Over the course of its history, what is now known as the Department of Biology has evolved dramatically in response to advances in the knowledge base.
Elizabeth Thiele, Visiting Scholar in the Department of Biology, has been a Technical Consultant for The Carter Center since 2015, and recently received the Center’s renewed support toward her ongoing research into the population genetics of Dracunculus medinensis (Guinea worm).
Principal Investigator Hadley Bergstrom, Associate Professor of Psychological Science, and co-PIs Bojana Zupan, Associate Professor of Psychological Science, and Jennifer Kennell, Associate Professor of Biology, received a Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) grant from the National Science Foundation to purchase a new state-of-the-art confocal microscope platform for basic research and teaching at Vassar, which will fundamentally transform faculty research, faculty-mentored undergraduate research, and advanced-level teaching.
Dianne Pater, Assistant Professor of Biology, has secured a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support her project “BRC-BIO: Investigating ecophysiological strategies and drought tolerance of temperate lianas.”
David Esteban, Associate Professor of Biology, received one of nine research grants made by the Patient-Led Research Collaborative to fund high-impact projects that seek to understand the causes, diagnostics, and treatments of Long COVID. His funded project, entitled “Microbial metabolites as disease-modifying factors in Long-COVID,” will investigate the production of, and response to, microbially derived AhR ligands in the microbiomes of people with Long COVID.