Why Study Biology?
Quite simply, biology is the study of life itself. From infinitesimal microbes to the gargantuan blue whale, the study of biology allows us to piece together how vastly different species have each managed to evolve, survive and thrive on our planet. So why should you study it?
Biology is an incredibly broad discipline, offering as rich a variation in subject matter as there is life on Earth – there is something for everyone, whatever your interests. The complexity of a living organism is attributable to scales upon scales of organisation, and you can choose to focus on whichever level you like, whether that be at the very beginning or on the end result.
Molecules are the smallest fundamental units of a chemical compound, and the intricate interactions between them drive the biological processes that shape our very existence. Molecular biology therefore explains how cells communicate; cells are often referred to as the ‘building blocks of life’, and astonishingly the human body is estimated to be composed of around 37 trillion of them. The field of cytology is therefore profoundly important in recognising how these impossibly small structures function as discrete units, allowing us to understand exactly what we are made of. The myriad cell types in nature are attributable to varying gene expression. Genes are essentially pieces of heritable molecular code that, when differentially switched on and off, underpin the variation we see between species, as well as that between members of the same species. The study of developmental biology draws on both of these disciplines to explain how embryos with effectively the same starting materials grow into widely different organisms, uncovering which genes and processes are responsible for the formation of individual structures. The study of physiology then seeks to explain how the body functions on both physical and chemical levels. Life comes in an almost overwhelming diversity of forms, with botanists focusing on the plant kingdom, zoologists on the animal kingdom and microbiologists on all those organisms too small to see with the naked eye. The field of ecology is then what brings these together, describing the relationships between organisms in a system and also to their surroundings, whilst evolutionary biology seeks to explain how everything came to be as it is.
Although that was an over-simplified and thus largely incomplete summary, it illustrates the point that the biological sciences are a tangled web of convergent yet profoundly distinct disciplines. Whether you choose to focus on molecular or cellular biology, genetics, development, physiology or evolution is up to you, and each of these sub-divisions can be studied from either a botanical, zoological or microbiological perspective.
The skills that can be gained from studying a course in biology are varied, highly desirable and transferable, making biology graduates attractive candidates for a range of careers within and outside of the sciences. You are taught to think analytically, learning how to confidently interpret and critically evaluate complex data sets. You will develop an understanding of scientific literature and how to use it effectively. Your numerical skills will improve, allowing you to perform more complex experiments and analyses. Your verbal and written communication will advance with project work, seminars and presentations. You will gain experience in the lab and the field, which can help you to understand whether a career in research is something you want to pursue. And lastly, but most importantly in my opinion, you will develop your ability to reason; much biological research is burdened with ethical constraints, and these must be considered with the utmost gravity. Furthermore biology is a rapidly evolving discipline. It would be utterly false to assume that our current understanding of life is complete, and with rapidly advancing technology it is a truly exciting time to study the sciences. Many major questions remain unanswered and numerous theories unproven, for example how life even evolved in the first place!
However in my opinion, quite possibly the most persuasive argument for studying biology is that it is immensely relevant. It is imperative we understand the workings of our bodies in terms of health, nutrition and the treatment of disease. It is imperative we understand our environment in terms of food production and natural resource use. It is imperative we understand our impact on this planet, to ensure a sustainable future for our species. Everything can be linked back to biology. And personally, as a zoologist, I believe it imperative to have a profound respect for life in whichever form it takes. Every organism is miraculous in its own way and we should endeavour to appreciate that, doing our utmost to respect and protect those without voices like ours. If I have learnt anything from studying biology it is that all aspects of life are interconnected, and you can only truly understand a system once you consider it in its entirety. The importance of a particular organism or ecosystem service is often cryptic, something that is usually only revealed when it becomes compromised, and changes to one element will reverberate throughout the system as a whole.
In summary, biology is a multi-faceted discipline that caters to a range of interests, encouraging study at the minutest of scales up to whole organisms and their interactions. It equips students with a formidable arsenal of skills that will allow them to flourish in numerous careers. It is constantly evolving, meaning there is always more to learn, and quite frankly it is inescapable. Biology explains everything we are, much of what we do, how we came to be and how we interact with our environment, all of which are critical in understanding how we conduct our modern way of life.