New human biology major gives competitive edge to students


South Dakota State University officials have repackaged the biology major to give students a more hands-on experience and become more competitive when they enter the workforce or apply to medical school.

Previously, the biology major had two specializations: secondary education or pre-professional. Last fall the pre-professional specialization was renamed and added as a separate major: human biology. It features much of the same curriculum, but the title now shows employers specific courses that students who study in this field took.

“Changing the name was one piece of it,” said Greg Heiberger, undergraduate program manager in the Department of Biology and Microbiology. “But really a lot of the work has been happening over the last five or 10 years and will continue to happen, certainly, as we now have this standalone major.”

A human biology major can lead students into different professions, such as doctors, chiropractors, dentists, morticians, physician’s assistants and biomedical researchers, Heiberger said. There are about 300 students in the major.

Majoring in human biology combines a regular biology degree with specialized classes like immunology, medical microbiology, cellular molecular biology, human cadaver research labs and cancer biology. Biology majors at SDSU are also required to complete a capstone senior research project that assists students in learning about communication and extensive biological research.

These courses offer students a more diverse and focused education that, combined with the capstone, will better prepare them for the required Medical College Administration Test (MCAT) and for their future careers in the health field.

Volker Brözel, biology and microbiology department head, said the school has always had success in placing students into medical programs but wanted to do even better.

“It’s a very competitive world out there,” Brözel said. “Students at hundreds of universities are trying to be accepted into these programs, so we sat down a couple of years ago and started thinking, ‘What are pieces we can add to make our graduates more competitive and push up our level of acceptance into their career tracks?’”

Department officials said SDSU is the only university in the region offering human biology, and the opportunities for hands-on learning such as anatomy internships, peer mentoring and teaching assistant positions give students additional learning experiences that benefit them in the long run.

The peer-mentoring program was especially beneficial to Develyn Vetos, senior human biology major, when she was a freshman.

“Having my peer mentor to look up to, ask questions and confide in gave me that resource that I was missing,” Vetos said. “Our program is one of the only programs that offer peer mentors in the First Year Seminar classes and it could not have been more vital to my success my first year here.”

Senior human biology major Austin Benson said students get many meaningful opportunities. He enjoyed his time in the anatomy program.

“It was an amazing experience to not only learn anatomy on cadavers but to help in the dissecting process,” Benson said. “Most students from other schools don’t have this opportunity until they begin professional school.”

Hannah Klinkhammer, a senior in human biology, said she appreciates her time as an anatomy intern and a peer mentor to freshmen majoring in human biology. She credits much of her success to professors and advisers for challenging her and helping her grow as a student.

According to department statistics, of the students who meet the U.S. average for grades and MCAT scores, 91 percent of them are accepted into M.D. programs, compared to the national acceptance rate of 46 percent. Additionally, 82 percent of all SDSU human biology students meet U.S. grade and MCAT averages.

“It’s not what’s in the textbook,” Brözel said. “It’s probably all the same textbook (across the country). It’s how it’s applied.”

Sophomore Meghan Schenk said she wants to be an emergency room doctor but also wants to do research. She said SDSU has already given her the skills to be prepared to do both.

“My favorite experience so far was definitely cancer biology,” Schenk said. “I’ve never felt so lit up by the material I was learning. I went home and loved studying because it felt so relevant.”

A new course, developmental biology, will be added to the curriculum next fall.