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Concentration Adds New Career Paths for Biology Majors

alerding labConservation Biology, a new class in VMI’s biology department, is taking cadets out in the field to see biology at work – at a biomass facility, wastewater treatment facilities, and the Nelson fish hatchery.

The class, which is under way this semester, is being taught by Maj. Pieter deHart, assistant professor of biology. Bringing together field excursions and class work provides cadets with a unique opportunity for considering the impact of human conservation efforts.

“The goal of the course,” said deHart, “is to enhance the understanding of how to apply the principles of ecology, wildlife management, and sustainability to the goal of global conservation of all species.”

The course is part of the biology department’s ecology, conservation, and organismal studies, or ECOS, concentration. The concentration was created in 2009 to widen the range of opportunities for cadets aspiring to careers in field biology.

“As someone that has had a love of nature/field biology all my life, it’s exciting to see cadets start to discover the possibility for careers in the field,” said Maj. Paul Moosman ’98, assistant professor of biology.

Cadets began graduating with the concentration last spring, and the concentration is helping direct their careers in new ways.

Tim Brust ’11 was among the first cadets to graduate with the ECOS concentration and is now studying herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles, in Marshall University’s graduate program.

“The ECOS concentration helps future field biologists take classes that actually interest them and relate to the type of career they want,” said Brust. “As for me, the ECOS concentration with excellent help from professors helped pave a path for me to become the field biologist that I have always dreamed to be.”

The creation of the concentration came about when the biology department recognized the need to open a greater range of career paths.

“Up until a few years ago, the department was almost entirely geared toward cell and molecular biology and also sending cadets to medical school,” said Moosman. “But we knew that about half of our majors weren’t interested in either of those career paths. I know this intimately because I was one of those cadets back in the ’90s.”

The need to better tailor the major to the interests and career goals of cadets was central to adding the concentration.

“I chose biology as a major because I loved the outdoors and I loved animals. However, I had no idea how to go about getting a job or the path to take to get a career in that area of biology, because the VMI bio department seemed to be pre-med based,” said Brust.

Brust noted that things began to change in his 3rd Class year, when VMI began to bring in professors with backgrounds in field biology. It was at this time that the ECOS concentration was conceived.

“When the department had the chance, they hired three new professors with expertise in field and organismal biology,” said Moosman.
Botanist Maj. Anne Alerding, aquatic ecologist deHart, and vertabrate biologist Moosman worked alongside ornithologist Col. Richard Rowe to develop courses which would fulfill the cadets’ interests.

Since the introduction of the concentration in 2009, the numbers of cadets majoring in biology has been growing, with a strong interest from cadets in the ECOS concentration.

“Despite being so new, we’ve already got about the same enrollment as our counterpart concentration in cell and molecular biology,” said Moosman.

By:  John Robertson IV
IR - Oct. 2011