Wheaton College this fall launched a biochemistry and molecular biology major, co-sponsored by the chemistry and biological and health sciences departments. The major is open to current first-year students or sophomores choosing to graduate in 2027.
Lisa Burden, associate professor of biochemistry, said she and Peter Walhout, chair of the chemistry department, developed the major as a strategic investment to draw in more students and funnel more money into the natural sciences programs.
“Students have been asking about it for a long time, so the interest is there,” she said. “There have been recent strides made in both biochemistry and molecular biology, and they’re growing as fields. We’re hoping that students will be drawn to it.”
The formation of the biochemistry and molecular biology major began in October 2022, when the department requested approval from the Wheaton College Curriculum Committee. They later received the green light to offer the major for the first time this semester. Ten students have declared the major, and seven more have indicated an intent to declare it.
In the last two years, colleges across the country have added similar majors. The University of North Carolina at Wilmington is set to launch its own biochemistry major next fall and Fordham University in New York City received approval for one in August.
Burden said she hopes that the previously expressed interest in the subjects will lead to an increase in students in both departments. Because the new major meets all the requirements for the pre-med track, she also hopes that it will attract students interested in the healthcare field.
Louisa Brorson, a sophomore biochemistry and molecular biology major, said she views the program as a way to gain interdisciplinary knowledge.
“I see biochemistry and molecular biology as a sort of liberal arts within the science world because there is a good integration of biology and chemistry,” she said. “It also requires us to take physics and to have an understanding of mathematics.”
Brorson is choosing to graduate in 2027, rather than with her original class of 2026, to be able to complete this degree, which requires 54 credits in the major, not including Christ at the Core general education requirements.
Recently, the sciences at Wheaton have gone through other significant changes, including the addition of a four-year major in general engineering in the fall of 2022, and 30 new students this fall are already enrolled. The biology department and applied health sciences department merged in 2021 to become the biological and health sciences department, which now offers five majors. On average, just under 25% of Wheaton graduates over the last ten years have had at least one science, math, or engineering major in their degree.
Braydon Biehn, a senior chemistry major with a biochemistry concentration, said he believes that the addition of the new major will make the college more competitive. Some larger Christian colleges, such as Liberty and Baylor, as well as smaller ones like Taylor University, already offer similar degrees.
“I wanted to major in biochemistry when I was in high school, and I was glad that Wheaton had the concentration,” said Biehn. “But the fact that we didn’t have the major before now might have been a reason for some people to choose another school.”
According to the department’s website, students within the new major will study life processes occurring at the molecular level and examine biological molecules, structures and reactions.
Students pursuing the major will begin by taking introductory biology and chemistry classes and two semesters of organic chemistry before choosing an emphasis in either biochemistry or molecular biology.
Benjamin Barbeau, a senior biology major, said he knows many other students who are interested in the new major and that it was the perfect combination of the two fields.
“Both chemistry and biology are really interesting to me,” he said. “If it had been available during my first year, I definitely would have chosen it.”