Biology Seminars for First-Year Students

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BIOG 1250: Biology Seminar

Small groups explore a topic in biology while learning to think like a scientist

Are you interested in catching the excitement of biology by talking with a faculty member and other inquisitive students? If you answered yes, then consider enrolling in a BIOG 1250 Seminar that is facilitated by enthusiastic faculty members who love teaching. Topic based seminars target first-year students and enrollment is limited to 20 students. The courses are usually held for two hours over seven weeks, and is awarded 1 credit with an S/U grade only. The seminar goals are outlined below:

  • Increase the opportunity for students to have a meaningful interaction with a biologist
  • Perpetuate excitement in studying biology
  • Develop critical thinking skills by exploring topics in the biological sciences (review at least one scientific paper)
  • Increase sense of community by expanding social and academic networks
  • Learn the value of collaborative learning
  • Discuss ethical issues in science

Student evaluations have been very positive: 92% responded that the seminar helped develop critical thinking skills and 99% reported being able to interact comfortably with the professor. Many faculty seminar leaders enjoyed the freedom to use a more inquiry based learning model while giving students the opportunity to choose papers to review and take leadership for helping facilitate discussions.

Student Feedback

Random responses from students who were asked if they would recommend the seminar to other students:

  • "I definitely would. It piqued my interest in marine life. The lecturer was instrumental in doing that."
  • "Yes, it’s a great foundation-builder in biological research skills!"
  • "Yes. This course helped me feel less intimidated by scientific papers, introduced me to a variety of topics, and helped me understand the general format of scientific papers required by different journals."
  • "Yes I would recommend the course, it was very informative and would especially benefit anyone with an interest in botany or pharmaceuticals."
  • "I would definitely recommend this course to others. Not only did it help me understand some medical issues seniors have to face, it also helped me understand the economics of the US healthcare system. This class also exposed me to concepts I have never touched upon and it was interesting."
  • "It was good to study a variety of topics chosen by students who had an interest in them. An awesome idea for a course – combining both discussion of papers and practical laboratory skills."
  • "Yes, but only to those people who are serious about majoring in science and who want to improve their communication skills (i.e., as they present)."
  • "Yes. It’s a great experience in a wide range of areas/skills. I definitely would, it is a great way to learn a bit about microbiology. I really was not thinking about taking microbio but I think I will now."


Fall 2018 Seminar Descriptions:

BIOG 1250: Seven Nights in the Museum of Vertebrates

  • 1 credit, S/U, Wednesdays; October 17-November 28 ; 7:30-8:45 PM
  • Faculty: the faculty and staff of the Cornell Museum of Vertebrates

Gain hands-on experience in how museum specimens are prepared and used for science and conservation! Cornell has long been a world leader in the scientific study of vertebrates (mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles). Our huge research collection of two million preserved vertebrate specimens help us understand anatomy, physiology, ecology, and evolution while providing essential information for classifying and conserving the diversity of wild animals. With some specimens in our museum dating back to the very founding of the University, Cornell presently leads the field in combining specimen research with cutting-edge technologies like CT-scans, genetics, and sound and video recordings of animal behavior.

This course is a fun and friendly introduction to the fascinating world of specimen-based research. Students will gain behind-the-scenes experience that highlights all of the vertebrate collections and their many uses, while also having the chance to prepare a few new specimens of their own that will become a permanent part of the collection for future research (note: no killing is involved since we use animals that died of natural causes, which in the museum world we term ‘salvage specimens’). We will discuss the ethics of specimen-based research and explore the types of studies done with specimens, including potential opportunities for undergraduate research projects. The Cornell Museum of Vertebrates is located about ten minutes off campus; Cornell van transportation to and from each class will be provided, with pickups/dropoffs on both North and West campus.


BIOG 1250: The Status of the Embryo: Technology & Perceptions

  • 1 credit., S/U, Mondays; August 23-October 12; 7:30-8:45 PM
  • Faculty, Jeff Pea 

For centuries, the embryo has embodied the origin of life and has been the subject of persistent scientific inquiry. For many, understanding how the embryo develops provides insight into the molecular drivers that make us human. However, the status of the embryo remains shrouded with controversy, in particular the passionate debate regarding the use of embryos in research. In this course, we will explore some of the scientific discoveries that led to our understanding of the embryo as well as their ethical, moral and social implications. Students will be exposed to fundamental concepts in cell biology and reproduction, followed by their applications into current technologies and discoveries. As well, students will engage in group discussions on how this knowledge is heavily influenced by our current social, political and moral perspectives. In this multi-disciplinary approach, this course is intended to provide students a holistic understanding of the complex nature of the embryo while also providing an opportunity for collaborative learning and critical thinking. 


BIOG 1250: Genesis

  • 1 credit, S/U, Tuesdays; August 23-October 16;  2:30-4:25 PM
  • Faculty: Steve Winans 

This seminar will explore the current state of knowledge about the origin of life from a prebiotic earth.  We will look at the prebiotic synthesis of the building blocks of life, including nitrogenous bases, sugars, amino acids and fatty acids.   We will discuss how fatty acids might have assembled into the envelope of a proto-cell.  We will look at the central role of RNA as an informational macromolecule and as a catalyst.  We will study the evolution of the ribosome, the genetic code (and how the modern code may have expanded from a much simpler one), and the evolution of DNA from RNA.  Finally, we will study the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis and of the first eukaryotic cells. 


BIOG 1250: How Cornell is Changing the World Through Climate Leadership

This course introduces students to sustainability and climate change solutions on Cornell’s campus and beyond. Students will acquire knowledge about the effects of energy use on climate change, and analyze which sustainable actions have the greatest impact on reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Students will learn to design, coordinate, and implement behavior change programs focused on reducing building energy use on campus in collaboration with campus partners. Students will develop their leadership and teamwork skills, and participate in active self-reflection to improve their understanding for how best to influence, motivate, and collaborate with people to improve sustainable outcomes for our campus and world.

BIOG 1250: Global impacts of microbial symbiosis

  • 1 credit, S/U, Wednesday 2:30-4:25pm, 7 weeks, starting October 15 through December 4th
  • Faculty: Lydia Baker 

Microbial symbiosis has shaped the world around us, from the origin of eukaryotic life to the foundation of some of the most productive and intriguing ecosystems on the planet. In fact, we are all living laboratories of microbial symbiosis. Microbes outnumber our own cells 3:1 and perform essential functions such as bioconversion of nutrients and protection from harmful microbes. 

In this course students will explore symbiosis in a variety of ecosystems including the human body, agricultural systems, and both shallow and deep-sea marine environments. Through exploration of these dissimilar environments, students will be able to appreciate both the diversity of and similarities between symbiosis. Additionally, we will discuss how the use of new technologies, including –omics, biophysical technologies, and single-cell studies gives us a more complete picture of symbiotic interactions and their global impact. 

BIOG 1250: Birds Can Tell Us Things and We Should Listen: An Introduction to Ornithology and Bird Study Techniques

  • 1credit, S/U, Thursdays, 1:25-4:25PM, 7 weeks, begins 9/6/18 with shuttle pick-up to Lab of Ornithology
  • Faculty: Orin Robinson

Unlike most mammals that rely on a keen sense of smell, birds, like humans, use sounds and vivid color vision to survive and communicate with each other. Did you know that the sound frequency range of bird song is nearly identical to the range of human hearing? Birds have a lot to tell us, if we know what questions to ask. By using the principles of scientific inquiry to observe and listen to birds, we learn not only about birds, but about ecology, animal behavior, evolution, physics, and potential environmental threats to our planet. Using a multi-disciplinary approach, including bioacoustics, capture and sampling methods, genetics, citizen science, and conservation biology; this course will teach the fundamentals of ornithology and field techniques for studying birds. The seven, two-hour sessions will combine hands-on field and lab exercises with group discussions about critical thinking and the importance of framing a working scientific question. Bring your boots and binoculars and prepare to have some birding fun!