Ecology Photo

Beautiful flowers blooming in the UT green house.

Ecology and Evolutionary Biology majors have certain stereotypes around them: tree huggers. The phrase conjures up images of granola-crunching, dreadlock-wearing, herb-loving hippies. If you are an EEB major yourself, you have probably been the object of this stereotype at some point or another.

"One of the EEB undergraduates who worked in our research lab last semester was saying how a lot of her friends — when she told them what she majored in — imagined her just walking around the woods all day, listening to birds sing, looking at flower functioning," Alix Pfennigwerth, a third-year Master's student in EEB, said.

Pfennigworth said that this stereotype, which lacks dimension, is not representative of EEB majors. Pfennigworth said that this could possibly be attributed to the incorrect perception held by some that EEB is a"soft science" and "somehow not as scientific as (fields like) physics, chemistry, or BCMB."

For those involved with it personally, the perception that ecology and evolutionary biology are unimportant to science is an inaccurate one.

"Nothing in biology makes sense without evolutionary biology," Susan Kalisz, the Head of UT's Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department, said.

Charles Kwit, a professor in both the EEB and Wildlife and Fisheries Departments, said that EEB's usefulness lies in "connecting evolution to world issues."

UT EEB professor and former interim Department Head Randy Small connected the importance of EEB to to understanding the Earth's current transformations.

"As the world changes, organisms are having to either adapt or die. There's really strong natural selection now.The world has always changed, but it's changing at a much faster rate now than it used to," Small said.

"Ecology is all about interactions. (It's about) how species interact with each other; how species interact with the physical world in which they live. Humans are the species that is most altering the planet. Understanding how we're altering the planet and being able to predict what the consequences are of those alterations has really important implications for what (could happen) to the world.”

If you are in the process of fulfilling your 300 and 400 level class requirements for the EEB major, you may also wonder why your classes are relatively small and contain more of the same people, as compared to friends in other science related majors.

According to a data figure provided by Kalisz, the EEB major contained an average of 15.4 percent of the students concentrated in biology from the Fall 2007 semester to the Spring 2013 semester. The remaining 84.6 percent of those biology students were enrolled in the majors of either Microbiology or BCMB.

"There definitely are more BCMB and Microbiology majors than there are EEB majors. One of the things that a lot of people don't get is that there is the Biology major, and then there are three concentrations (BCMB, Microbiology, and EEB)," said Small.

Pfennigwerth said this phenomenon could be partly rooted in the fact that the political environment of the U.S. contains stigma against evolution.

"There's still a significant portion of the population that doesn't want to (accept) the scientific evidence for (things like) climate change and evolution," Pfennigwerth said.

Small said that a lot of biology majors are pre-professional, which is probably another cause of EEB's comparatively small enrollment at UT.

"There's at least a perception among those people that it's better to major in Microbiology or Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology, that those majors are better for getting into medical school, vet school, or whatever it is they are trying to do," Small said.

Jess Welch said that this is not the case.

"You can be an EEB major and still be pre-med," Welch said, referring to a table created by EEB professor Brian O'Meara. The table showed how a student can fulfill pre-medical requirements as an EEB major in four years.

"You can do both. Honestly, in my opinion, taking EEB classes — going outside and being a tree-hugger — is a more fun route to go into pre-med," Welch said.

"I think you gain more quantitative skills that you really need as a doctor, if that's going to be your final career goal," Kalisz said.

Kalisz said that having a relatively diverse biology major such as EEB could give medical school hopefuls an advantage in the application process. Welch said that this is because an EEB major would enter from a "different background of thinking" than bachelor's graduates of majors like microbiology and BCMB.

Small said that there may be another positive effect of EEB course requirements for pre-medical students.

"They recently put more of an evolutionary emphasis on the MCAT," Small said.

"I think they've realized that they want people (in medical schools) that are more conceptual, and not just regurgitating facts."

Pfennigworth said that a lot of agencies, like the U.S. Forest Service, really want to hire graduates who have "an understanding of any kind of ecology" and especially value students "having an actual ecology degree."

Kalisz said that EEB majors can look forward to seven new professors in Fall 2016, which translates to more research opportunities and course offerings. 

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