The Biology curriculum is designed to meet the needs of students preparing for postgraduate work in biology or allied careers, as well as to provide the insights of biology to other students whose area of specialization lies outside biology.

Biology majors at Amherst study introductory Biology, Chemistry,and Math, Statistics, and/or Physics, and then have a wide choice of upper-level Biology courses to fulfill the major. Many Biology majors choose to do a senior honors research project culminating in a thesis and graduation with departmental honors in Biology.

As you are aware, the college has announced that all classes during the spring 2020 semester will be treated as though the flexible grading option (FGO) had been elected. The FGO enables students to decide whether to keep a grade they earned in a course after the grade is posted, or in the case of any passing grade, to elect to receive a pass (“P”). 
In response to the exceptional circumstances, for courses taken during the spring 2020 semester, the Biology department will count courses with a grade of Pass toward major requirements.

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Courses for Non-Major Students

BIOL 104, 106, 108, 110 and 114 each focus on a particular topic within biology and are specifically intended for students who do not major in biology. These courses will not count towards the Biology major and do not meet the admission requirements for medical school. The two semesters of introductory biology (BIOL 181 and 191) may also be taken by non-majors who wish a broad introduction to the life sciences.

Major Program

The Biology major consists of four categories:

  1. Two introductory biology courses (BIOL-181 and 191) taken in either order. BIOL-181 is offered in the fall semester. BIOL-191 is offered in both the fall and spring semesters. Please note that BIOL-191 requires completion of, or concurrent enrollment in, CHEM-161.
  2. Five advanced courses in Biology, three of which must involve laboratories and one of which must be at the 400 level. Additional stipulations for the advanced courses depend upon Class year (see below). Note that Special Topics and courses numbered below BIOL-181 do not fulfill this requirement and at least three of the five advanced courses must be completed at Amherst College, unless approved in advance by the Department.
    a) For the Class of 2022 and beyond, one advanced course in each of two core areas of biology. Both of these should be completed by the end of the junior year:

    i) Cellular/Molecular Core:
    Cell Structure and Function (BIOL-291) or Molecular Genetics (BIOL-370/371).

    ii) Organismal Core:
    Ecology (BIOL-230) or Evolutionary Biology (BIOL-320/321).

    b) For the Class of 2021 and earlier, one course in each of three subject bins is required, two of which must be completed by the end of the junior year. These subject bins include:

    i) Molecular and cellular mechanisms of life processes: Cell Structure and Function (BIOL-291), Molecular Neurobiology (BIOL-301), Biochemical Principles (BIOL-330), Biochemistry (BIOL-331), Molecular Genetics (BIOL-370), Molecular Genetics with Lab (BIOL-371), and Biophysics (BIOL-400)

    ii) Integrative processes that show the relationship between molecular mechanisms and macroscopic phenomena: Disease Ecology (BIOL-201), Plant Form, Function, and Diversity (BIOL-213), Neurobiology (BIOL-214), Developmental Biology (BIOL-221), Genetic Analysis of Biological Processes (BIOL-241), Form and Function (BIOL-264), Microbiology (BIOL-271), Microbiology with Lab (BIOL-271), Neurophysiology (BIOL-350) and Neurophysiology with Lab (BIOL-351), Immunology (BIOL-372), Genome Biology (BIOL-380) and Genome Biology with Lab (BIOL-381);

    iii) Evolutionary explanations of biological phenomena: Plants as Models in Organismal Biology (BIOL-211), Ecology (BIOL-230), Animal Behavior (BIOL-280), Animal Behavior with Lab (BIOL-281), Evolutionary Biology (BIOL-320) and Evolutionary Biology with Lab (BIOL-321).
  1. Two courses in chemistry (CHEM151 or 155 and CHEM161 or above) and two courses in mathematics, statistics, and/or physics at the level of MATH-111, STATS-111, and PHYS-116 or above. Students with Advanced Placement scores may satisfy the requirement by taking upper-level courses. CHEM-151 and/or CHEM-161 are requisites for several Biology courses. Students are therefore encouraged to take CHEM151/155 in the fall of their first year, particularly students whose planned courses emphasize cellular and molecular mechanisms. Students preparing for graduate study in life sciences should consider taking CHEM-221 and 231, PHYS-117, and a course in statistics in addition to the minimum requirements for the Biology major. Note that CHEM-221 and 231 are requisites for BIOL-331, and that prior completion of PHYS-117 or 124 is recommended for BIOL-351 and BIOL-400.
  2. Senior Biology Major Requirements: in their senior year, Biology majors must complete two comprehensive requirements: attendance at Departmental seminars (Mondays 4:00-5:00 p.m.) and a Senior Comprehensive Examination administered by the Department in the fall semester. All Biology majors and prospective Biology majors are also encouraged to attend the Biology seminars, which are open to the public.

Please note that courses taken as pass/fail cannot be counted toward the major. This includes biology courses as well as ancillary courses (i.e., chemistry, physics, and math). Also, a Biology course cannot be counted towards the Biology major if it is also being used to meet the requirements of another major, unless the course in question is required by both majors.

Lab Half Course Credit now associated with BIOL-181/BIOL-191 Courses

Biology and Chemistry will match all of the following half course in any combination EXCEPT in the first semester of the first year: BIOL-181L, BIOL-191L, CHEM-155L, CHEM-161L, CHEM-221L, CHEM-231L, and any half courses offered by departments that permit them to be matched with Biology and Chemistry half course labs.
For students registering for Bio181/Bio191 in Fall 2019, the Biology Department recommends enrolling in four courses for a total of 4-5 course credits (for example Bio181/191 and three other non-lab courses or Bio181/191 and Chem 221 and two other courses).  Students who enroll in Bio181/191 and Chem 221 have the option of taking only one additional course if this is recommended by the advisor and the Class Dean; students are encouraged to seek out Biology professors for conversations about this option.

Placing Out of Introductory Courses

Students with a Biology AP score of 5 (or equivalent) who wish to place out of either Introductory Biology course must first seek permission from the Biology Department. In order to receive approval, you must make an appointment to speak with one of the porfessors associated with the course. You will be asked to describe your background and reason for wanting to place out of the course. The faculty member will discuss with you the implications and course options going forward. Placing out will not reduce the number of courses required for the major. Please see the Guidelines for additional information.

Departmental Honors Program

Honors work in Biology is an opportunity to do original laboratory or field research and to write a thesis based on this research. The topic of thesis research is chosen in consultation with a member of the Biology Department who agrees to supervise the Honors work. Honors candidates take three courses of thesis research in their senior year (BIOL-498 in the fall and BIOL-499 in the spring), usually with the double course in the spring (designated as BIOL-499D) in addition to the other requirements for the major, except that Honors candidates may take four rather than five advanced Biology courses, subject to the laboratory and subject area constraints.

Courses for Premedical Students

Students not majoring in Biology may fulfill the two-course minimum premedical requirement in Biology by taking two laboratory courses numbered 181 or above in Biology. Students interested in health professions other than allopathic medicine should consult a member of the Health Professions Committee regarding specific requirements and visit the Amherst Health Professions web page.

If you have questions about the Biology major, please e-mail

Major Checklist

To keep track of your progress towards the degree, please print out a copy of the appropriate checklist:

Placement & Off-Campus Credit

If you would like to inquire about placement in advanced courses, or if you'd like petition the faculty for elective credit for an outside course (e.g. study abroad or a 5 college course), please see the Guidelines.