The Undergraduate Physiology Boom
Faculty leaders share their formulas for building successful physiology undergraduate programs.
By Dara Chadwick
Physiology is alive and well—particularly at the undergraduate level. But quantifying how well can be challenging because, increasingly, physiology has been rolled into other major programs with names like human biology.
“Physiology is becoming less visible at the graduate level,” says Terrence Sweeney, PhD, professor and physiology program director at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. As graduate physiology programs fold into larger umbrella programs, the clarity of what physiology is has become lost. It’s become a little less obvious that it’s physiology students are learning.”
Erica Wehrwein, PhD, is an associate professor at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing and director of the Physiology Majors Interest Group (P-MIG), an organization facilitating communication among undergraduate physiology programs throughout the country. She points to a 2017 online survey of P-MIG members that showed that only about a quarter of respondents said their institutions had a degree titled “physiology.” Other program names ranged from human physiology, biology and biological sciences to exercise physiology, kinesiology and integrative physiology, among others.
Yet physiology is flourishing at the undergraduate level as students see how it intersects with other fields, Sweeney says. “This has the potential to raise the level of physiology, as well as how it relates to biomedical careers and careers in health and disease,” he says. “A lot of prospective students say, “I want to be a doctor.” It’s my responsibility to show them what they can do with a physiology major.”
What’s In A Name?
Naming a major program of study is a critical component of bringing in students—both to the program and to the institution.
Take the University of Arizona (UA) in Tucson, for example. Its undergraduate physiology program, housed in the College of Medicine, is one of the largest in the U.S. About 1,800 students are enrolled, and physiology has been the university’s second most popular major (after pre-business) selected by freshmen for several years. It’s also the third largest major in terms of degrees awarded; in 2019, 296 students earned a bachelor’s degree, up from 287 students in 2018.
Claudia Stanescu, PhD, assistant professor and director of the undergraduate physiology program at UA, says several program changes were made in 2019 including a name change. Students now earn a degree in “physiology and medical sciences,” helping to make the major more recognizable to students interested in medicine, she says.
“It was a good marketing strategy,” she says, noting about 58% of enrolled students say they’re interested in going to medical school. “Prospective students might not search for physiology, but they might search for medicine.”
According to Wehrwein, 90% of students enrolled in undergraduate physiology programs want to go into health care. “Students in these programs are thinking about the human body as a whole system,” she says. “They’re looking to study big integrative questions and applied research, rather than bench science. We’re not at all capturing the audience if we just use “physiology” as the degree title.”
The University of Minnesota (UMN) in Minneapolis offers two degrees with a physiology focus—a bachelor of science (BS) in cellular and organismal physiology from the College of Biological Sciences and a bachelor of arts (BA) in human physiology, housed in the College of Liberal Arts.
“We would like to offer a bachelor of science degree in human physiology,” says Vincent Barnett, PhD, director of undergraduate studies and physiology program adviser at UMN. While the university wouldn’t abandon the human physiology BA, adding a BS would remove language requirements and require upper-division physiology courses that are now electives, he says.
“For those on a research track, this change would give them a leg up,” Barnett says. “It would let them drill down into physiological function and mechanism, focusing more on the science and less on the liberal arts. We know that one-size-fits-all is not necessarily the best model.”
Making such a change would take time and require tough decisions about the allocation of both tuition funds and faculty, acknowledges Lisa Carney Anderson, PhD, associate professor and director of education for the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology at UMN. Still, physiology is in a time of transition, and undergraduate programs must reflect that, she says. UMN has seen consistent interest and growth in physiology, according to Barnett, who says people often come to his office to ask about the major and say it’s exactly what they’re looking for.
Other recent UMN physiology program changes have included shifting the math requirement from two semesters of calculus to one semester of calculus and a semester of a quantitative course such as statistics or computer science.
“We want our students to have a broader understanding of data analytics,” Barnett says, noting the university has also added intercultural competency electives that focus on human interactions in the sciences. “These provide students with cultural context. When we looked at the landscape of evolving admissions requirements for professional schools such as medical, dental and pharmacy schools, one of the questions is “can they treat a diverse population?””
Setting students up for success is a moral obligation, Anderson adds. “A large majority of our students are interested in health care careers.” Knowing this, UMN has added anatomy as an elective for its physiology students. “We have a fine human anatomy program with human cadavers,” she says. “It’s rare for undergraduates to get that experience.”
The UA physiology program’s location in the medical school means students can take a broad range of medical electives, Stanescu says. Although the program previously required only 30 physiology units, that figure was low compared to other science majors, she says. “In 2019, we bumped that requirement to 36 units, which allowed us to add electives from the College of Medicine,” she says. “We don’t yet have data, but word of mouth from students is they’re excited about this.”
At the University of Scranton, physiology majors take a 120-credit curriculum that includes required courses in biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics; 18 credits in physiology that are unique to the major; and an additional 12 upper-level elective physiology credits. The new program took in its first majors in fall 2017, with current enrollment at 75 majors. “The program is growing quite rapidly,” Sweeney says.
MSU has 380 undergraduates enrolled in its physiology program, with another 1,600 enrolled in human biology, the university’s physiology-related pre-health major, according to Wehrwein. “Students see physiology as something that can get them to the health care sector,” she says. “We have a small subset who are interested in cells and molecules. That’s the research piece.”
The Classroom and Beyond
Providing opportunities for research can be challenging for many undergraduate programs, Wehrwein says. “Typically, a very small percentage of students get to have a traditional research lab opportunity because of limited lab space, limited faculty and limited funding.”
To help address this, MSU requires a capstone laboratory in physiology, where students complete a human physiology research project of their own design. MSU also offers independent study and a senior thesis research project, she says.
Research can be a major draw for undergraduates. Christopher Banek, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Physiology at UA, says he gets emails weekly from students looking to get involved with research in his lab—particularly those hoping to get into medical school.
“Biomedical research is extremely advantageous to any applicant,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity to learn, gives them experience in critical thinking, statistical analysis and data interpretation, in addition to benchtop experience.”
Banek gained research experience as an undergraduate physiology student at UMN at Duluth. “It was much smaller than the main campus, but I was able to land in a lab I liked,” he says. “That launched my research career, but my focus was going to graduate school to pursue a PhD and career in academic research—increasingly the non-traditional track for trainees.”
His academic path included graduate study at the University of Oregon, another institution known for its strong undergraduate physiology program, followed by postdoctoral work at UMN before he joined the faculty at UA. A major difference between the programs was that Oregon’s wasn’t housed in a medical school, he says.
“Oregon’s physiology program had a stronger emphasis on athletic performance, with an excellent athletic training program and a heavy focus on environmental and exercise physiology,” he says. “Minnesota and Arizona have homes in medical schools and naturally a primary focus on more translational biomedical research. Paired with a robust class schedule, these programs are quite attractive to pre-medical, pre-dental and pre-pharmacy students.”
Larger schools can offer more resources, including funding, equipment and connections, both within the school and nationally, Banek adds. “Larger research institutions will likely have more opportunities for students to participate in exciting, fast-paced, high-impact research projects, as well as provide the valuable experience of attending a national science conference,” he says.
The downside? Those opportunities aren’t always available to all undergraduates.
“With over 300 majors, it’s not possible to give everyone a full research experience,” Barnett says. “But students can volunteer, and we sponsor an undergraduate symposium for students who’ve done research. As a requirement of the physiology major, every student is required to research a physiology topic and write a paper,” he says. Other opportunities for UNM undergraduates include a physiology honors program and a physiology club, where students work with a faculty adviser to develop informational programs for their peers, organize tours of research labs and identify philanthropic projects.
At UA, undergraduate students are encouraged to find their own opportunities in research labs, Stanescu says. “We don’t have enough faculty for all students to work one-on-one with a faculty member,” she says. UA offers several programs to connect students with opportunities, including a matchmaking event that introduces faculty and students for interdisciplinary research opportunities—the research can be in any college as long as it’s physiology based, she adds.
Sweeney says the University of Scranton’s small size is an advantage for students looking for lab experience. “We have the luxury of offering lab classes in the first three years of the program,” he says. But he is cognizant of the pressures that come with program growth. “There are only so many seats for laboratory work,” he says, adding that Scranton is currently undertaking a space utilization study to plan for the infrastructural needs of its growing programs.
Small class size is also an advantage in getting to know faculty, Sweeney says. “Closer interaction with faculty enables students to explore their interests, both from a disciplinary and career point of view,” he says. “This also allows faculty to engage with students and guide them on their journey through the program.”
Wehrwein says P-MIG has not only tracked the evolution of undergraduate physiology programs since the group formed in 2014, it’s also tracked the evolving interests of physiology students. “There are a huge number of students defining themselves as physiologists but not pursuing a traditional physiology path,” she says.
While there’s no accrediting body for undergraduate physiology programs, P-MIG is in the early stages of drafting curriculum guidelines, Wehrwein adds. She notes there are two physiologies—a pre-health track geared toward students with clinical interests and a more traditional research track whose students are using cell and molecular techniques. Meeting the needs of students in each track is critical to strong undergraduate programs, she says.
“It’s taken a few years to figure out who these students are, where they want to go and where they ultimately end up in their careers,” she says, adding that professional development, such as writing and teamwork skills, along with clinical measurement and lab coursework, has now become an important component of many undergraduate programs.
Also important is effectively managing a program’s growth—something several institutions have faced with increased enrollment.
“We want our program to grow, but we also know we need to maintain staff and lab infrastructure,” Sweeney says. “We’re taking caution from what we’ve seen at other schools and planning for growth. We expect to become a more competitive program as time goes on.”