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Biology / Bioscience

Studying Biology in Germany

An article by Daniel Kastner. Staff member: Gabriele Meister

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That is what it's about

From the bacterium to the blue whale, from the Coronavirus to the aspen poplar colony "Pando" in Utah, considered the largest organism in the world: Biological research deals with everything that is alive. It studies the relationships between living organisms, their interactions with the environment and their response to changes such as climate change.

The subject range is huge. The immigration of foreign species, such as the yellow ladybird from China to Europe, is just as much a part of the programme as working with the "gene scissors", with the help of which DNA can be specifically cut and modified. Big data has long played an important role, but in the genome sequence analysis of a human, biologists are dealing with billions of base pairs. Also in other fields, the tools are getting better and more precise: With cryo-electron microscopy, for example, three-dimensional images, for example of viral shells, can be made in the range of nanometres.

This is how the course runs

At the beginning, basics from the subjects of chemistry, physics and mathematics as well as the classical disciplines of biology: Zoology, botany, genetics, evolutionary biology, cell and developmental biology, microbiology and ecology. In the lab, students create cell cultures, multiply genetic material or stain chromosomes; In microscopy courses, they learn to differentiate between different cell types and draw cross-sections of leaves and roots; In the zoological basic internship, the so-called “Schnippelkurs”, they dissect worms, frogs and fish to understand their anatomy. "In the meantime, we sent out photos of objects that students had to sign off on and evaluate at home. But nothing can fully replace the work in the laboratory and the excursions," says Alois Palmetshofer, spokesperson of the Conference of Biology Departments.

Statistics and programming skills are becoming more and more important as you deal with ever increasing amounts of data. Therefore, the basics of bioinformatics and systems biology are part of the curriculum at almost all universities. Each course also includes field trips, be it to the surrounding area of the university, to the Alps or, for example, to Thailand. From the fourth semester onwards, students can usually choose their own specialisations, for example in neurobiology or biotechnology.

The topics offered vary from university to university. At the latest during the bachelor thesis students work in scientific groups: at the university, in other research institutions or in the industry. Often they go abroad for a few months.

Typical questions raised within the subject

  • How do cells communicate with each other?
  • What principles does evolution follow?
  • How can biodiversity on earth be explained and how can it be preserved?
  • What are the opportunities and risks of genome editing for plant breeding?
  • How can the race between new antibiotics and resistance be won?
  • How can vaccine development be accelerated?

The subject suits you,...

... you are interested in people, animals and plants and you are prepared to deal with large amounts of material. It is helpful to have a basic understanding of mathematics, chemistry and physics, because the course also includes differential calculus, electrochemical potentials and optics. Pipetting and drawing require intuition, dealing with organisms responsibly and with diligence. You should be prepared to dissect a dead snail. "If you can't take it, then you are probably not suited for biology," Palmetshofer says. In addition, you should be ready to ask yourself ethical questions - such as whether you can make embryos resistant to HIV using “gene scissors”.

Is there a numerus clausus?

More than half of the courses have admission restrictions, mostly in the two range. However, at many universities all applicants can be admitted.