Biology & Society Major


The Biology & Society Major is designed for students who wish to combine training in biology with perspectives from the social sciences and humanities on the social, political and ethical aspects of modern biology. Many of the most critical social concerns of our time -- food and population; impact of genetic engineering and new medical technologies; testing for drugs; AIDS and genes; the influence of heredity versus environment on human behavior; environmental quality; and ethical, legal and social aspects of modern medical practice -- are innately biological. At the same time, each of these issues is inherently a social concern and involves complex relations between biological and sociocultural forces. The Biology & Society major is intended to provide the skills and perspectives to enable its students to systematically confront these and many other social-biological issues. For a detailed description of the Major, see the section on Biology & Society in the Courses of Study.

An individual plan

Each student's program incorporating the requirements of the major is planned in consultation with a faculty member and is designed to accommodate individual goals and interests. Students who complete the requirements for the Biology & Society major leave Cornell with well-developed writing and analytical skills and with the ability to confront complex issues. Biology & Society graduates are thus equipped to enter a variety of careers. Students have found the Major is also excellent preparation for law, medicine, health services administration, and other professional schools and for graduate programs in genetic counseling, nutrition, clinical psychology, public health, environmental studies, anthropology, sociology or other related fields. Students have gone on to successful careers in the healthcare industry, legal profession, policymaking, scientific research, and many other exciting professions.  

Learning Outcomes

At the time of graduation, students majoring in Biology & Society should be able to:

  • Apply knowledge and analytical approaches in several major domains of the biological sciences that reflects a breadth and depth of understanding;
  • Identify, analyze, and evaluate social and ethical issues in the conduct of biological research and application of biological knowledge;
  • Describe the social dimensions in the way biological information and knowledge is produced and used that reflect the reciprocity between biology and society and that can draw on analytic perspectives in fields as history, sociology, economics, political science, law, and science & technology studies;
  • Employ basic statistical methods to analyze quantitative information;
  • Design an educational program in the major around their needs and interests at and beyond Cornell.

Graduates of the program have moved on to careers in law, medicine, public health, public policy, business, research, and academia.


A list of the Biology and Society courses currently offered is available through the current Courses of Study.

Please note the following:

  • For a course to count towards the major, it must be passed with a grade of at least C-.
  • Courses must be at least three credits to count towards the major.
  • No single course may satisfy more than one major requirement.
  • AP credit is not accepted by the Biology & Society major to fulfill the Intro Bio requirement.
  • Independent Study and Lab courses cannot be used to fulfill major requirements.
  • For students interested in the pre-health track, CHEM 2070/2080 or similar is recommended.

Course Requirements:

  • One year (two semesters) of introductory biology.
    • NOTE: A minimum average grade of C is required for the two introductory biology courses.
  • One calculus course
  • One ethics course (usually 2000 or 3000 level)
  • Two social sciences/humanities “foundation” courses (usually 1000 or 2000 level)
  • Three biology “foundation” courses (usually 1000 or 2000 level)
  • One biology “depth” course (usually 3000 level). This must be a course for which one of the biology foundation courses is a prerequisite.
  • One statistics course
  • One Biology and Society “core” course (usually 2000 or 3000 level)
  • Five “theme” courses: a coherent group of five courses in the student’s chosen theme, or area of special interest. The theme allows you to design your own area of focus (sort of like a minor) within the major. When it come to the intersection of the biological sciences and society, what are you really passionate about? Perhaps it’s environmental justice, or global health inequalities, or the life sciences and the law, or healthcare policy. The theme could be any topic that speaks to your personal, academic or career interests. Now, pick five courses that help you explore that topic.

Theme course requirements:

  • Two courses in the natural sciences (level 2000 or above)
  • Two courses in the social sciences or humanities (level 2000 or above)
  • One senior seminar course, in social sciences or humanities, that (1) is 4000-level or above, (2) is 3 credits or above, and (3) has a significant focus on some aspect of the life sciences (for example biological science, medicine, environment, healthcare, the body)

Independent Study and Honors Research:

Majors are encouraged to do independent study or honors research. Projects under the direction of a Biology & Society faculty mentor can be developed as a part of the program of study within the student's concentration area. Further information can be found in Courses of Study or is available in the Biology & Society office, 303 Morrill Hall. NOTE: At this time Biology & Society honors research is available to majors from the Colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Arts and Sciences. 

Applying to the Major

Every student who wants to join the Biology & Society major must submit an application during their sophomore year. 

Key Requirements:

  • Completion of one-year of college-level biology or two entry-level biology courses with an average minimum grade of C/2.0

NOTE: Students in the process of completing this prerequisite may be admitted to the Major on a provisional basis. It is the student's responsibility to assure that final acceptance is granted on completion of the introductory biology requirements. 

  • Transcript of work taken at Cornell University, or elsewhere, current as of the date of application.

Important notes:

  • CALS students: The application requirement applies to both A&S and CALS students. While CALS students declare a major already during their freshman (or transfer) year, their continued study in the major is contingent upon submission of an application during the sophomore year. (In CALS terms, this is sometimes referred to as a Statement of Intent.) This is to ensure that all students meet the minimum requirements by the end of their sophomore year.

  • Although only introductory biology, or its equivalent, is a prerequisite for acceptance, students will find it useful to have completed some of the other requirements by the end of their sophomore year (see checklist).

  • Biology & Society majors may not double major in Biological Sciences. This policy will apply to new students entering Fall 2018 and after.

  • Juniors are considered on a case-by-case basis. Upper-division applicants should realize the difficulties of completing the Major requirements in less than two years.

Applications are reviewed by the faculty admissions committee twice a year, once each during the fall and spring semesters. A faculty advisor is assigned upon admittance to the Major.

The Biology & Society major is offered to students enrolled in the Colleges of Arts & Sciences and Agriculture and Life Sciences. The Major is administered by a committee of faculty members representing various disciplines in the biological and social sciences and the humanities. Approximately 70 faculty from three colleges serve as advisors to Biology & Society Majors. The Major is coordinated for students in both colleges through the Biology & Society office. Students can get information, specific course requirements, and application procedures for the major from the office located in 303 Morrill Hall. Faculty advisors are available to discuss the major and requirements with you.

Because the major is multidisciplinary, students must attain a basic understanding of each of the several disciplines it comprises (see checklist). These include introductory courses in three of the nine fields of biology, ethics, history or philosophy and statistics. In addition, majors are required to take a core course and must develop a theme: a coherent and meaningful grouping of five courses representative of their special interest in Biology & Society. Students should develop the theme and select the courses in consultation with a member of the Biology & Society faculty. 

To submit your application: 

Complete the Biology & Society Major Application Form online by the deadline listed there.
Applications received by this deadline will receive priority attention for obtaining a Biology & Society faculty advisor before pre-enrollment begins. 

Application Forms

Biology & Society Major Application  

Biology & Society Guidelines

Acceptance of Non-Arts Credit Form (for Arts & Sciences students only)

For a listing of Biology & Society Courses, click here.

Honors Program

The Honors Program is designed to challenge academically talented undergraduate students whose major is Biology & Society. Students who enroll in the honors program are given an opportunity, with faculty guidance, to do independent study and research dealing with issues in biology and society. Students participating in the program should find the experience intellectually stimulating and rewarding.

Selection of Students:

Biology & Society majors are considered for entry into the honors program at the end of the second semester of the junior year.  To qualify for the Biology & Society honors program, students must have an overall Cornell cumulative grade-point average of at least 3.30, have formulated a research topic, and have found a project supervisor and a second faculty member willing to serve as advisors. Both must hold academic appointments at Cornell, and at least one must be a member of Biology & Society. Applications will be reviewed by a committee headed by the director of undergraduate studies, who will notify students directly of the outcome. Students will be permitted to register for the honors program only by permission of the department. Students must enroll for two semesters, each time for four credits. At the end of the first semester, the student will receive a grade of "R" for satisfactory progress. The grade recorded at the end of the second term evaluates the student's performance in the course for the entire year. 

If, after admission to the honors program, a student fails to maintain a high scholastic average, or for any other reason is considered unsuited for honors work, the student reverts to candidacy for the regular Bachelor's degree. The student who does not continue in the honors program must change the first semester to Independent Study in order to and receive a grade.

Students are required to complete two semesters of honors project research and to write an honors thesis. The project must include substantial research and the completed work should be of wider scope and greater originality than is normal for an upper-level course. A preliminary paper and bibliography on the student's project is due by the end of the fall semester.

Program Requirements:

The student has primary responsibility for constituting a committee of two faculty advisors, formulating ideas, developing the proposal, carrying out the study, and preparing a suitable thesis. Honors projects will be carried out under the direction of the two advisors mentioned above. The project supervisor should be expert in the topic and willing to serve as the primary advisor. In the second semester of the senior year, the director of undergraduate studies will appoint a third reader of the completed honors thesis. The third reader has minimal involvement in the honors thesis and is only involved near its conclusion, when they are provided with the final draft of the honors thesis by either the student or the project supervisor prior to the honors defense. The third reader is expected to attend the defense. The third reader is usually the honors student’s faculty advisor. If the faculty advisor is already serving on the honors committee as either the supervisor, or the second reader, then the Director of Undergraduate Studies will serve as the third reader, unless another suitable faculty member has been identified. 

Students must register for the total credits (8) for the whole year, 4 credits each semester in Biology & Society, Honors Project I and II. Students should note that BSOC 4991 may not be used to fulfill any major requirements. The student and the project supervisor must reach clear agreement at the outset as to what sort of work will need to be completed during the first semester. Minimally an honors thesis outline and bibliography should be accomplished. At the end of the first semester, a grade of "R" will be assigned to note satisfactory progress. The advisors, in consultation with the director of undergraduate studies, will evaluate whether or not the student should continue working on an honors project. The student who does not continue in the honors program must change the first semester to Independent Study in order to receive a grade. The grade recorded at the end of the second term evaluates the student's performance in the course for the entire year. 

Students should meet regularly with the project supervisor during the period of research and writing for the honors thesis. The responsibility for scheduling these meetings, and for carrying out the research in timely fashion, rests with the student. Advisors are expected to make themselves available for discussion and to offer advice on the plan of research, as well as provide critical and constructive comments on the written work as it is completed. They are not expected, however, to pursue students to ensure that the research and writing are being done on schedule.

The Honors Thesis:

There is no prescribed length for a thesis, since different topics may require longer or shorter treatment, but the thesis should be a substantial body of work. We have found that the thesis is normally in the range of 70 - 100 double-spaced typed pages. The thesis must be completed in a form satisfactory for purposes of evaluation and submitted by April 15* to the two thesis advisors and to a third faculty member appointed by the director of undergraduate studies. The candidate must meet with their supervisor and the two readers for a formal defense of the thesis between April 29-May 10*. CALS students must follow the requirements set forth by Dean Viands for formatting, binding, and submitting their honors thesis. 

One copy of the completed and defended thesis (suitably bound in a plastic or hard-backed cover), together with the advisors' recommendations, must be submitted to the undergraduate coordinator in 303B Morrill Hall by May 13.*

Following the formal thesis defense, the thesis advisors will submit to the director of undergraduate studies a recommendation to include: 1) the evaluation of the honors thesis by the committee; 2) an evaluation of the student's academic record in the Biology & Society major; and 3) a recommendation for or against awarding honors, as well as a recommendation for the level of honors.

As the director of undergraduate studies may have little knowledge of the subject area of the thesis, recommendations should be carefully prepared to help ensure consistency within the Honors Program. If there is a disagreement among the committee, the director of undergraduate studies will make the final decision after consultation with the interested parties.

Summary of Important Dates:

  • Last week of second semester junior year: Application for honors program submitted to 303B Morrill Hall.
  • April 15*: Thesis completed in a form satisfactory for evaluation and submitted to the three readers
  • April 29-May10*: Thesis defense accomplished
  • May 13*: Bound copy of completed and defended thesis submitted to the undergraduate coordinator in 303B Morrill Hall

* If these dates fall on a weekend, the deadline will be the previous Friday. 


Director of Undergraduate Studies:
Assistant Professor, Rebecca Slayton (

Undergraduate Coordinator:
David Ryan (
Phone: 607-255-6047

Agriculture & Life Sciences Advising Coordinator:
Professor, Randy Wayne (