The Biochemistry Major Program

Developments in modern biological sciences heavily rely on principles of chemistry and physics. The importance of this relationship has led to the design of a biochemistry major which prepares students for advanced study in areas as diverse as biophysics, biotechnology, molecular biology, molecular genetics, structural biology, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, neurobiology, cell biology, and systems biology, as well as, of course, biochemistry. It provides the basic science background for graduate and health professional schools, as well as for prospective science teachers.

The Roy and Diana Vagelos Scholars Program in the Molecular Life Sciences is an enhanced version of the biochemistry course program.

Since biochemistry is an interdisciplinary major, students learn that all processes in the cell follow the laws of physics. The specificity and diversity of biological molecules, organisms, and ecosystems have their roots in chemistry and physics. Students should understand that each experimental observation or result has limitations dependent on the methods or technology used for collecting data.  They are, in addition, expected to appreciate that mathematics is needed to express the laws of physics for use in designing and interpreting experiments.

The unique feature of the undergraduate biochemistry program is a minimum of one year of research (2 credit units of BCHE 404) in one of the approximately 1000 independent biochemically-oriented research laboratories on or adjacent to campus. This requirement is possible because all of Penn's biomedical research programs are located in University City. Participation in research for credit (BCHE 299) may start as early as the sophomore year. As a result of research participation, biochemistry majors become familiar with the progression from college student to faculty in a research university. Since most graduate students and postdoctoral associates in these groups take jobs outside of academia, biochemistry majors are also exposed to the transition from academic research laboratory to positions in government and industry.

In addition to the 3 semester sequence in biological chemistry (CHEM 251/451/452), majors in the Undergraduate Biochemistry Club are responsible for the organization of a weekly speaker series with invited scientists from other universities and industrial laboratories. Graduates of this program develop not only a good grasp of the fundamentals of biochemistry, but also a strong sense of direction for future research. Currently, about thirty biochemistry majors graduate per year.

The primary objective is to have each biochemistry major excel in graduate school or medical school as a consequence of his or her Penn experience and curiosity. Graduate programs open to biochemistry majors include those in chemistry, biology, molecular biology, and molecular genetics, as well as all of the basic science departments in medical schools, including departments of pharmacology. Students considering a major in biochemistry should consult with the chairman as soon as possible, preferably in the first year, especially if one has AP credit in science and mathematics. Call 215-898-4771 or send an email to for an appointment with the chair or to contact current undergraduate biochemistry students who are members of the Undergraduate Advisory Board.

Students with AP credit should consider submatriculation for a Chemistry MS to be awarded with the BA at graduation.