Studying Biology in Germany
Biologists explore everything that lives
An article by Daniel Kastner
That is what it’s about
From the bacterium to the blue whale, from the amoeba to the aspen poplar colony "Pando" in Utah, considered the largest organism in the world: Biologists deal with everything that is alive. They examine the relationships between living beings and their interactions with the environment. The range of the subject is huge. Biologists explore animal and plant organisms, observe how living things adapt to their habitat, and how they respond to changing environmental conditions such as climate change. They work with the "gene-scissors", with which the DNA can be changed in a targeted manner, or collect information about every single human body cell in the "Human Cell Atlas". 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 are on timetable as well as the classical disciplines of biology: Zoology, botany, genetics, cell and developmental biology, evolutionary 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. It would not work without real tissue, says Alois Palmetshofer, spokesman for the Conference of Biological Departments. "A computer simulation never replaces working with hands and eyes." What is important is to make one’s own experiences: "If you want to isolate a lymph node and make a wrong incision the material gets broken. And perhaps this lymph node also looks different and is different than in the typical ideal model.” Almost all colleges teach the basics of bioinformatics and systems biology. Each course also includes compulsory field trips, be it to the surrounding area of the university, to the Alps or to Thailand. Mostly from the fourth semester, students focus on their own areas, for example in neurobiology or biotechnology. The subjects possible vary from university to university. At the latest during the bachelor thesis they 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?
- How does dying out of insects affect you?
- Which principles does evolution follow?
- How do tumours develop?
- How is biodiversity on earth explained and how can it be conserved?
- What are the opportunities and risks in genome editing for gene therapy?
- How can the race between new antibiotics and resistance be won?
The subject suits you,...
...if you want to explore animals, people and plants and are ready to deal with large amounts of material. A basic understanding of maths, chemistry and physics helps a lot, because the course also includes differential calculus, electrochemical potentials and optics. Pipetting and drawing require intuition, dealing with organisms responsibly and with diligence. 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?
Around 70 percent of study programs have an NC. This is usually around two.