Biology at Rensselaer Turns 85

by Gabrielle DeMarco on October 27, 2010

Happy Birthday Rensselaer Biology Department! The biology department turns 85 this year.

When the biology department was first founded in 1925 Mussolini had taken dictatorial control of Italy, The Great Gatsby was published, and the so-called “Monkey Trial” resulted in a young high school biology teacher, John Scopes, being found guilty of teaching evolution to his class.

The high-tech laboratories of today’s biology faculty are a far cry from the original lab benches and microscopes available to the first RPI biology students. The photo above shows a group of RPI biology students at work in a biology lab around 1932. What in the world is the guy on the left looking into? And why don’t students continue to wear those lovely tweed suits to lab section anymore?

The department began its existence under the leadership of one Archie Wilmot Bray. It began as a bachelor’s program, but started offering master’s degrees in the 1950s. A doctoral degree in biology gained official approval in 1960, just one year before the current Jonsson-Rowland Science Center opened its doors.

Today, our biology students and faculty use tools like Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, CT scanners, MRIs, and atomic force microscopes to learn about everything from stem and cancer cells to drug development and freshwater ecology.

Graduates of the program have gone on to make huge advances in biomedicine, ecology, and other fields. Just last month Class of ’77 biology graduate Jeffrey Friedman won the Albert Lasker Award for his discovery of leptin, known also as the “fat gene”, which regulates food intake and body weight. The prize is widely held as a precursor to the Nobel Prize.