UW News

February 20, 2003

Studying all life: New department combines botany, zoology, biology

News and Information

The University of Washington has a biology department.

You couldn’t say that last century. You couldn’t say it last year. You couldn’t even say it last month.

But on Feb. 1, after many months of planning and many more just wrestling with the idea, it finally came true. That was the date the Board of Regents authorized the departments of botany and zoology and the undergraduate biology program to merge into the new Department of Biology.

The most notable element of the merger from an outsider’s perspective is that the study of plants and animals no longer is segregated into different departments. Instead, the study of all life will take place in the same department, though at different levels: the cell, the organism and the ecosystem.

“If your goal is to do the best conservation biology, you can’t do the best conservation biology involving animals if you don’t understand what’s happening to plants in their environment,” said Tom Daniel, the former zoology professor who is chairman of the new department.

Daniel notes, for instance, that a new faculty member, Joshua Tewksbury, studies “the evolution of hot” — that is, how plants such as chilies use the chemical capsaicin, which generates their hot-and-spicy taste, but also studies animals that have developed receptors to detect capsaicin.

The new biology department, with about 900 undergraduates, becomes the second-largest degree program at the UW, eclipsed only by art. There also are more than 100 graduate students — whom Daniel calls “our partners in research” and regards as a key element to the department’s success. There are 50 voting faculty members, plus three teaching and 15 non-teaching emeritus faculty members.

To former botany Chairman Joseph Ammirati, botany, zoology and biology have been fairly well integrated for some time in terms of research and teaching, especially in the areas of ecology and evolution. Changes at the undergraduate and graduate levels, he said, will largely be a matter of improving and further developing existing programs. But the sheer size makes the new department one to be reckoned with, he said, one that is able to provide better education and training for students as well as a broader, stronger research base.

“It makes us a big unit, where we can take advantage of all those undergraduates to fight it out with other science departments for funding and other resources. Botany was pretty small,” said Ammirati, who will be one of three associate chairs in the new department, overseeing facilities and financing.

“I expect we’ll do all right,” Ammirati said. “In the end, all of these units depend on the quality of their faculty. We’ve got a strong faculty and if we can maintain that, I think we’ll do quite well.”

Barbara Wakimoto, a zoology professor who was director of the old biology program, doesn’t see any drawbacks for the throng of biology undergraduates. Previously, biology majors could have followed a botany track, a zoology track or two tracks within her program — cell molecular biology or ecology, evolution and conservation biology. Now the choices will be streamlined.

“I think it’s three units that have very similar goals. From an undergraduate viewpoint, botany and zoology were the major contributors to our program. Not the only contributors by any means, but the core contributors,” said Wakimoto, who will be an associate chairwoman of the new department overseeing undergraduate education.

John Wingfield, former zoology chairman, believes the merger can only mean a better program both for undergraduates and graduate students.

“I think for the students, it’s going to be a stronger degree program. We hope it will be one of the best there is, now that we have such breadth,” Wingfield said.

But he also sees great opportunities in the area of community outreach, and is heading a committee to spearhead the department’s efforts in that area. Already there are programs that work with K-12 teachers, and Wingfield is involved in a science program at Ingraham High School. He’s also working with neighborhood residents on an effort to create a marine reserve on the shores of Puget Sound between Golden Gardens and Carkeek Park.

Daniel, the new chairman, sees community outreach as a vital adjunct to the department’s core functions of undergraduate and graduate education and research. He sees each of those areas augmenting each of the others, but he is particularly keen on having a program that will draw the best graduate students.

He doesn’t expect the merger to result in any loss of jobs, though staff will be “redeployed” as needed to eliminate duplication and to beef up areas where additional help is needed. He credits the three staffs involved “with a level of patience that’s unbelievable” as the changes unfold.

“These people believe in the same things we do. They want to promote the strongest department possible.”

And that, Daniel said, is the bottom line.

“The University needs us to be successful and we want to be successful,” he said. “Biology lies at the core of every ethical, policy and economic issue facing people today.”