Could it be possible to put together the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in Biology entirely through free massively open online courses (MOOCs) offered by top tier universities?
Lately I’ve entertained ideas of going back to school for a PhD in Biology. Most programs require that you have the equivalent of a B.S. in Biology, but… I don’t have that. In fact, I never took a single biology course in college. I didn’t even take biology in high school!
Money-wise, many PhD programs cover tuition and provide a living stipend. However, not working and paying potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket for a second bachelor’s degree in order to even qualify to apply is not a viable option.
I was already a biology MOOC enthusiast, so I decided to see if I could take it to the next level and put together an entire undergraduate biology program with MOOCs.
At the time of writing I’ve personally completed about 80-90% of the courses on this list, and even had the opportunity to serve as a Community Teaching Assistant for one of them–Useful Genetics.
(Inspiration for this post also came in part from aGupieWare’s online computer science curriculum)
Why do this?
Why would someone with no formal background in biology want to go back to school for a PhD in it?
Since my mid-20s I’ve been progressively more interested in health. Like most people, I got my information second-hand from books and blogs published by various health gurus and experts. One question I constantly ask myself is, “how can I take what I’m doing to the next level?” And to me it seemed the next level was to read the primary literature itself (i.e., the research papers referenced in the books and blogs).
I tried, but much of it was utterly incomprehensible to me. Often I’d see study reviews talk about studies being good or bad for this or that reason, and I didn’t fully understand why. Were the criticisms legitimate? Did the results of the study simply violate whatever preferred bias was held by the reviewer?
Eventually I became fascinated by emerging technologies like CRISPR/Cas9* (genome editing) and iPS Cells (restoring cells to a stem cell-like state) that hold promise to revolutionize treatment of ailments that are virtually invulnerable to current treatments. This marked a shift from simply wanting to read and understand medical literature to being interested in doing research myself and being part of the development of cutting edge health technologies.
* Quick shoutout to former AP Chemistry classmate Feng Zhang who may be in the running for a Nobel prize for revolutionary work on CRISPR/Cas9.
How the curriculum was put together
This biology curriculum is based on the Stanford undergraduate biology degree requirements. Why Stanford? Because that is where I did my undergraduate degree, and it is the university whose curricular structure I am most familiar with.
While many universities offer recordings of their actual course lectures online through YouTube, this program primarily leverages MOOCs that more closely emulate the classroom environment by providing assignments, exams, and interactions with course staff through message boards.
Although for some requirements–notably organic chemistry–where MOOCs simply are not available, the requirement is “fulfilled” by a YouTube lecture series.
I did the best I could to match courses in the Stanford biology degree requirements to their exact MOOC counterparts. However, curricula and courses vary from school to school so often the match is only an approximate one.
Unfortunately, there is just no good self-study way to replicate lab courses. Some of the MOOCs have very elaborately designed digital labs (notably MIT’s Introduction to Biology – The Secret of Life), but you won’t be able to do any actual wet biology.
There are many different ways to organize a biology degree curriculum depending on both your interests and goals. This curriculum skews towards human biology, statistics, and genomic data analysis–key skills for interpreting health-related research.
Many other electives could have been chosen, and you can browse the course offerings on Coursera and edX to see what else interests you. I have also taken many great MOOCs not on this list.
The Biology curriculum
Note that the equivalent on campus courses are often split into 2 or 3 parts when they are converted into MOOCs, so at first glance the course list may look deceptively long. If you discover a broken link, please let me know and I’ll try to find where it has moved or a replacement course.
1. Core courses
- AP® Biology – Part 1: The Cell
- AP® Biology – Part 2: Genetics
- AP® Biology – Part 3: Evolution and Diversity
- AP® Biology – Part 4: Ecology
- AP® Biology – Part 5: Review and Exam Preparation
- Introduction to Biology – The Secret of Life
- Molecular Biology – Part 1: DNA Replication and Repair
- Molecular Biology – Part 2: Transcription and Transposition
2. Required foundational breadth courses
Either Introduction to Chemistry or eCHEM 1A. Though eCHEM 1A doesn’t offer assignments, it is highly recommended viewing. It may be the best taught introduction to any subject ever.
- Introduction to Chemistry: Reactions and Ratios
- Introduction to Chemistry: Structures and Solutions
- eCHEM 1A: Online General Chemistry (Part 1 of 4)
- eCHEM 1A: Online General Chemistry (Part 2 of 4)
- eCHEM 1A: Online General Chemistry (Part 3 of 4)
- eCHEM 1A: Online General Chemistry (Part 4 of 4)
Either Chemistry 51 or Khan Academy’s Organic Chemistry. Chemistry 51 follows the Janice Gorzynski Smith textbook. Organic chemistry requires a lot of learning by doing, so I recommend doing the end of chapter exercises. Khan Academy is perhaps a more “Organic Chemistry Lite” experience, which may be preferable depending on your time and interests.
- Chemistry 51A: Organic Chemistry
- Chemistry 51B: Organic Chemistry
- Chemistry 51C: Organic Chemistry
- Organic Chemistry (Khan Academy)
- Introduction to Physical Chemistry
- Preparing for the AP* Physics 1 Exam – Part 1: Linear Motion
- Preparing for the AP* Physics 1 Exam – Part 2: Rotational Motion
- Preparing for the AP* Physics 1 Exam – Part 3: Electricity & Waves
- Preparing for the AP* Physics 1 Exam – Part 4: Exam Prep
- AP® Physics 2 – Part 1: Fluids and Thermodynamics
- AP® Physics 2 – Part 2: Electricity and Magnetism
- AP® Physics 2 – Part 3: Optics and Modern Physics
- AP® Physics 2 – Part 4: AP Review and Exam Preparation
- Calculus One
- Calculus Two: Sequences and Series
- Introduction to Computer Science and Programming Using Python
- Statistics in Medicine
- Introductory Human Physiology
- Exercise Physiology: Understanding the Athlete Within
- Useful Genetics Part 1: How Our Genes Shape Us
- Useful Genetics, Part 2: Genes and Genetic Inheritance
- Epigenetic Control of Gene Expression
- Introduction to Genetics and Evolution
- Principles of Biochemistry
- Introduction to Human Evolution
- Introduction to Genomic Technologies
- Genomic Data Science with Galaxy
- Python for Genomic Data Science
- Algorithms for DNA Sequencing
4. Writing in the major
Many of these courses allow you to purchase an optional verified certificate of completion. While I think the real world value for these certificates is still very much an open question, please do support the universities offering these fine courses if your finances allow.
If you have any questions about this curriculum or suggestions to improve it, please leave them in the comments.