Department merger brings together life sciences programs

Department merger brings together life sciences programs

With an eye toward growing and strengthening its life sciences programs and ties to the Texas Medical Center, Rice has merged the departments of Biochemistry and Cell Biology (BCB) and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) to create the new Department of BioSciences. Department leaders say the move will facilitate new growth and collaboration in the life sciences.

Janet Braam

“There are advantages to being a larger department,” said BioSciences Department Chair Janet Braam. “The more people you have to interact with, the broader the scope of the science. We’re already seeing avenues for more collaborations, more integration among the research areas.”

Evan Siemann, former EEB department chair, “Biology comes in so many flavors, and with two departments there were always gaps. Where would a physiologist fit within our old structure? If we wanted to do something that really focused on genetics, where would that have lived? Before, it wasn’t clear, but BioSciences encompasses all of that.”

Siemann and Braam, former BCB department chair, said the merger, which went into effect July 1, will eventually lead to new courses, research specialties and areas of expertise. It also may eventually lead to new degree programs, but will not affect Rice’s existing degree programs in BCB and EEB.

Siemann, the Harry C. and Olga K. Wiess Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and associate vice provost for academic affairs, said, “All the advising structure stays the same. The classes stay the same. The degrees stay the same. Most students may not recognize an immediate difference.”

Evan Siemann

Braam praised the department’s staff, which has handled countless administrative tasks in recent weeks related to merging the departments’ accounting, payroll, websites, communications, scheduling and events.

“I can’t thank the staff enough for all they’ve done to make this easier for the students and faculty,” Braam said.

In addition to the administrative aspects of the merger, Braam said the other primary areas of focus are faculty research and graduate and undergraduate programs.

“We’ve put together a number of task forces of faculty who are charged with thinking of our future as a merged department and of considering the challenges and opportunities we face,” Braam said. “One task force is working on our vision for the future of BioSciences at Rice.”

Braam said the task forces are identifying the core areas where BioSciences has expertise to build upon and opportunities to expand, both for research and for potential new courses and degree programs.

“Both EEB and BCB had open faculty lines coming into this, so now we have even more opportunities for building on strengths with new faculty hires,” Braam said.

Provost George McLendon said the reorganization fits in well with the university’s strategic initiatives. “One of Rice’s Priorities for the New Century is collaboration with the Texas Medical Center in the field of biosciences,” he said. “The departmental merger fosters that goal by expanding the possibilities for collaboration both within the university and with our external partners, particularly in the Texas Medical Center.”

Braam said the department’s faculty will work together to set future priorities.

“If we choose to build in the interface and do something new, that is something we can do strongly together,” she said. “At this point, we have forward momentum and the opportunity to grow. We can choose, based upon where we see science going, and work together to build in those new areas.”


About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.