In my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison I, with many other STEM students, struggled through the CHEM 103/104 sequence (if you took 109, I don’t want to hear it). I spent hours and hours balancing equations, calculating pH, free energy and other things that I’ve already forgotten. Lecture, homework, exams, discussion… I dreaded almost every aspect of chemistry, but none so much as lab.
Comparatively, a three-hour lab isn’t so bad — I know other classes struggle through 5-hour marathon labs that I’m pretty sure would kill me. But it felt like torture to be inside as I watched the sunsets get earlier and earlier, knowing that getting out of lab only meant I’d have to start studying.
This prompted a crisis. I’d planned to be a biologist researching in a lab, pipetting and centrifuging the days away. Now, that future felt unbearable.
I knew I liked biology, nature and solving problems, and that I hated the thought of a career stuck behind a desk. I spent hours scrolling through the list of UW’s biology/botany courses, combing the guide for something that’d be a better fit — and I landed on Conservation Biology!
Conservation Biology (ConsBio) is a major within the Department of Botany in L&S. The major was initiated by Aldo Leopold (of Sand County Almanac fame) in the 1940s, and it has continued to expand. The major offers a lot of freedom. Students have plenty of wiggle room to explore different disciplines and specializations such as limnology, ornithology or mycology.
ConsBio majors take coursework in biology, physiology, ecology and social sciences. Unlike Biology or Botany, ConsBio doesn’t require that you take any physics or organic chemistry — which I discovered halfway through CHEM 343.
Many ConsBio classes focus on fieldwork and practical applications of classroom learning in order to prepare students for careers working outdoors or in natural areas. Majors learn the basis for how ecosystems function, and why ecosystems are distributed the way they are, in addition to practices for conserving our natural resources.
My personal favorite part of being a ConsBio major is the fieldwork aspect. It is so, so fun to be outside, running around in the woods and to be able to call it homework. For those interested in fieldwork or ecology, I highly recommend BOT 455: Vegetation of Wisconsin. It will destroy you, but you also get to go to a bog, so it balances out.
ConsBio graduates have many options post-undergrad. Personally, I plan to, eventually, go to grad school for a doctorate in order to pursue my interests in research, but that’s not the only possible path. Those with a B.S. in ConsBio can work as a field or lab technician, wildlife educator, consultant, animal rehabilitator… the list goes on. Basically, if you like being outdoors or have a big passion for nature, this might be a good fit for you!
You do still have to take some chemistry, unfortunately, but the rest of the experience is well worth it.