Research Fields in Biology
Science can be a confusing realm – workers in almost all scientific disciplines revel in the fact that they have a huge amount of special terminology, slang and jargon that can confuse and frighten even other scientists. This doesn’t result from any sinister intent, but the concepts under discussion are often so complex that having a simple word that describes a textbook’s worth of ideas becomes really handy. It saves a lot of time and makes sure that everyone is talking about the same thing. Assuming, of course, they know what the word means!
Sadly this means that when researchers come to talk to the pubic, they often get tangled up the complexities of their jargon and forget that not everyone knows what they mean by the ‘Red Queen’, ‘Lamarckism’ or ‘cladistic palaeobiogeography’. This even extends to the names of the fields they work in, so it seemed a good idea to give a list of the more common / simple research fields. Many people probably just think of biology in terms of zoology, botany and medicine, if that, when of course these are exceptionally general terms. Almost all researchers end up specialising in one or more much narrower fields, so although everyone on AAB is a biologist in one sense, I suspect that few would ever describe themselves as such. One person might specialise in how behaviour (ethology) affects big evolutionary changes (macroevolution) in humans (anthropology) and another on how the environment (ecology) influences behaviour (ethology) in fossil insects (palaeontology and entomology). So one looks at 250 million year old grasshoppers and works in a geology museum and the other studies living humans in cities and works in a hospital, but both could be described as ethologists!
Hopefully this list will give you an idea of some of the fields we work in, and what the terms mean.
Biology – essentially the ‘study of life’, and therefore everything to do with life comes under this term. For historical reasons, the term biologist is not usually applied to researchers who happen to specialise in the mammalian species Homo sapiens. Nevertheless, humans are biological beings, and they can be studied using a biological approach.
Botany – the study of plants. Again for historical reasons, this also generally includes fungi, algae and lichens, even though these organisms are no longer technically considered to be plants.
Zoology – the study of animals. Not the study of zoos! Zoo in this term is a contraction of zoological garden, though of course the root word is the same.
Medicine – the study of health. This includes diseases and problems of age, genetic disorders and injuries, etc. Of course thanks to our ‘human-centric’ view, most people will think of medicine as just referring to health in people, though of course we also have veterinary medicine for the study (and practice) of the health of animals.
Palaeontology – the study of extinct life (not to be confused with archaeology which covers only ancient human artefacts like houses or tools). Covers all life (again except humans) but the root term “palaeo-“ (which means “ancient”) is often combined with other key words to provide a more specific description. For example, palaeobotany is the study of extinct plants, and palaeoecology is the study of extinct ecosystems. Just to be confusing it can be spelt palaeontology or paleontology. While the study of rocks (geology) is a separate science, by definition palaeontology involves elements of geology that are needed to study the rocks in which the fossils are found.
Anatomy – the study of the shape and structure of animals and plants. This includes not only gross body structure, but also organs, parts of organs, and even individual cells.
Biochemistry - the study of the chemistry of living organisms – how chemical reactions happen in the body and why. This field has considerable areas of overlap with genetics and physiology.
Biogeography – the study of how life is distributed across the planet. This is especially important in palaeontology, as we can see how animals and plants spread across the world once they had evolved and see how patterns of distribution changed over time.
Biomechanics – this is an area where biology and physics overlap. Biomechanics is the study of how things move or act in a physical world, form how animals run, swim and fly (locomotion) right down to how muscles work, or even how channels in cell membranes open and close, and molecules move.
Developmental Biology – in the past this was more often referred to as embryology (the study of the embryo developing from a cell to an independent organism), but of course ‘development’ covers all manner of organisms. This is becoming increasingly important in biology as new techniques allow us to look in detail at how organisms grow and change, what genes are responsible and how they alter the pattern of development.
Ecology – the study of living things in relation to each other and to their environment. In other words, the study of how organisms live and interact with each other – who eats what, and how much, who gets eaten, and who competes or cooperates with whom.
Ethology – the study of behaviour. How animals behave, and the underlying reasons for their behaviour and how they originated and evolved.
Evolutionary Biology – perhaps the most wide-ranging field in biological sciences, one way or another, evolution touches just about every area of research. Some study evolutionary theory, or how organisms change, why they change, how they are related to others and so on. There is very little that evolution (either through direct action, or the evolutionary history of the organism) does not affect.
Genetics / Molecular Biology – the science of inheritance, how genes are expressed, and the structure and function of biologically important molecules (e.g. proteins).
Marine Biology – the study of sea life, covering elements of other biological fields like zoology, botany, ecology as well as more geographical skills such as studying ocean currents and weather patterns.
Microbiology – the study of microorganisms, defined as organisms that cannot be seen with the naked eye. This normally includes single-celled organisms such as bacteria and some algae, in addition to viruses and prions. A virus is essentially a non-cellular biochemical complex, existing at the boundary of the biological and chemical realms.
Pathology – the study of diseases and how to cure them.
Pharmacology – the study of drugs and medicines and how they affect the (typically human) body.
Physiology – the study of the biological processes. This really goes hand-in-hand with anatomy- knowing how an engine is built may be useful, but it’s also important to know how it works when you turn it on!
Taxonomy – the study of scientific names, or more specifically the science of naming species, making sure each species can be identified properly and working out its evolutionary relationships to other species (this latter part is often termed ‘systematics’).
Of course I could go on (quite a lot!). New fields of research are always being generated through new ideas and concepts, or old areas are combined to give a new approach or overlap. Even most groups of organisms have their own research name - almost everyone has heard the term ornithology for the study of birds, but there is also mammology (mammals), mycology (fungi), malacology (molluscs) and more, and I have not even included these here.
This list should cover the most common ones (if in little detail) that you are likely to encounter or hear about, but if you want to know more about them, or about other research areas, then why not ask us a question?