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Undergraduate Biological Sciences

01 November 2023

We offer five themes in Biology at undergraduate level. This makes planning your degree easy and it lets you create a personalised Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences that suits your interests. This Biological Sciences major is accredited by the Royal Society of Biology. Find out more about undergraduate Biological Sciences at UC.


This Biological Sciences major is accredited by the Royal Society of Biology for the purpose of meeting in part, the academic and experience requirement for the Membership and Chartered Biologist (CBiol).  

UC offers 5 themes in Biology at undergraduate level. This makes planning your degree easy yet still allows you to create a personalised Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences that suits your interests.  

Macro Photo of Blue Flowers Biology
Students Photographing Native Flora Biology
Our Themes
  • Biochemistry - the chemistry of life
  • Bioinformatics - understanding, managing and using biological data through a wide range of applications and tools
  • Molecular/Micro Biology & Systematics - how molecules and micro-organisms are structured, function, interact with their environment and evolve
  • Cell & Organismal Physiology - how the processes within cells, tissues and individuals function
  • Ecology, Evolution & Behaviour - how organisms interact and change over time in ecosystems

There is overlap between the themes. This overlap is important – the area of molecular genetics, for example, is just as important to the study of biodiversity as it is to the study of animal or plant development.

As well as core 100-level courses we offer BIOL 116 Human Biology and SCIM 101 Science, Maori and Indigenous Knowledge as additional courses.

Modern biological research is undergoing some exciting changes.

The barriers between traditionally separate areas of biology are breaking down and at the same time researchers trained in mathematics, statistics, chemistry, physics, geology, geography and computer science are collaborating with biologists in new and exciting ways.

This doesn’t mean you need to be an expert in everything, but the more you are comfortable talking with and working with scientists from other fields the better prepared you will be for the job market, whether you wish to work in industry, a research university or institute or even science journalism.

Getting started and complementary courses

More and more areas of biology require a basic knowledge of Statistics, Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics.

Molecular biology and biochemistry both require a working knowledge of chemistry, the study of populations requires some understanding of basic algebra and Statistics, the mathematics of networks applies to areas as diverse as biochemistry and ecological food webs, and to analyse biological data, Statistics is a must.

There are many niches in biological and ecological sciences for those that are not chemically or mathematically inclined, but a background in these areas may expand your options.

If you lack confidence in Mathematics and Statistics or haven't done them at NCEA level MATH 101 and CHEM 114 offer a good grounding tailored to the needs of Biological Sciences students.

UC also offers the summer Headstart programme.


For all core courses for a Biological Sciences major see degree regulations for the Bachelor of Science.

Our 200 and 300-level courses provide advanced training in specialised pathways.

  • For recommended courses in a particular pathway see the sections below.
  • UC offers Biological Sciences as a double major with other BSc subjects such as Environmental Sciences.

Choose this theme if you are interested in topics such as:

Biotechnology, animal physiology, plant development, medical biochemistry.

Biochemistry uses the techniques of chemistry, physics and molecular biology to probe the mysteries of biology at the molecular level. At UC, biochemistry courses are taught as a collaboration between the Department of Chemistry and the School of Biological Sciences. For Biochemistry students it is important to consider both biology and chemistry courses in addition to the biochemistry core when designing your degree.

Within the broad field of biochemistry, research interests at UC focus on the following key areas:

  • The molecular basis for diseases
  • Medical biochemistry
  • The molecular basis for biological phenomena: studies of molecular biology; gene expression and control; hormones and physiological phenomena
  • Enzyme inhibition and drug design
  • Natural products chemistry and drug discovery
  • Intermediary metabolism: studies of the integration of reactions in living cells; how cells make and use energy; biosynthesis of proteins; DNA & RNA; and cellular control mechanisms
  • The nature of enzyme-catalysed reactions
  • Ultrastructure: studies of the coordination of the structure and function of cells, their organelles and their proteins
  • The structure of biopolymers: studies of the structure of proteins, DNA & RNA, cell walls, etc
  • Applied biochemistry: studies of immobilised enzymes; biochemical engineering, food biochemistry, etc
  • Free radical biochemistry

Choose this theme if you are interested in topics such as:

Molecular genetics and genomics, ecological modelling, evolutionary biology, biological databases, computer programming, mathematics, statistics.


Bioinformatics and computational biology are broad themes in biology and their definitions are changing as the field develops. These themes are seen as disruptive and are leading biological research forward in the 21st century. They centre around understanding, managing and using biological data through a wide range of applications and tools.

New biological techniques allow the generation of massive datasets, whilst the development of new computer technology enables novel approaches to analysing these data. This use of “big data” is transforming how biologists ask questions and seek answers.

Bioinformatics is seen as so important that UC recently developed a new Bachelor of Data Science. There are five majors with Bioinformatics the most relevant to students interested in biological sciences.

Through a bioinformatics major you will gain a wide variety of transferable skills. These will include programming languages, statistics as applied to biological data, familiarity with fundamental algorithms and the ability to apply these to novel problems and large biological datasets, and the ability to create pipelines tying together multiple bioinformatics and computational programs.

With big data comes big responsibility, and you will learn the importance of data security, ethics, and strategy.

These bioinformatics skills are used in many different ways, such as to analyse and interpret high-throughput molecular data to understand community composition and function. Further, one could make use of the great wealth of publicly available human genome datasets and apply novel analysis techniques to these. These skills and techniques can also be used to add to our understanding of evolutionary patterns and processes, identifying invasive species through DNA data, or study whole communities through metabarcoding approaches, or shed new light on human health and disease.

This degree major supports other areas of biology, including Systematics, Molecular Biology, Evolution, Ecology, Microbiology, Conservation and Taxonomy.

This theme supports other areas of biology, including Systematics, Molecular Biology, Evolution, Ecology, Microbiology, Conservation and Taxonomy.


Career opportunities

A graduate with a bioinformatics and computational biology background would often work as part of a research team. They may perform tasks such as rearranging data into formats that allow for accurate use, developing tools to visualise complex data, collaborating with investigators to develop and perform statistical analyses and/or developing novel bioinformatic analysis pipelines, and use a range of statistical software and various database structures to analyse and store data.

  • Graduates in bioinformatics and computational biology may take up careers such as:
  • Graduate Analyst for The Northern Regional Alliance, Auckland
  • Research Leader in Data Analytics – Scion
  • Bioinformatics Analyst, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
  • Data Management Officer, University of New South Wales, Sydney
  • Bioinformatics coordinator for Genomics Aotearoa
  • Biostatistician for Novotech
  • Bioinformatician - Single Cell & Computational Genomics, Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Sydney
  • National Research Partnerships Manager at Australian Genome Research Facility Ltd, Melbourne

Choose this theme if you are interested in topics such as:

Microbiology, biotechnology, bioinformatics, molecular biology, genomics, biodiversity, drug development, plant biology, biosecurity, ancient DNA, taxonomy, phylogenetics.

About Molecular/Micro Biology & Systematics

Genetics is at the heart of the Molecular/Micro Biology and Systematics theme. It is the science of heredity. It has a history of less than 150 years, yet the most significant discovery, the double helix, celebrated its 50th birthday in 2003. The completion of the human genome project, followed by a proliferation of genome projects on endemic and endangered species has promised to challenge the creativity of future scientists. Genetics provides a platform for the development of new drugs to combat diseases, methodology for the conservation of endangered species and understanding evolutionary patterns and processes. Furthermore, it helps us to understand who we are and what we are, enhance our biosecurity and even catch criminals. Genetics is a rapidly advancing field that creates challenges and opportunities for society. Our graduates and staff also work in civil society organisations and for government agencies providing expertise to maximise the benefits of genetic technologies while minimising risk.

Molecular Biology is the field of biology that studies the structure and function of genes at a molecular level. The study of chromosomes and gene expression of an organism can give insight into heredity, genetic variation, and mutations.

Microbiology is the study of organisms such as algae, fungi, bacteria and viruses that cannot be seen with the naked eye. These micro-organisms are abundant and diverse, and they affect humans in both negative and positive ways. Some micro-organisms cause diseases in humans, other animals, or agricultural crops, and are therefore of significance to our biosecurity. Others can be used to benefit humans, such as microbes that can be used to kill insect pests (bio-control) and those that destroy harmful chemicals such as pesticides (bio-remediation). Other microbes are simply essential to the maintenance of all life, such as those that generate oxygen and other critical elements.

Systematics aims to describe and classify biological diversity and to understand its origins. It encompasses the description, identification, nomenclature, and classification of organisms (taxonomy) and the reconstruction of their evolutionary history (phylogenetics). Knowing the identity and evolutionary relationships of organisms is crucial to any biological study, and Systematics therefore unifies all of biology. Molecular methods in genetics have revolutionised systematics during recent decades leading to a far deeper understanding of how species are related and the processes that underlie biodiversity.


Career Opportunities

The broad and transferable skills gained from following this pathway open up many career options, many of which may include some component of laboratory work such asculturing micro-organisms, sequencing DNA, identifying species.

  • Graduates who specialise in Molecular/Micro Biology and Systematics may take up careers like:
  • Craft Brewery Manager at a micro brewery
  • Technical Compliance Officer for a food safety company
  • Genetic Services Specialist at PIC
  • Laboratory Technician - Microbiology at Hill Laboratories
  • Technician - Pathogens at AsureQuality Ltd
  • Laboratory manager
  • Secondary school teacher
  • Medical laboratory technician at Canterbury Health
  • Biotechnology technician
  • Assistant Cereal Breeder with the Cereal Research and Development team at PGG Wrightson Seeds
  • Entry level Fisheries Modeller - NIWA

Choose this theme if you are interested in topics such as:

Biotechnology, animal physiology, ecophysiology, plant development, biochemistry, genetics.

About Cellular and Organismal Physiology

Cellular and organismal physiology focuses on the normal vital processes of organisms. This theme is directed at understanding biochemical, biophysical, molecular, and genetic states of normal functioning at the subcellular, cellular, or whole-organism level.

Many of the recent advances in biology have focused on cellular and molecular processes, and these will always be a need to be related back to the function of the whole organism.

Within this theme a broad range of areas of focus are possible. Cell and organismal physiology in many ways links biochemistry with behaviour, and there is a large amount of overlap with our other themes.

The lines between areas of focus often are blurred and students interested in this area may want to develop backgrounds in ecology and evolution, genetics and developmental biology, or cellular and molecular biology in order to supplement their background in basic cell and organismal biology.

Cell biology is the science of the living cell. Cell theory, developed in the 1800s, states that all organisms are composed of one or more cells, that cells are the smallest living units of all living organisms, and that cells arise only by division of a previously existing cell. Recent decades have seen stunning advances in the study of cell biology as a range of different imaging, biochemical and molecular techniques have been used to investigate how cells work, and how cells interact with other cells.

Animal physiology is the study of the physical and chemical processes that occur within animals—in other words, how animals work. Animal physiology is concerned with such topics as gas exchange, blood and circulation, osmoregulation, digestion, nervous and muscle systems and endocrinology.

Biotechnology is of national and international importance. It can be defined as fundamental research contributing knowledge about biochemical, molecular, ecological and evolutionary processes; research underpinning biodiversity and biosecurity management in New Zealand; and research directed towards technology development with dual economic and environmental outcomes. Consequently, biotechnology research has key roles to play in helping us characterise New Zealand’s indigenous genetic heritage through bio-systematics, to protect New Zealand’s indigenous genetic heritage through the provision of tools to identify biosecurity threats, and, through research, to help counter the environmental impacts of farming in areas such as agricultural methane emissions and nitrogen fixers in pastures.

Biotechnology goes beyond genetic modification and includes a range of laboratory based tissue culture and breeding techniques such as the use of somatic hybridisation.

Plants are central to the maintenance of life on Earth and for the basis of agricultural production. Plant biology is a very broad discipline that covers the study of the structure, function and evolution and diversity of plants. Plant biologists study processes at the cellular and whole organism level, and address questions on how plants respond to the environment and other organisms. Others study the evolutionary history of the huge diversity of plant species. The study of plant biology can be undertaken in the lab or in the field, and is central to agricultural production and ecosystem function.


Career Opportunities

The broad and transferable skills gained from following this pathway open up many career options, many of which may include some component of laboratory work such as preparing assays, screening bio-active compounds or microscopy.

  • Graduates who specialise in Cell and Organismal Physiology may take up careers like:
  • Research Technician in Genetics AgResearch
  • Research Technician at Synlait Milk Ltd
  • Seed Production Technician at AgResearch
  • Forensic Senior Technician - ESR
  • Plant development and breeding at a crop seed supplier
  • Research technician at a university
  • Bioinformatics analyst
  • Scientific sales consultant for a pharmaceutical company
  • Bio-imaging specialist
  • Animal caretaker at a wildlife park
  • Technical Laboratory Assistant at Scion

Choose this theme if you are interested in topics such as:

Conservation biology, genetics & genomics, biosecurity, terrestrial/marine/freshwater biology and ecology, animal behaviour, environmental sciences, computational biology, bioinformatics.

Students of the Behaviour, Ecology, and Evolution theme study a broad diversity of organisms and ecosystems, and employ a wide range of methods in studies of both basic and applied questions. Courses are highly integrative and often include both laboratory and field-based components. Our staff have significant strengths in areas such as animal behaviour, ecosystem ecology, conservation biology and evolution.

Ecology is the study of organisms and how they relate to their environment. Evolution is a closely related area of study that focuses on how species change to adapt to their local surroundings and, more broadly, the processes that shape biodiversity. Animal behaviour is the study of the “how” and “why” of what animals do.

Ecology is an increasingly important field, as we struggle to protect plants and animals from growing human impacts. Amongst others, ecologists and evolutionists try to understand the threats to our endangered native organisms such as kiwi, kakapo and rare plants. They also try to predict or mitigate the effects of exotic pests such as possums and old man’s beard.

Water is an important natural resource necessary for the survival of all ecosystems. From the glaciers of South Westland and braided rivers of Canterbury to the deep marine canyon off Kaikoura, New Zealand has an abundance of fresh and marine water systems.

Freshwater and marine ecology focus on the understanding of the ecology of rivers, lakes, wetlands, coastlines and oceans. Focussing on ecological concepts but also applying water science, it includes the study of water chemistry, plant/algae, invertebrate and fish diversity and communities. With increasing land use pressures and climate change there is a need to better understand these water systems to support management decisions regarding usage, conservation and rehabilitation.

Humans probably always have been fascinated by the behaviour of animals. Studies of animal behaviour can range from addressing questions about how animals communicate and how neural mechanisms control behaviour, to questions about why animals are altruistic to family members, why some animals look after their offspring while others do not, or why species differ in their mating systems. By studying animal behaviour through a scientific framework, we can understand the reasons for the rich behavioural repertoire seen across the animal kingdom and, in the process, perhaps learn something about our own sometimes perplexing behaviour. Understanding the behaviour of animals in nature is also becoming increasingly important in conservation biology programmes to ensure that they survive and reproduce. There is a large amount of overlap between Animal Behaviour and the Cell and Organismal Physiology theme.

Evolution complements Ecology in areas such as conservation biology, how species respond to climate change, the spread of introduced plant and animals, and predicting the potential spread of GMOs. Evolution complements Behaviour in explaining topics such as sexual selection and social behaviour. An understanding of evolution is also fundamental to the designing of effective drugs and predicting the spread of new diseases such as Zika virus. Tools and technologies of evolutionary biology underpin all the biological sciences, including in fields such as molecular biology, cell biology, ecology, biodiversity and behaviour. The common theme is the study of how species change and adapt to their local environment.


Career Opportunities

The broad and transferable skills gained from studying this theme open up many career options, many of which include some component of outdoor work such as monitoring, sampling and managing of species, as well as laboratory work and computational analyses.

Graduates who specialise in Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour may take up careers like:

  • District conservation officer for the Department of Conservation
  • Monitoring of ecological values along streams, rivers and estuary for the a city council
  • Field technician in Landcare Research’s programme to help meet Kyoto agreements on global warming
  • Operating an aquaculture facility for a Marlborough Sounds seafood company
  • Biosecurity officer for MAF involved in predicting and managing the spread of introduced organisms
  • Boarder control officer at an international air or sea port.
  • Scientist for AgResearch working in biocontrol
  • Regional council water quality scientist
  • Fisheries officer for the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI)
  • Policy analyst for a government agency
  • Laboratory technician at Cawthron Institute
  • Environmental education officer
  • Environmental and Compliance Consultant
  • Biodiversity Advisor
  • Scientist such as an ecologist, evolutionary biologist, environmental scientist.

Biological Sciences Undergraduate Handbook 2023

Download (application/pdf, 8 MB)

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