Biology & Biological Engineering


Unknown scientist, undated


Unlocking the Natural World

Biology (Course VII) was established in 1871, and was originally named the Program in Natural History. By 1889, the course had been renamed the Department of Biology, and it continued to widen its scope, integrating physics, mathematics, and chemistry, as well as several fields of engineering into its biological research.

From 1871 through 1941, 27 undergraduate SB degrees in Biology were awarded to women. During that time, only one woman received a graduate degree in Biology: Dr. Helen Louise Breed Arnold, who earned a Ph.D. in 1937.

One of these early Biology graduates, Katharine Dexter McCormick (SB 1904), was a biologist, suffragist and contributor to the development of the first birth control pill. She also funded the building of McCormick Hall, MIT’s first dormitory for undergraduate women, in 1963.

In 1945 the Program in Food Technology became its own department (Course XX), separate from the Department of Biology and Biomedical Engineering. Faculty members in Course XX included Dr. Emily Wick (PhD ’51), the first woman to be appointed faculty in the School of Science. 

In 1967 Dr. Lisa Steiner became the first woman to be appointed faculty in the Department of Biology.

Faye Vassel

Dr. Faye Vassel (PhD ‘18), 2017


Beyond the Microscope

Previously a program within the Department of Biology, Biological Engineering (Course XX) became its own department in 1998 with the goal of “promoting the fusion of molecular life sciences with engineering.” In 1999 Dr. Hyun Gyung Jang became the first woman to hold a postdoctoral position in the department.

In 2012 Dr. Tania Baker became the head of the Department of Biology, and in 2019 Dr. Angela Belcher became the head of the Dept of Biological Engineering. Currently, Dr. Amy E. Keating serves as Head of Biology. Two of MIT’s presidents have also been members of the Biology Department — MIT’s 16th president Dr. Susan Hockfield and the current president Dr. Sally Kornbluth.


Scientist, possibly researcher Mabel Merritt (‘29), in the Department of Nutrition, Food Science, and Technology, circa 1962.


Achievements in Biology and Biological Engineering at MIT

  • 1885 - Marcella O’Grady (SB IX), first woman to earn an SB in General Studies in Natural History 
  • 1889 - Caroline Woodman (SB VII), first woman to earn an SB in Biology
  • 1937 - Dr. Helen Breed Arnold (PhD VII), first woman to earn a PhD in Biology
  • 1953 - May Chow (SB VII ’53, SM VII ’54), one of the earliest known Chinese women to graduate from MIT
  • 1956 - Niramol Bulakul (SM XX), first woman to graduate with an SM in XX and first known Thai woman to earn an advanced degree at MIT
  • 1959 - Dr. Emily Wick (PhD V), first woman to be appointed as faculty in the School of Science 
  • 1967 - Dr. Lisa Steiner, first woman to be appointed as faculty in the Department of Biology
  • 1968 - Dr. Jennifer Rudd (SB VII), first known Black woman to graduate MIT, in 1968 along with Shirley Jackson
  • 1975 - Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff (PhD VII), first known Latinx woman to receive a PhD in Biology
  • 1980 -  Dr. ChoKyun Rha (SB XX ‘62, SM XX ’64, SM X ’66, ScD XX ’67), first known Asian woman to earn tenure at MIT
  • 1983 - Dr. Francee Jean Taylor (SB VII), first known Native American woman to receive a degree from MIT
  • 2004 - Dr. Susan Hockfield, biology faculty member and the first woman President of MIT
  • 2012 - Dr. Tania Baker, first woman to head the Department of Biology
  • 2019 - Dr. Angela Belcher, first woman head of the Dept of Biological Engineering