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Natural Sciences Major

Natural sciences provide the foundations for understanding the natural world and for using that knowledge to solve practical problems. Scientists and engineers use theories and findings of the physical and chemical sciences as well as the biological and biomedical sciences to develop new technologies, improving the lives of millions of people around the world.

Effective decision making in many technology-oriented organizations requires a deep understanding of the natural sciences; the Natural Sciences major gives students the practical knowledge to become leaders and innovators in science and technology-based organizations.

Cornerstone Courses

In their first year, Natural Sciences majors complete their Cornerstone Courses.

Core Courses

In their second year, Natural Sciences majors enroll in core courses that provide the foundation for the Natural Sciences concentrations. They also take electives from core courses offered in other majors.

NS110L / Physics of Life

We explore how physics, ranging from mechanics through atomic physics, can be applied to the life sciences. Examples of applications are: fluid flow and heat regulation in biological organisms, electrostatics in the nervous system, and wave phenomena in hearing and vision. The course emphasizes the development of tools and problem-solving approaches needed to describe the physical phenomena at hand.

Prerequisite: CS51

NS110U / Physics of the Universe

We use gravitational and electromagnetic interactions as representatives for how physics takes experimental evidence and then encodes it into a theoretical framework that can be used to make predictions and draw inferences about new phenomena. The course emphasizes the development of the tools needed to describe the physical structure of nature and then uses these tools to infer the domain of validity of theories in physics and what might lie beyond them.

Prerequisite: CS51; CS111A or CS111

NS111 / Implications of Earth's Cycles

The Earth system is investigated from its origin to its functioning today. Beginning with the origin of the Universe and the creation of elements in stars, the course progresses to an understanding of solar systems and the conditions that gave rise to habitable planets. Earth evolved from a lifeless, reduced planet with a simple mineralogy to a complex, oxidized planet that can support advanced life such as human beings. An aim of the course is to place human beings in a universal and planetary context, and to see the steps in planetary evolution as an essential perspective on how we relate to Earth today.

Prerequisite: NS51

NS112 / Evolution Across Multiple Scales

Evolution is the unifying principle of all biological processes. Explore in detail how the fundamental processes within cells, individuals and ecological communities are explained by the basic mechanisms of evolutionary change, including mutation, natural selection, and genetic drift. Discover how the latest technologies are revealing the interconnectedness of all living systems and the interplay between the biosphere and the earth’s processes. “Nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution” – T. Dobzhansky. From the relationships among species in a forest to the interactions of molecules in a cell, evolution is ultimately responsible. One might be tempted to view Dobzhansky’s quote as indicating that evolution is one key that unlocks the complexity of biology. That view is supported by statements such as “survival of the fittest,” which oversimplify the complexity of evolution. Instead, Evolution at Multiple Scales views evolution as the elaborate set of interconnected concepts it is. Although Darwin published On the Origin of Species over 150 years ago, evolutionary biology continues to be augmented, as new discoveries are driven by new technologies. By evaluating evolutionary concepts in a broad range of biological scenarios, students deepen their understanding of evolution itself, shedding light on the diversity of life it has produced.

Prerequisite: NS51

NS113 / Chemical Structure and Reactivity

This course explores the physical and chemical properties of nature based on molecular, atomic, and sub-atomic structures, with an emphasis on how structure determines reactivity. Empirical observations will be combined with the principles of chemistry and physics to understand the microscopic properties of nature that underpin phenomena at various scales. Students who complete this course will be able to generate strong mechanistic chemical explanations and apply them in advanced chemistry, physics, earth science, and biology courses.

Prerequisite: NS51


In their third year, Natural Sciences majors select a concentration, begin taking courses within it and begin work on their capstone courses. They also take electives chosen from other Minerva courses (other concentration courses in Natural Sciences, core and concentration courses in other colleges). Natural Sciences offers concentrations shown in the table below.

In the fourth year, Natural Sciences majors enroll in additional electives chosen from Minerva’s course offerings within or outside the major. Additionally, they take senior tutorials in the major, and finish their capstone courses.

  Theoretical Foundations of Natural Science Research Analyses in Natural Science Problem Solving in Complex Systems
Molecules and Atoms NS142 / Quantum Nature of Matter: Theory and Applications NS152 / Analyzing Matter and Molecules NS162 / Statistical Mechanics: Theory and Applications
Cells and Organisms NS144 / Genes to Organisms NS154 / Life's Chemistry NS164 / Solutions From and For Life
Earth's Systems NS146 / Integrating Earth's Systems NS156 / Monitoring and Modeling Earth's Systems NS166 / Keeping Earth Habitable

Each row and each column of the matrix represent a different concentration, as noted above.

Cells and Organisms

Dig deeply into the complexity of how cells and organisms function and learn sophisticated approaches for examining life. Learn how biotechnology and bioengineering technologies can provide solutions to the challenges facing life on earth.

Career Possibilities

  • Bioinformatics Specialist
  • Bioprocessing Engineer
  • Biotech Entrepreneur
  • Geneticist
  • Marketing Director
  • Medical Doctor
  • Research Scientist

Earth's Systems

Investigate the interactions among Earth's systems, including the atmosphere, terrestrial, and marine components and how the Earth's biome (including humans) interfaces with the physical, chemical and geological aspects of the environment. Explore how scientists are monitoring and modeling the changes to our Earth, and potential technological and social solutions to Earth's challenges.

Career Possibilities

  • Ecologist
  • Environmental Engineer
  • Environmental Scientist
  • Geologist
  • Political Consultant
  • Research Scientist

Molecules and Atoms

Dig deeply into the chemistry and physics of matter, from particles to atoms and molecules. Learn how the laws that govern the small scale universe give rise to the fundamental processes of life, the Earth, and the cosmos. Explore the scientific foundations for observing matter, and the technologies that could help solve diverse global-scale challenges.

Career Possibilities

  • Chemical Engineer
  • Instrument Scientist
  • New Product Development Engineer
  • Physicist
  • Project or Product Manager
  • Research Scientist
  • Technical Sales Representative

Problem Solving in Complex Systems

Analyze complex systems at the levels of atoms, molecules, and the Earth in order to understand and design solutions to the 21st century environmental and health challenges facing our world.

Career Possibilities

  • Chemist
  • Consultant
  • Energy Engineer
  • Environmental Engineer
  • Government Staff
  • Product Development Engineer

Research Analyses in Natural Science

Explore in detail how research is practiced across the molecular, cellular and Earth systems levels. Learn about the latest research approaches that rely on chemical and other fundamental properties, with a focus on how these can advance understanding and pave the way toward technological solutions to some of the world's most daunting problems.

Career Possibilities

  • Analytical Chemist
  • Biochemist
  • Biophysicist
  • Engineer
  • Pharmaceutical Scientist
  • Research Scientist

Theoretical Foundations of Natural Science

Explore the latest knowledge in physical, chemical, biological and Earth sciences, from the smallest scale of particles, atoms and molecules, to cells and organisms, to the complexity of Earth's systems. Delve into crucial questions scientists are pursuing.

Career Possibilities

  • Biofuels Engineer
  • Chemist
  • Environmental Engineer
  • Medical Doctor
  • Product Development Engineer
  • Professor

Concentration Courses

NS125 / Research Methods

This course covers applications of research methods and data analysis. We use primary research literature related to seven case studies to examine different forms of quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods research, and to understand the ways in which these techniques help address specific research questions. Primary texts for the course cover the broader context of research designs and the use of the R programming language for data analysis and visualization. Secondary texts relate to the case studies. Students facilitate class sessions, choosing and assigning to the rest of the class their own readings and original framing of a research approach to an assigned topic. Note: NS125/SS125 may be substituted as an NS/SS tutorial.

Prerequisite: NS51

NS142 / Quantum Nature of Matter: Theory and Applications

Study the nature of matter from a quantitative standpoint using the tools provided by quantum mechanics. Starting from experiments that led the way to the discovery of quantum mechanics, we first establish its mathematical foundations. We then focus on electronic structures of particles and atoms. Along the way, we also review examples of technological revolutions catalyzed by quantum mechanics. Zoom in on events at microscopic scales, where interactions of energy and matter can behave differently than as predicted by classical physics.

Prerequisite: NS110U; CS111; CS113

NS144 / Genes to Organisms

Investigate how biological traits are determined. Examine how genetic and environmental influences are translated through cellular and developmental mechanisms to determine the properties of cells, organisms, and species. Apply concepts and approaches from genetics, developmental biology, and computational biology to fundamental questions, including how to determine disease risk and how gene expression is finely coordinated and tuned. Explore the ethical and societal implications of genetics research and applications, including the impact on human health and behavior.

Prerequisite: NS112

NS146 / Integrating Earth's Systems

Explore key Earth systems, with an emphasis on how solid Earth components interact with living organisms, the hydrosphere and the atmosphere. Consider the effects of volcanism, mountain-building, earthquakes, weathering and erosion on biotic and abiotic domains. This course is designed to complement concepts from NS111 by extending and supplementing content knowledge and practical skills. The emphasis is on examining interactions within the whole Earth system, and on considering how we know what we know. Various important geochemical approaches are taught and then applied to real-world examples. By exploring the chemistry, physics and biology behind a tremendous diversity of Earth processes—from the surface to deep Earth, from microbe scale to whole-Earth scale—students gain critical skills and perspective to apply to a host of scientific questions beyond those considered in this course.

Prerequisite: NS111

NS152 / Analyzing Matter and Molecules

Understanding what matter is, how matter and small molecules are studied, and how they can be manipulated is the gateway to technological solutions to many world challenges. Learn principles underlying optics, chemical identification, and chemical separation, and employ analytical tools for molecular and elemental analyses to tackle important interdisciplinary problems. In this course, we explore the application of analytical techniques to a range of topics, from everyday concerns of water quality, to major problems such as oil spill monitoring and cleanup, to ecosystem- and planetary-scale research questions that rely on remote sensing technologies. The first unit focuses on how light and electromagnetic radiation are used to view matter and molecules both directly and indirectly. The second unit focuses on identifying and quantifying molecules based upon their reactions and interactions with other, known chemicals. The third unit focuses on using sub-atomic properties, such as charge or isotopic composition, to characterize analytes. Students explore common techniques to separate and identify specific atoms or molecules within such mixtures. In the final unit we combine approaches from all earlier parts of the course to address current, multi-faceted research questions associated with the Earth’s past, present and future climate.

Prerequisite: NS110L or NS110U; CS111; NS113

NS154 / Life's Chemistry

Investigate biological systems from the cellular and molecular levels of analysis. Learn how the physical and chemical properties of molecular interactions within and between cells give rise to the emergent properties of life. Apply the principles of organic chemistry to understand the reactions that structure and power living systems. Explore key questions about cellular functions of diverse organisms ranging from plants and animals to microbes. Learn about experimental techniques that inform our understanding of cellular function and molecular interactions—including microscopy, x-ray diffraction, stable-isotope probing, enzyme activity assays—and apply them to current research questions.

Prerequisite: NS112; NS113

NS156 / Monitoring and Modeling Earth's Systems

Explore how researchers study and monitor earth systems, including the latest methods for climate, pollution, and ocean monitoring. Delve into how models are used to understand and predict earth systems and how to construct your own models of environmental systems. Use this knowledge to understand the major challenges facing the Earth system, the current state-of-the-science, and to design future solutions. This course will introduce students to the fundamental processes that control weather, air pollution, and climate change and enable them to reduce this complex system to simple, yet useful, models. We will critique current models and remote sensing observations to determine what we can and cannot see or predict. Students will evaluate environmental assessments and forecasts, then extend that knowledge to how science is able to inform and change public policy. We will address what are the most important next steps to solve the pressing environmental challenges facing both science and society.

Prerequisite: CS111 or CS130; NS111 or NS113

NS162 / Statistical Mechanics: Theory and Applications

Statistical Mechanics describes how macroscopic systems and the macroscopic physical laws that govern them emerge from the aggregated behavior of many microscopic components. The field developed to explain the empirical results of thermodynamics in terms of the microscopic theory of atoms — Why do macroscopic systems have uniform properties? How do equations of state emerge from microscopic dynamics? When do these emergent laws break down? Why does the 2nd law of thermodynamics emerge, and how does it relate to phenomena from the efficiency of engines to the cooling of the universe? Why does matter have phases and under what conditions do phase transitions occur? While we primarily focus on explaining the tools of statistical mechanics through thermodynamics, we also discuss applications of these tools to computer science, machine learning, finance, and modeling social systems. In doing so, we introduce the basics of information theory and develop the connections between thermodynamic entropy and the more broadly applicable concept of Shannon entropy.

Prerequisite: CS111; NS110L or NS110U or NS113

NS164 / Solutions From and For Life

Explore cutting-edge solutions to difficult problems in human health. Learn the process by which drugs are discovered and designed, how stem cells are engineered to form tissues, and how genes can be engineered for a multitude of purposes. Analyze how to determine what solutions can be applied to what problems and how to communicate advances in biotechnology to expert and public audiences.

Prerequisite: NS112

NS166 / Keeping Earth Habitable

Examine environmental and natural resource issues such as pollution, deforestation, climate change impacts, habitat loss, agricultural impacts, and the potential impact of human population growth and consumption. Consider systems challenges and potential solutions including social, political, economic, and technological approaches to major environmental problems.

Prerequisite: NS111 or NS112

Capstone Courses

In their fourth year, Natural Sciences majors finish their Capstone Courses.