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Undergraduate Program

Virginia Tech biological systems engineering students completing a dna test in the lab

Biological Systems Engineering connects biology and engineering to solve complex, critical problems in sustainability, environmental protection, and human health. 

The BSE program is unique across the College of Engineering – our students integrate foundational biology and chemistry into engineering problem solving and design. Our ABET-accredited Bachelor of Science program prepares our graduates to succeed as engineers, entrepreneurs, and for furthering their education in graduate school. We are invested in your success and prepare you to make a difference in the career you desire through dedicated advising, supportive faculty, and a community atmosphere.

Our program has 2 major options: Biological Systems Engineering (BSE) and Ecological Engineering (EcoE). Both majors share a core set of courses including biology, data science, and engineering design. The BSE major has multiple paths that provide flexibility in the areas of biotechnology, pre-health, food, environmental health, and ecological engineering. The EcoE major is a structured degree providing the skills and training to solve pressing societal, ecological, and environmental challenges using a holistic, systems approach and integrating nature-based solutions.

BSE’s graduates are equipped with the technical abilities and skill sets desirable to employers. Our students are employed in the biotechnology, pharmaceutical, energy, and food industries as well as government agencies, environmental consulting firms, and non-profit organizations. BSE students also succeed in professional schools such as medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine, and as graduate students in a variety of disciplines, including biomedical engineering. 

Is BSE the right fit for me? I'm interested in...

A student wearing a plastic face shield, purple medical gloves, and a lab coat is holding a transparent, plastic container and is pouring a substance in the container.

Biological System Engineers utilize chemistry and biology as the foundation for engineering solutions. However, a career in chemistry and biochemistry and a career in biological systems engineering differ. To better understand the differences between these three careers, here are some things to keep in mind about these disciplines. Chemistry is the study of molecules/substances and chemical reactions. Biochemistry is the study of the organic molecules/substances and reactions that make up living organisms. Biological Systems Engineering uses principles of chemistry to create new and better bioproducts. With this in mind, a Chemist may study how ADP can be converted to ATP by a certain enzyme. Engineers in BSE, however, would develop the industrial scale-up and process engineering of this reaction.

 A student wearing purple medical gloves is injecting a liquid into the leaf of a plant in a lab

To start, Biology is the study of living organisms. Microbiology is the study of microscopic living organisms. Genetics is the study of reproduction and evolution of living organisms. Biological Systems Engineering uses scientific advacement and uses them to solve problems related to living organisms. While BSE, Biology, Microbiology, and Genetics are related, the difference lies in how scientists and engineers find solutions for problems we face in our world. As an example, a scientist in biology, microbiology, and/or genetics may study how certain bacteria product more acetic acid based on their genes. Engineers with a background in these fields, such as Biological Systems Engineers, would enhance the higher-producting bacteria for more efficient industrial production of acetic acid.

 A student wearing a plastic face shield, lab coat, and purple medical gloves looks down at lab materials as they hold onto a transparent, plastic container with a liquid inside.

Biomedical Engineering uses biology as it relates specifically to the human body to advance medicine and BSE uses biology to focus on large scale production of biomaterials, drugs, and other biomolecules. Biological System Engineers are likely to assist in these medical applications: drugs and delivery systems, synthetic biomaterial production, and microbiology research. BSE has some overlap with other fields like Medical Research (BSE/Health Professions), Prostehetics (BSE/Mechanical Engineering), Drug Delivery (BSE/Chemical Engineering) and Medical Devices (BSE/Mechanical Engineering/Computer Science).

A student crosses their arms and looks towards a substance being stretched in a food engineering lab

Chemical Engineers use chemistry as the foundation for engineering solutions while BSE uses biology and chemistry. Chemical Engineers are likely to apply engineering solutions to traditional chemical reaction or petroleum-based reactions while BSE applies these solutions to a wide variety of areas including food processsing, biopharmaceutical production, biomaterials, metabolic engineering, bioenergy production, and animal waste treatment utilization.

A student and faculty member are touching a drone on the ground placed on an orange, circular helicopter pad while another faculty member stands behind holding the control pad and presses a button.

Civil Engineers address problems at the site-level (e.g., waste & stormwater, solid waste, air pollution, and hydraulic structures) while Biological Systems Engineers tackle issues using a systems approach (e.g., water quality and natural resource protection through watershed management and Best Management Practices (BMP) design). Both follow similar career paths and work together on similar problems. There are some noted coursework differences between Civil Engineering and BSE. In a Civil Engineering program, you're likely to focus more on transportation, structures, and construction; deforms & geotechnical engineering; and focus electives in water resources or environmental engineering. In our program, you'll learn more about biology and chemistry, heat and mass transport, hydrology, water quality, and watershed management and modeling.

Two students completing fieldwork at Duck Pond at Virginia Tech. One is wearing waders in the pond and is giving another student outside of the pond on land a ruler.

When looking at a career in Biological Systems Engineering and Environmental Science, keep the following thoughts in mind. Environmental Science is the study of the environment, its processes, and its interactions with human systems. Natural Resources is the study of the management and science of fish and wildlife, forestry, rangeland, and water. Water is an interdisciplinary field focused on sustainability, policy, and management of water resources. Biological Systems Engineering uses environmental knowledge to solve problems related to water quality, ecoloy, and watershed management. While BSE intersects with Environmental Science, Natural Resources, and Water, the way an Environmental Scientist may approach a problem may differ from that of an Biological Systems Engineer. For instance, an Environmental Scientist may study how pollution harms fish living in a stream while Engineers in BSE would develop a watershed management plan to prevent unsafe levels of pollution from entering the stream. 

A student is pointing towards a machine prototype that they've built for their Senior Design Project and is talking with a person slightly out of frame.

BSE is the only engineering department that requires two years of chemistry, full sequence of biology, and microbiology which makes our program an excellent choice for anyone interested in pursuing a pre-med, pre-dental, or pre-vet career. Our program can help satisfy MCAT requirements with only a few additional credits. 

Departmental Opportunities

Within the department, students have opportunities to join student chapters of National socities, become department ambassadors or liaisons, participate in undergraduate research, and take their education abroad. 

Contact

Priscilla Baker
Undergraduate Academic Advisor
307 Seitz Hall
(540)-231-2145
bseadvising@vt.edu

Durelle Scott
Assistant Department Head for Undergraduate Studies
202A Seitz Hall
(540) 231-2449
dscott@vt.edu