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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.

Core Courses

In their sophomore year, Natural Sciences majors enroll in the three core courses that provide the foundation for the Natural Sciences concentrations. They also take three to five electives from core courses offered in other majors. The Natural Sciences core courses are: Theory and Applications of Physical Interactions (NS110), Implications of Earth's Cycles (NS111) and Evolution Across Multiple Scales (NS112).

NS110 / Theory and Applications of Physical Interactions

All scientists need to understand the principles of physics and how to apply them. However the physical principles regularly applied by biologists and environmental scientists often differ from those applied by practicing physicists, chemists and engineers. To accommodate these different needs within the broad Natural Sciences curriculum, NS majors can choose from two NS110 Major Core physics courses. The decision as to which course to take will depend on the Concentration courses students plan to take as well as the student’s goals upon graduation. Registration for either course requires passing a math exam to demonstrate the requisite math skills. Both courses explore real world applications of physical principles using mathematical concepts and techniques, and both address qualitative and quantitative problem solving approaches. A key difference between the two courses is the topic areas and application examples.

NS110U Physics of the Universe: We use gravitational and electromagnetic interactions as the “poster children” 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.

NS110L Physics of Life: We show how physics, ranging from mechanics through nuclear physics, can be applied to the life sciences. Examples of applications are: fluid flow in biological organisms, electrostatics as applied to signals between neurons, and cell membrane dynamics. The course also emphasizes the development of the tools needed to describe the physical phenomena at hand.

NS111 / Implications of Earth's Cycles

Explore the origin, chemistry and role of carbon, water, silicates and metals on earth. Discover in depth the interplay of living systems (including humans) and earth's systems and how expanding sensor technologies are changing the way we investigate our earth.

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.


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

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

  Theoretical Foundations of Natural Science Research Analyses in Natural Science Designing Solutions
Molecules and Atoms NS142 / Quantum Nature of Matter: Theory and Applications NS152 / Analyzing Matter and Molecules NS162 / Designer Chemicals and Devices
Cells and Organisms NS144 / Genetic Blueprint to Organism NS154 / Life’s Chemistry NS164 / Solutions From and For Life
Earth's Systems NS146 / Geobiochemiphysics: 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.

Molecules and Atoms

Dig deeply into the chemistry and physics of matter — the basis of all life's and earth's processes — from particles to atoms to molecules. Learn the latest analytical methods for probing this miniature world and the technologies that could solve our world's health and environmental challenges.

Career Possibilities

  • New product development engineer
  • Project or product manager
  • Chemical engineer
  • Physicist
  • Technical sales representative
  • Instrument scientist
  • Research scientist

Cells and Organisms

Dig deeply into the complexity of how cells and organisms function and learn sophisticated approaches for probing life. Learn how biotechnology and bioengineering technologies can provide solutions to the challenges facing life on earth. Also explore how the principles of biological design are stimulating engineering.

Career Possibilities

  • Medical doctor
  • Geneticist
  • Bioinformatics specialist
  • Bioprocessing engineer
  • Research scientist
  • Biotech entrepreneur
  • Marketing director

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

  • Research scientist
  • Geologist
  • Ecologist
  • Political consultant
  • Environmental scientist
  • Environmental engineer

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

  • Environmental engineer
  • Chemist
  • Professor
  • Biofuels engineer
  • Product development engineer
  • Medical doctor

Research Analyses in Natural Science

Explore in detail how research is practiced across the molecular, cellular and earth systems levels. Learn about the latest experimental methods and practices, 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

  • Engineer
  • Biochemist
  • Biophysicist
  • Analytical chemist
  • Research scientist
  • Pharmaceutical scientist

Designing Solutions

Dig into 21st century environmental and health problems facing our world and explore potential technological solutions across multiple scales — from molecules to organisms to earth's systems.

Career Possibilities

  • Environmental engineer
  • Chemist
  • Energy engineer
  • Government staff
  • Consultant
  • Product development engineer

Concentration Courses

NS142 / Quantum Nature of Matter: Theory and Applications

Study the nature of matter from a quantitative standpoint using the tools provided by quantum mechanics. This course focuses on electronic structures of particles, atoms, chemical bonds and molecules, in addition to 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.

Prerequisites: NS110, CS111

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 toward technological solutions to world challenges. Learn principles underlying optics, chemical identification, and chemical separation and employ analytical tools for molecular and elemental analyses, chemical separation, and molecular interactions and dynamics to tackle important interdisciplinary problems.

Prerequisites: NS110, CS111

NS162 / Designer Chemicals and Devices

Apply principles of chemistry and physics in combination with engineering approaches to understand the development of technological products, devices, and processes. Learn about the functional design and testing of devices that facilitate modern life. Explore diverse approaches to creating inorganic and organic chemical products, including those employed by the global chemical and pharmaceutical industries, such as “green” chemistry and engineered microbial systems.

Prerequisites: NS110, CS111

NS144 / Genetic Blueprint to Organism

Explore how genes and environment interact to determine a cell’s or organism’s properties. Investigate how cells and organisms function, including the regulation of gene expression in developmental contexts. Apply theories, approaches and concepts from molecular, cellular, developmental and computational biology to address questions of how networks across scales (molecules to organisms) contribute to the emergence of higher-level properties of complex cellular and organismal systems.

Prerequisites: NS112

NS154 / Life’s Chemistry

Investigate biological systems from the perspective of molecules. Learn how the physical and chemical properties of molecular interactions within and between cells give rise to the emergent properties of life. 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, mass spectrometry, transgenic organisms—and apply them to current research questions.

Prerequisites: NS112

NS164 / Solutions From and For Life

Design innovative, sustainable solutions for modern day challenges by analyzing and emulating nature’s time-tested strategies. Investigate how the latest biotechnology and bioengineering approaches are being used to improve human, animal and plant health. Evaluate the regulatory processes underlying the appropriate use of biotechnology and bioengineering applications.

Prerequisites: NS112

NS146 / Geobiochemiphysics: Integrating Earth’s Systems

Explore the geology of earth and how minerals chemically 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.

Prerequisites: NS111

NS156 / Monitoring and Modeling Earth’s Systems

Explore how researchers study and monitor earth systems, including the latest methods for atmospheric, ocean and ecosystem monitoring. Delve into how models are used to understand earth systems. Use this knowledge to understand the major challenges facing the Earth system, and to inform future solutions.

Prerequisites: NS111, CS111 or CS112

NS166 / Keeping Earth Habitable

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

Prerequisites: NS111

Tutorial Courses

NS181 / Fall Senior Tutorial

Discuss a topic you are passionate about with two other students and a professor. Begin by developing your own syllabus, with the professor helping you to drill deeply into your topic. Engage with the other students and professor in ways that are not possible in ordinary class.

NS182 / Spring Senior Tutorial

Discuss a topic you are passionate about with two other students and a professor. Begin by developing your own syllabus, with the professor helping you to drill deeply into your topic. Engage with the other students and professor in ways that are not possible in ordinary class.

Capstone Courses

NS195 / Natural Sciences Capstone I

Learn how to define a study topic, research it and understand the prior scientific base of knowledge and current competing theories. Select a topic for research and present it to the class in the final third of the course. The proposed project should integrate elements from the major as well as the entire curriculum, and in particular from the cornerstone courses. Develop an understanding of team-based scientific activity and the need for project management in scientific and technological progress.

NS196 / Natural Sciences Capstone Independent Study I

Conduct an original piece of research or original project in any field of natural sciences under the guidance of a faculty advisor. The work may be part of a team-based effort led by the faculty advisor or other scientists.

NS198 / Natural Sciences Capstone Independent Study II

Continue developing an original piece of research under the guidance of a faculty advisor. By the end of the course, draft a preliminary report on the project. Team-based projects require the integration of individual contributions into a coherent, self-contained draft report.

NS199 / Natural Sciences Capstone II

Revise and complete a report of the senior capstone project, which should be at a professional level. Present the report to the class and receive critiques and suggestions from student colleagues as well as feedback from expert review (typically a professional in the field).