Marine Biology at Cornell University

Frequently Asked Questions

There are a few questions that get asked quite often about Marine Biology at Cornell. We've put together this Frequently Asked Questions page to answer these most commonly asked questions and also to help you get a better idea of the field at Cornell! Click a frequently asked question and the answer will be toggled just below!

Does Cornell have a Marine Biology Major?

Cornell offers several marine-themed academic programs for undergraduates:

Additionally, courses offered through the SEA Education Association onboard sailing vessels are listed directly in the Cornell Course Catalog. There is no marine biology, oceanography, or ocean sciences major per se, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t pursue an undergraduate program with substantial marine course content which will allow you to explore your ocean sciences interest!

I’ve noticed that there are classes on [Biological] Oceanography and others on Marine Biology. What’s the difference between these?

Marine Biology and Oceanography both deal with the ocean, and both are highly relevant to understanding the biology, ecology and function of marine systems. However, there are some differences between these two disciplines which make study, particularly at the graduate level, distinct.

Marine Biology generally refers to the anatomy, physiology, behavior, diversity and evolution of marine organisms, and how they relate to each other (ecology). Marine Biology in a classical sense usually involves the study of organisms (i.e. metazoa; although sometimes marine microbiology falls under the umbrella of marine biology, especially when dealing with symbioses and individual organisms).

On the other hand, oceanography generally refers to the study of the oceans, specifically the physical, geological, chemical and biological processes which occur on regional to global scales, including the cycling of elements, physical phenomenon, and global-scale fluxes of materials into/out of the ocean. The discipline of oceanography is generally subdivided into four disciplines: physical, chemical, geological and biological oceanography. Biological oceanography is the subdiscipline which deals with how organisms are influenced by (and influence) ocean processes. Free-living microorganisms in the ocean generally fall under the biological oceanography moniker (‘microbial oceanography’), as do planktonic organisms. Oceanography is not restricted to open ocean habitats; estuarine and coastal habitats also involve oceanographic studies.

“Marine biologists are primarily interested in the organisms in the marine environment whereas oceanographers usually deal with larger scale systems and can focus in other areas such as physical processes, chemistry, geology, in addition to biology. As a Science of Earth Systems major I liked the systems approach learning about the interactions between the atmosphere, biosphere, geosphere, and oceans. Currently, I'm working more on the marine ecology side which looks at communities and how the organisms interact and change. I found taking courses in marine biology, ecology, and oceanography very helpful and highlighted by field experiences at Shoals Marine Lab, the Hawai'i semester program, and QUEST scientific diving class University of Hawai'i Hilo. It may not be obvious, but there are a lot of amazing marine science opportunities at Cornell!” – Catherine Kim, ‘12

I’m interested in working mainly on marine mammals, but have noticed that there are no courses available that deal with this area. Is the Marine Biology program at Cornell appropriate?

Marine mammals are an important constituent of the marine environment, and are critically threatened by human activities. While there are no course offerings focused entirely on cetaceans and other marine mammals, several courses, e.g. BioEE 2740 Biology of Vertebrates, BioSM3210 Anatomy and Function of Marine Vertebrates, BioSM 3290 Animal Behavior, and even EAS 1540 Introduction to Oceanography cover limited aspects of cetacean biology and ecology.

The aim of Cornell’s programs (like most undergraduate-level programs in the USA) is to provide students with solid foundations in basic sciences, as well as wide knowledge of the focus area of their interests in order to equip them for further study and employment after graduation. For this reason, it is very important that students gain a solid foundation in ocean sciences, and in the wider discipline of their study. It is worthwhile noting that there are very few scientists who work in marine mammal science, and almost no graduate programs anywhere dedicated to marine mammology. We advise that students wishing to study marine mammals (or other megafauna) pursue undergraduate programs other than marine biology (especially pre-veterinary studies, or zoology) and specialize in these animals during graduate studies.

“My first summer at Shoals, during the course Anatomy and Function of Marine Vertebrates, I had the unique opportunity to do a hands-on research project on harbor seal foreflipper anatomy and found myself hooked on pinniped research. I returned the next two summers as a marine mammal intern starting a population abundance and photo-identification survey study of the harbor and gray seals on nearby Duck Island, as well as a student in the Field Wildlife Forensics course during which I was able to broaden my knowledge of both pinniped, cetacean, and sea turtle anatomy. During my gap year, I will be a necropsy intern at the University of New England's Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center and then hope to go on to graduate studies in pinniped population and disease dynamics." – Lauren Bamford ‘13

I’m interested in marine conservation. Why should I take courses in biology or oceanography?

Marine conservation is a pressing issue in the ocean sciences. Cornell offers several important initiatives related to climate change and its impacts upon ecosystems, including a new (as of Fall 2012) Minor in Climate Change. As with all natural sciences disciplines, it is important that students also understand the underpinnings of these shifts and their impacts on organisms. For a variety of reasons, students should take courses through which they become familiar with the ‘basic’ biology of organisms, which will enhance their understanding of how human-induced changes affect their ecology. Similarly, students should seek a general background in ocean structure, chemistry, and marine diversity against which more advanced ‘applied’ aspects of conservation can be sought. Students can participate in the Conservation Oceanography class, taught in Hawaii as part of Cornell’s Earth and Environmental Systems Sustainability Semester Program, which has an advanced applied focus.

“I have spent most of my life in a coastal community and have always been passionate about marine conservation. Because the marine environment itself is so diverse however, "marine conservation" is an extremely broad subject area. Ocean systems are dynamic and function on a scale that is rarely matched in terrestrial ecosystems. (After all, oceans dominate nearly three-quarters of our planet!) Therefore, learning how to examine ecological processes at an introductory level before applying this knowledge to marine science is definitely important. As a senior Biology major concentrating in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and minoring in Marine Biology, I have taken semesters of Introductory Biology, Evolution and Diversity, Ecology and the Environment, and Introduction to Oceanography. These courses laid the foundation for more advanced class work, like Marine Biology, the Anatomy and Function of Marine Vertebrates, and Marine Ecosystem Sustainability (formerly Marine Ecology). I felt a distinct advantage in these upper-level courses having already mastered basic biology and oceanography. My current career plans are focused around research in marine mammal conservation -- a fairly specific field. But when asked to measure photosynthetic rates of phytoplankton being consumed by right whales, suddenly the carbon cycle I studied in Ecology was relevant. Working on a boat recording the behavior of a pod of dolphins, I needed to know the regular cycle of the tides. Marine conservation efforts regarding any organism or community are directly tied to topics taught in introductory classes. Once you grasp issues at more fundamental levels, you are better equipped to participate in all aspects of marine conservation.” – Alexa Hilmer ‘13

"As a student of marine science and natural resource preservation, biology and oceanography have served as my basis for understanding marine conservation. Biology and oceanography help me understand the mechanisms behind ocean functioning and aid in devising the best-suited solutions to marine conservation related issues." – Vanessa Constant, ‘13

Do I have to be SCUBA certified to take the Marine Biology programs? Do I get to SCUBA dive a lot if I take the Marine Biology Concentration or Minor?

One course in Underwater Research through the Shoals Marine Lab during the summer requires that students must be dive certified prior to enrolling. However, no other programs require diving as part of the coursework. Diving is a very useful part of many aspects of ocean sciences, but it is by no means compulsory.

If you’re interested in diving, Cornell offers a SCUBA certification program through the Physical Education department which is open to all students. Scientific diving (i.e. for research either in the marine environment or in lakes and rivers) is controlled by a strict set of requirements laid down by the university. Researchers generally must have an additional qualification (an American Association of Underwater Instructors) and maintain health checks and dive experience to partake in diving activities.

“I enrolled in Underwater Research at Shoal's Marine Laboratory through Cornell during the Summer of 2011' and it was one of the most enjoyable experiences I've ever had; upon obtaining my scuba diving certification in a swimming pool and a small lake, I was unsure of what my experience would be like in cold ocean with a much wider variety of organisms -- Not only was I pleasantly surprised by the course curriculum, but I found that I was surrounded by a positive group of like-minded students and instructors which eased any tension I had about diving multiple times a day. The activities and processes of understanding how research can be accomplished in such a restrictive medium utilizing SCUBA gear was amazing; and the addition of the helpful teaching assistants and one of the most knowledgeable and passionate professors I have ever encountered has inspired me and even changed my perspective on how to live my life. Scuba diving at this level is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I highly recommend taking it for the experience and knowledge, but also for the positive environment and people that support you while you're there and want to help you understand why underwater research is needed in the world today.” – Jake Sangren, ‘13

I’d like to be a veterinarian of marine animals. Does Cornell offer a program in marine veterinary science?

Aquatic veterinary science is a very specialized discipline. Generally speaking, students must study Veterinary Science before becoming a marine vet. However, Cornell has a specialized program ( offered in conjunction with the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Many alumni of this program go onto careers in aquatic veterinary medicine.

At the undergraduate level students interested in aquatic animal medicine may also take part in several programs at the Shoals Marine Lab that focus upon animal anatomy, including the Anatomy and Function of Marine Vertebrates, Forensics of Marine Wildlife, and Sharks!

What kinds of jobs can you get with a degree in marine biology?

Marine science is most commonly a graduate-level discipline, so many marine scientists seek out M.Sc and Ph.D programs after graduation with an undergraduate degree, which doesn’t necessarily have to be in marine science. However, graduating with an undergraduate degree qualifies a student for many positions, including: work with government and non-government agencies working in marine habitats on things like monitoring, sampling, and analyses; work with aquaria and museums; work as a technician in academia or government agencies; and so on. The minor and concentration in marine biology is an excellent springboard into further studies.

What really strengthens applications for employment and graduate programs are demonstrated research, including publication. Students interested in pursuing further experiences in marine science should seek research opportunities while an undergraduate or after graduation, be sure to read widely, and publish their work, if appropriate. Cornell students can gain research experience through programs including (but not limited to): volunteer work with marine agencies; experience working with faculty and their students on marine-oriented projects; internship programs offered through the Shoals Marine Laboratory and elsewhere; and marine policy internships and apprenticeships.

"I am interested in fisheries and marine ecology. While at Cornell, I majored in natural resources, with a concentration in applied ecology. Over the summers, I interned at Cornell's Bioacoustics Research Program at the Lab of Ornithology studying cetacean vocalization and with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center studying fisheries acoustics. I also participated in SEA Semester my junior year, which I highly recommend. After graduation, I interned at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and am currently in graduate school at the University of Maine studying oceanography." – Katie Wurtzell, ‘10

What kinds of marine biology and oceanography research opportunities are available on campus?

Ithaca is 4 – 5 hours inland from the ocean, which means that it’s not easy to find field work during the academic year. However, there are several research programs through the Shoals Marine Laboratory and internship programs (e.g. Research Experiences for Undergraduates) which provide research opportunities. Not all marine science is, however, totally field-based. For example; satellite oceanography involves substantial computational analyses in the lab; analyses of existing marine data sets to look for trends has been an important area of work related to climate change; and many labs conduct research on samples collected in the ocean, or work with animals in aquaria that are marine. Students should peruse faculty on this website to learn about their research areas.

It’s fair to say that faculty across campus receive a great deal more interest in doing research than can be accommodated. Hence, students not able to gain research experience while undergraduates in a Cornell lab should also look at REU programs and programs at the Shoals Marine Lab to gain experience. Another possibility is one of several volunteer marine field experiences, e.g. the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County.

My name is Jillian Lyles, and I'm a senior majoring in Science of Earth Systems with a concentration in Ocean Sciences. I have an interest in marine biodiversity and conservation, along with climate change and how that affects the world's oceans. The summer following my freshman year, I started working in Professor Drew Harvell's lab, conducting benthic surveys for a grad student. I found out about the position via an email, applied, and was hired. I was told that "though I wasn't as qualified as the other candidates, I showed a lot of enthusiasm and energy". Being excited about your field of study, and being willing to try new things, will get you far. I plan on attending grad school in the future in a marine related field. - Jillian Lyles, '13

How does a study abroad program fit in with a marine biology concentration and minor?

Study abroad is one of the most valuable experiences for an undergraduate, which allows students to gain a wider perspective on science than possible at Cornell alone. There are many study abroad opportunities available; one that is highly recommended that isn’t technically a study abroad (it’s run through Cornell’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences) is the Hawaii Sustainability Semester (see link on this page). Others which are fairly popular are study abroad programs at James Cook University and the University of Queensland (in Australia). Credit for courses completed as part of study abroad programs may be eligible for credit at Cornell. With specific reference to the marine biology concentration and minor, marine subjects taken at the overseas institution may count towards the marine program requirements. If you’re interested in study abroad, we recommend chatting with the Director for Undergraduate Studies in Marine Biology, as well as your faculty advisor to see if proposed courses would satisfy program requirements. Note that all university-level courses taken at the Shoals Marine Laboratory are eligible for Cornell credit, and most count towards the minor and concentration requirements.