MSc Taxonomy, Biodiversity and Evolution
- Prof A.P. Vogler (sabbatical 2018/19)
- Dr Arkhat Abzhanov
The MSc Taxonomy, Biodiversity & Evolution is run jointly by Imperial College London and the Natural History Museum (NHM). The course was first introduced in 1996. Together with the associated MRes Biosystematics (since 2002), we have trained approximately 500 students. The course has been thoroughly updated after two recent external reviews and now includes additional parts in evolutionary biology.
The MSc is taught jointly by researchers from Imperial and NHM. At Imperial, lecturers come from the Ecology and Evolution section at Silwood Park. They mainly contribute to teaching of quantitative skills for ecology, evolutionary biology, biodiversity and genomics. At NHM, two large research departments in Life Sciences and Earth Sciences contribute to teaching in taxonomy, biodiversity, collection science, and palaeobiology.
Most of the MSc is taught in the historical NHM building in central London, where the MSc uses a dedicated lecture room and computer lab. The statistics and genomics modules are held at Silwood Park (6 weeks total). The taught course comprises some 200 lectures and seminars and practicals. This is followed by a 3.5 month research project on a topic of the student’s choice in the third term.
Motivation for the course
Taxonomy and systematics provide the foundation for studying the diversity of the living world and its evolutionary history. This course gives students a broad background on these disciplines and their power for our understanding of biological diversity. We are taking an evolutionary perspective to biodiversity. At the core of this approach are phylogenetic trees and ‘tree thinking’ for the synthesis of biological observations and for comparative biology. This is an exciting time for the field, as new computational and molecular technologies provide amazing opportunities for a 21st century science of taxonomy.
Students on the course will become this new generation of taxonomists in the broadest sense. They will be familiar with these new tools, as well as the wider concepts of biodiversity science, evolutionary biology and genomics. Most importantly, students gain the abilities to work as an independent scientist and researcher, to be able to solve questions about the future of biodiversity and to communicate them to peers and the public.
See also: MRes in Biosystematics
Course Aims and Objectives
Students are trained in practical and conceptual issues in taxonomy, biodiversity and evolutionary biology starting from phylogenetic principles. The course provides methodological background and quantitative skills in morphological and molecular techniques of taxonomy and systematics, with strong emphasis on computer applications and data analysis. The most up-to-date ideas and research in taxonomy and biodiversity are taught, to a large extent from primary literature. Hands-on training in conducting research in this area is provided by project supervisors, with specialisation in the student’s field of choice.
The broader aims of the course are to provide:
- A solid understanding of the diversity of living organisms in space and time
- The conceptual basis of taxonomy, phylogenetics and evolutionary biology and the power of ‘tree thinking’ for underpinning research in the life sciences
- Familiarity with methods for measuring this biological diversity and monitoring changes due to both anthropogenic and natural factors
- Hands-on training of latest techniques to the study of biodiversity, with an emphasis on genomics methods and digital tools for exploiting museum collections
- The ability to formulate scientific hypotheses and design an appropriate research plan for testing these
- Train all aspects of scientific communication, including presentations to scientific conferences, to popular audiences (at NHM), and writing scientific reports and journal publications
- An understanding of how these concepts of taxonomy and biodiversity are useful in applied science, including policy making
- Taxonomy of major groups and the Tree-of-Life: An introduction of major branches of the Tree, including identification exercises, presented by NHM experts
- Statistics and Computing: A two-week intensive course at Silwood Park
- Field course: trapping and collecting techniques for terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems
- Phylogenetic Reconstruction: the principles of building phylogenetic trees
- Molecular Systematics: generating and analysing molecular data; model-based phylogenetics
- Phylogenomics: Genomic techniques for studying evolutionary processes and biodiversity
- Biodiversity (Concepts): speciation, radiation, macroevolution, mechanisms of evolution
- Biodiversity (Applied): Measuring biodiversity, geospatial analysis, collection management and biodiversity informatics
- Palaeobiology: Studying the fossil record and what we can learn about biodiversity
Full details of the modules can be found in the Handbook
Read more about dissertations/projects can be found at the Natural History Museum webpages
Students can also join in MasterClasses run by the College Graduate School
The minimum qualification for admission is an Upper Second Class Honours (2:1) degree in any area of biology or related science-based subject (e.g. palaeontology, geology, marine biology, anthropology, environmental sciences) from an UK academic institution or an equivalent overseas qualification.
Extensive relevant work experience with a lower degree will be considered in special cases.
The College also has a minimum English language requirement for postgraduate study; click here to see more details.
If you are in doubt about your eligibility, then do either make an enquiry or apply!
How to Apply?
The programme provides training for students with strong interests in taxonomy, biodiversity, evolutionary biology, genomics and bioinformatics, and conservation. Our graduates have gone on to successful careers in academia, research, ecological consultancies, museum curation, publishing, teaching, and other fields. Unlike taxonomists in the past, who were wanted for their specific identification skills, employers are increasingly looking for applicants with broad methodological and quantitative skills, e.g. in genomics or ecology, to design research programs and to interpret and communicate complex data. Therefore this programme offers a solid grounding in a range of academic, professional and transferable skills. Frequently students in this field go on to PhDs, and there are many opportunities during this course for contacts with potential supervisors and applications to Doctoral Training Programmes.
If your first degree is from a country other than the UK, you may find the guidelines within our Country Index helpful. Please note that these guidelines indicate the College minimum.
or email Mrs Jennifer Bennett
Links with Employers
Imperial College works closely with employers and industry, including Industrial Advisory Panels to design Master’s courses which provide graduates with technical knowledge, expertise and transferable skills and to encourage students to take internships and placements. All Master’s courses are designed with employer needs in mind with some Master’s courses accredited by Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies.
What the Students Say
“The most enjoyable part for me was learning in the NHM; it’s an environment that encourages further learning outside of lectures, for example with volunteering within the museum.” (Class of 2014)
“It is a unique course that offers skills integral to evolutionary study. Being based at the NHM for a year is an experience that cannot be matched!” (Class of 2012)
“My project supervisors were superb, their doors were always open.” (Class of 2013)
"I had a great experience on the course. The teaching is varied and well-rounded, as is the coursework. Taking classes at the Natural History Museum creates a unique experience, and you get to learn from leading experts every day which is amazing. The summer research term gave me the opportunity to work on dinosaur biogeography with a world expert, and gave me invaluable experience which resulted in a publication worthy dissertation. Overall I found the course an engaging, challenging and supportive environment in which to learn and conduct research." (Class of 2019)
"I have been interested in and fascinated by taxonomy for as long as I can remember, so really this course was perfect for me in many ways. The module content was up-to-date and extremely relevant for many areas of biological science. The course is modified every year to accommodate progression in data collection, genomic analyses and other aspects of taxonomical and biodiversity-related information. This course has given me further opportunities to research science, I am incredibly grateful for everything my MSc gave me, especially my research experience and my statistics lessons." (Class of 2018)
"It was an amazing experience. The opportunity to study and work directly with researchers of the NHM made the difference among other similar programs. The program has allowed me to understand a bit better the work in a museum and how to reach non academia public. Currently, I work for the government in my home country. Having the perpective of citizen science and academia allows me to perform better in my daily duties." (Class of 2018)
"My research project took me to Madagascar which was a fantastic experience and helped me with my later application onto a PhD programme." (Class of 2018)
“I felt there was a great deal of flexibility in choosing our projects, giving us opportunities in the numerous areas that were taught on this course.” (Class of 2013)
“Project has easily been the best part of the course, supervisors have been very supportive. “ (Class of 2013)
Do you feel the course succeeded in promoting you to a higher academic level?
“Yes – instrumental to getting a PhD position for next year.” (Class of 2014)
“The camaraderie in our cohort was wonderful (intensified by the field course) and lasting friendships have been made.” (Class of 2014)
“The course is academically challenging and offers lots of opportunities to socialise.” (Class of 2013)
“I am not planning to stay in academia so I think (the course) has given me transferable skills.” (Class of 2014)