Human biology and health in the context of life

Program highlights: Biological and social aspects of growth and development, Biology and behavior, Biology and health promotion, Metabolism, genetics, and health


The College of Human Ecology’s Human Biology, Health, and Society (HBHS) major, offered through the Division of Nutritional Sciences, provides a strong background in human biology and the life sciences while preparing students to investigate health issues from a social science perspective. The biological bases of individual health and illness are critically examined in the context of how social, psychological, economic, cultural, design, and policy aspects affect individuals, communities, and populations. The interdisciplinary coursework encourages students to comprehensively and holistically understand matters of health and wellness, which sets students on the path toward the College’s mission — to improve human lives.

This multidisciplinary major is well-situated in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, whose faculty lead research and innovation in their fields (biology, public health, nutritional sciences, biochemistry, sociology, and more). As they complete program requirements, HBHS students are prepared to participate in undergraduate research opportunities and select from upper-level coursework in a variety of disciplines.

HBHS is especially appropriate for students desiring careers as health care practitioners—physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, dentists, wellness counselors, physical therapists, and genetic counselors. While all students pursuing this major will complete the coursework required for premedical studies, the program can also lead to careers in biomedical research, exercise science, pharmacology, toxicology, health communications, gerontology, or health education. Many graduates go on to advanced study to further their career goals.

Review our curriculum sheets (updated each year) to better understand how the major is organized.

Introduction to Human Biology, Health, and Society (NS 1400) provides a foundational framework as well as an introduction to the disciplines involved in understanding, integrating, and improving human health from biological, behavioral, environmental, and public policy perspectives. Students will have the opportunity to explore these sub-disciplines and develop interests that will guide their future course choices as well as develop critical thinking skills, the ability to work in groups, communicate, reflect on social and cultural perceptions, and critically read scientific literature.

Obesity and the Regulation of Body Weight (NS 3150) involves a multidisciplinary discussion of the causes, effects, and treatments of human obesity. Topics include the biopsychology of eating behavior, the genetics of obesity, the role of activity and energy metabolism, the psychosocial determinants of obesity, anorexia nervosa, therapy and its effectiveness, and social discrimination.

Nutrition and Disease (NS 4410) covers the principles of nutrition, biochemistry, physiology, genetics, pathology, and pharmacology to understand disease risk, prevention, progression, and management. Lecture offers opportunities to engage in the discussion of original research articles on topics of high current interest in the area of nutrition and health.

Economics of Food and Malnutrition (NS 4480) focuses on the economics of food and malnutrition from the perspective of individuals and households; that is, a micro-economic approach. Topics include characteristics and constraints associated with food production in developed and developing countries; the determinants of household food security; the social and economic causes and consequences of undernutrition; the social and economic causes and consequences of obesity; and intervention design to reduce food insecurity, undernutrition and obesity.

Public Health Nutrition (NS 4500) examines efforts to improve the diets and nutritional status of whole populations by working at the community, state, and national levels. This course helps prepare students to work in public health nutrition by describing the methods used in the assessment of nutritional programs, the development of nutrition-related policies, and the delivery of health, nutrition, and food assistance programs.

Beyond the required course work, students may take advantage of other engaged learning opportunities that provide valuable practical knowledge while furthering students’ academic or career interests.

Study away options

Students can apply to study abroad through a Cornell University-sponsored program, overseas university, or a program sponsored by another institution. Off-campus study is also offered through one of Cornell’s internship-based programs such as Cornell in Washington in Washington, DC; or the Capital Semester in Albany, NY.

Internship Examples

Health Scholar, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Health Policy and Analysis Intern, Results for Development
Hospital Volunteer, Crouse Hospital
Orthopedic Surgical Intern, Weill Cornell Medical Center
Research Assistant, Mount Sinai Hospital
Socioeconomics Research Fellowship, International Socioeconomics Lab

Many HBHS majors participate in research opportunities for credit throughout the Division of Nutritional Sciences.
Undergraduates play a critical role in the development, implementation, and analysis of research inquiries as participants on faculty research teams, as well as through independent research projects.

Faculty research areas of specialization include malnutrition and health issues in developing countries; evaluation and classification of polycystic ovarian morphology; the role of diet in reducing the risk of disease; health equity; the relationship of diet and exercise to body composition; maternal and child nutrition; and the design of educational materials.

Research examples

  • Effect of carioca bean prebiotic extracts on iron-related brush border membrane proteins and intestinal bacterial populations in chickens 
  • Gut microbial regulation of zinc transporters and homeostasis
  • Potential associations between Vitamin D status and bowel health during pregnancy using national survey data
  • Trends in the stigmatization of disabilities and overweightness using current and historical research

Honors program

The Honors Program is designed for research-oriented Human Biology, Health, and Society majors. During their junior year, each student in the Honors Program participates in a course on professional research in the health sciences and plans an independent research project under the direction of a faculty member. Each student completes a thesis and presents a seminar on the research problem at the end of their senior year.

Many HBHS students go on to graduate or professional school in medicine, dentistry, health administration, nutrition, physical therapy, nursing, or other health sciences. The broad perspectives of the program prepares them for the complex settings, organizations, and specialties they will encounter in their advanced study.

Students who seek employment immediately after graduation can apply their strong background in the biological and the social aspects of health to positions in research, communications, education, and business.

Graduate/Professional school

In recent years, graduates have been offered admission to numerous medical schools, including Cornell, Yale, Baylor, Vanderbilt, Mount Sinai, and Albert Einstein, as well as Harvard and Columbia dental schools. Undergraduates interested in the Brooks School of Public Policy's Sloan Program in Health Administration are eligible to apply to this graduate program in their junior year for a five-year BS/MHA degree.

Sample Career Paths

AIDS Cellular Immunology Research, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital
Physician, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
Equity Research Analyst, Suffolk Capital Management
Nutritionist, Women Infants and Children
Physical Therapist, Stanford Hospital
Project Manager, E-Commerce Group, Capital One
Research Analyst, Health Care Policy Practice, Lewin Group
Senior Counsel, Office of the Corporation Counsel, Law Department