The authors have all taught students entering MD or MD/PhD combined programs, and in that setting we have all stressed the importance of physiology as the core discipline in medicine. Indeed, without knowledge of physiology, becoming a physician or a physician scientist is virtually impossible. One cannot learn pathology when recognition of the way in which an organ system has shown an alteration is obscured by a lack of knowledge of how it should normally function. An understanding of pharmacology, including drug distribution, target organ responses, and off-target effects, is also based on basic physiological concepts. Anatomy and microbiology become real when integrated into the context of physiological processes. Predicting the consequence of a genetic mutation requires comprehension of the encoded protein's physiological function. Biochemical reactions are simply chemistry in a test tube until they are built into a network that supplies energy and substrates for functional responses. And from a practical perspective, being able to explain to patients why dietary modifications can decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease or why removal of the thyroid gland necessitates hormone replacement relies on an appropriate understanding of human physiology.
But the importance of understanding physiology is not limited to health care professionals and graduate students in biomedical fields. These students account for only a fraction of students who have been exposed to biology during their K–12 and/or undergraduate years. With increasingly exciting opportunities, biology students are pursuing careers that range from marine biology to veterinary sciences, from biotechnology to countering bioterrorism. Understanding the physiological processes central to reproduction, growth, and development is relevant to a marine biologist or an environmentalist involved in protecting a given species. Comprehension of skeletomuscular physiology will be critical for a biotechnologist working to refine a state-of-the-art prosthesis so that a military amputee can regain full mobility upon returning to civilian life. Understanding the physiological principles of neuromuscular function provides greater insight to a scientist working on developing antidotes to environmental, biological, or warfare toxins. And appreciating the physiological basis of diet-induced obesity will help policymakers establish effective nutritional guidelines for the public school system.
Thus, the relevance of physiology includes, but is not limited to, its applicability to human disease and biomedical research. It extends to our global communities, informing decisions pertinent to conservation of our ecosystem, protection of endangered species, and public health policy. It reaches beyond the realm of professional activities, impacting the ability of the general public to understand the basic mechanisms that influence health. As our health care systems evolve, a personal understanding of the basic physiological principles that determine body weight, blood pressure, and bone health, to name a few, becomes essential in preventing disease.
Introducing students to physiology provides them with a unique opportunity to develop an understanding of “the big picture.” As emphasized by national K–12 and undergraduate educational reform efforts (AAAS, 2011; Bybee, 2012; National Research Council, 2013; NGSS Lead States, 2013), physiology requires an integrated view that allows students to assemble individual facts into schemes and think conceptually, rather than simply memorize. Knowledge gained using sophisticated cellular and molecular tools is incomplete without the full integration of its relevance into organismal systems. Just as memorizing the names of all the bones and muscles in the body is of limited value without an understanding of the regulation of skeletal muscle contraction and extension, learning about the Krebs cycle without understanding how it contributes to overall tissue and organ system energetics is incomplete. An introduction to physiology at pre-professional educational stages provides students with basic skills that allow them to combine form with function as their knowledge expands. Moreover, it provides the problem-solving skills necessary to anticipate the consequences of altered function. These are critical for integration and logical thinking, providing students with a great advantage over those who have not been exposed to the study of physiological principles.
Modern times have made us pseudo-experts in many different fields. Yet our understanding of how living things work has not improved commensurately with the public's greater access to information. Most people know more about how their cars operate than they know about how their bodies respond to the environment, diet, and disease. What if knowledge of how our bodies work was on par with our understanding of the functions of our iPhones and Androids? Integrating physiology education beginning at K–12, with the goal of providing basic knowledge to the general public, is likely to enhance well-being and reduce risk factors for disease. Physiology instruction for undergraduate biology students will enhance their awareness of the impact of genetic, environmental, and behavioral factors on overall animal and human well-being and allow them to appreciate, contrast, and compare traits that determine adaptation to a changing environment across species.
Biology teachers play a key role in fostering student interest in research, healthcare careers, biotechnology, and animal science. Integrating physiology into the curriculum provides the framework for integration of knowledge, development of critical-thinking skills, and a foundation for the acquisition of competencies that are applicable and transferable among multiple career paths. These are exciting times in biology, and advances in physiology are vastly expanding our understanding of living systems!
We thank APS Executive Director Martin Frank and Director of Education Marsha Matyas for helpful suggestions during the writing of this editorial.