March 08, 2023

By Alaina Uricheck ’23

Syllabus is an ongoing series of stories that gives readers an inside look at some of Susquehanna’s most interesting classes.

The Class: Biology of Women, BIOL-157

The Professor: Peggy Peeler, biology

Over 20 years ago, Peggy Peeler created the class Biology of Women because a majority of what is considered “normal” in biology and medicine is often based on scientists’ understanding of men. Biology of Women is a place to talk about the many ways biology and health are unique in the way they apply to women.

“As we talk about in the beginning of the course, in some ways, creating a course on the biology of women helps perpetuate the idea of women as the ‘other,’ when in fact, at least half of the population is women,” said Peeler, Charles B. Degenstein professor of biology. “I think anyone who identifies as a woman would find the course interesting, but also anyone who knows or cares about someone who identifies as a woman would want to know more about what that means in terms of biology and health.”

Because men tend to be the basis for many diagnostic standards and the subjects of studies, it is important for women to know which diseases will manifest differently in them and how a doctor may respond when they report symptoms that are unique to — or more prevalent in — women. Knowing such information and learning to self-advocate could prove lifesaving.

Peeler’s students see the value of the course and the topics it covers. Tessa Roan ’24 and Brianna Watts ’23 were students in Biology of Women during the fall 2022 semester, and neither regrets their decision to take the class.

Roan, a biology major who plans to attend veterinary school after graduating from SU, said she thinks Biology of Women “should be a mandatory class in the biomed curriculum.”

“The material in the class is very relevant to daily decisions in a woman’s life, regardless of major or career path,” said Watts, who has plans to pursue a doctorate in microbiology and biochemistry after graduation.

An interdisciplinary and diversity-intensive course, the class also examines how female identity affects a person’s cultural experience and intersects with other aspects of identity such as race, ethnicity and age.

Peeler’s favorite part of the course is the unit on pregnancy and labor and delivery, and she thinks students also have the most fun when covering those topics.

“I hope that our discussions help demystify these issues and, although not everyone in the course plans to personally experience pregnancy, we will all know and want to support people who do,” she explained. “This is a part of the course where I’ve heard from former students about how much they remember what they’ve learned and how useful it was — and I’ve heard that from both biology and nonbiology majors and both men and women.”

Jennifer Spotts ’00 was a junior majoring in communications when she took Biology of Women, and said it was her favorite nonmajor course. “When learning about pregnancy, Dr. Peeler brought to class a sample of urine collected by her friend, who was in her third trimester,” she recalled. “To everyone’s surprise, when she dipped the test strip, it was negative. We learned as a class, along with Dr. Peeler, that HCG levels, which indicate pregnancy, drop off in the third trimester.”

See what else Susquehanna has to offer in the Department of Biology.