Biologists also help us to better understand how human activities impact the natural world, how the evolution of species occurs, and how our own bodies work. The famous and influential biologists on this list have made groundbreaking discoveries in their respective fields of study, saving lives, preventing disease outbreaks, and improving our management of fisheries and other natural resources.
Considering a degree in biology? Visit Our Biology Page, where you’ll find the best biology colleges and universities, career information, interviews with top biologists, influential scholars in the field of biology, great books, a history of the discipline, online biology degrees, and more.
Biology. Taken from the Greek words βίος (bios) and λόγος (logos), biology is the study (logos) of life (bios). A biologist is someone who studies life. Life takes many forms, from the largest animal on earth, the blue whale, to the tiniest single-cell organisms.
Because the field of biology covers all of life on Earth, it has a number of different branches that study varying areas of biology. These branches include anatomy, biochemistry, biophysics, biotechnology, botany, cell biology, ecology, evolution, genetics, immunology, marine biology, microbiology, molecular biology, mycology, parasitology, photobiology, phycology, physiology, plant physiology, radiobiology, structural biology, theoretical biology, virology, and zoology. Each of these disciplines contributes to our understanding of every living organism that shares this beautiful planet with us.
Biologists also help us to better understand how human activities impact the natural world, how the evolution of species occurs, and how our own bodies work. Biologists work closely with doctors to investigate new treatment methodologies and develop new vaccines and diagnostic tests.
Some biologists are also working to take biology to the future, investigating gene therapies and modifications to eradicate disease, improve immune response, or integrate humans more fully with technology.
The famous biologists on this list have made groundbreaking discoveries in their respective fields of study, saving lives, preventing disease outbreaks, and improving our management of fisheries and other natural resources.
In what follows, we look at influential biologists over the last decade. Based on our ranking methodology, these individuals have significantly impacted the academic discipline of biology within 2010-2020. Influence can be produced in a variety of ways. Some have had revolutionary ideas, some may have climbed by popularity, but all are academicians primarily working in biology. Read more about our methodology.
Note: This isn’t simply a list of the most influential biologists alive today. Here we are focused on the number of citations and web presence of scholars in the last 10 years. There are other highly influential scholars who simply haven’t been cited and talked about as much in the last 10 years, whereas some new faces have been making a splash in the news, speaking events, and publishing, publishing, publishing. Our AI is time sensitive. To find some of the big names you might have expected to see here, we encourage you to use our dynamic ranking system and check influence over the past 20 and 50 years.
Areas of Specialization: Urban and Media Anthropology
Richard Dawkins is an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford and former University of Oxford’s Professor for Public Understanding of Science, but he is best known for his work in evolutionary biology. He studied zoology at Balliol College, Oxford, earning a bachelor’s degree, MA, and PhD.
Dawkins is a pioneer in the role of genes in evolution. His most well-known book, The Selfish Gene, is an examination of how genetics drive evolutionary change. He also coined the term
meme in this book, to describe the behavioral equivalent of a gene. A meme, he felt, reflected a cultural touchpoint that, once assumed in popular culture, continued to evolve and change as it passed from one person to another.
In 2006, he published The God Delusion, a book in which he challenges religiosity and its infiltration into government and politics. In his view, children should be taught comparative religion in school without bias, enabling them to draw their own conclusions about religion based on evidence and critical assessment. He is an opponent of the teaching of intelligent design in schools, which he considers a compromise to give oxygen to creationism.
Areas of Specialization: Biorthogonal Chemistry, Glycobiology
Carolyn Bertozzi is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, and is an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She earned a BA in chemistry from Harvard University and a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.
Bertozzi is perhaps most famous for being considered as the founder of biorthogonal chemistry, a subfield of chemistry that allows scientists to modify molecules in living organisms without disrupting processes occurring within the cells. She has also worked extensively to study how viruses can bind to sugars, known as glycobiology. Her work on the interactions of sugar within the body, and diseases such as arthritis, tuberculosis and cancer, have yielded critical insights with implications across medical specialties.
Areas of Specialization: Synthetic Biology
Craig Venter is a biotechnologist and entrepreneur who is the founder or co/founder of Human Longevity, Inc., Synthetic Genomics, Celera Genomics, The Institute for Genomic and the J. Craig Venter Institute. He studied at the College of San Mateo in California before earning a BS in biochemistry and a PhD in physiology and pharmacology from the University of California, San Diego.
After joining the National Institutes of Health, he began working with genomic sequencing methods. After founding his own research company, Celera Genomics, with which he shares credit for the first draft sequencing of the human genome.
Venter’s contributions to our understanding of human genetics cannot be overstated. He has been included on many notable lists, including Time magazine’s 100 list of the most influential people and among the 50 most influential figures per New Statesman magazine.
Areas of Specialization: Biochemistry, Molecular Biology
Jennifer Doudna is a Li Ka Shing Chancellor Chair Professor for the Department of Chemistry and Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition, she has been a professor at the University of California, San Francisco and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and senior investigator at the Gladstone Institutes. She earned a B.A. in biochemistry from Pomona College and a Ph.D. in biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology from Harvard Medical School.
She is best known for her work with CRISPR. She, along with her colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier, were the first to suggest that genes could be edited or reprogrammed, now considered one of the most impactful discoveries ever made in the field of biology.
For her work in gene editing, she has received numerous prestigious awards, including the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the Gruber Prize in Genetics, the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience and in 2016, she was runner-up for the Time magazine Person of the Year, alongside her fellow CRISPR colleagues.
Areas of Specialization: Molecular Biology, Genetics
James D. Watson is a zoologist, geneticist and molecular biologist. He earned a Bachelor of Science from the University of Chicago and a PhD from Indiana University. He is most recently well-known due to his controversial comments about race and genetics, for which he has been largely ostracized.
Prior to his unfortunate foray into racial genetics, he was highly regarded and famous for his work on molecular biology. He is credited for significant contributions to our understanding of cancer, neurological diseases and the genetic basis for cancer and other diseases.
He worked closely with Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins on groundbreaking research on the structure of nucleic acid. Their work was awarded with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The discovery of the double helix is considered one of the more pivotal discoveries in science. He has also written a number of books, including a textbook, Molecular Biology of the Gene and The Double Helix.
Areas of Specialization: Evolutionary Bioogy, Population Genetics
Richard Lewontin is a geneticist, evolutionary biologist, mathematician, and commentator. He earned a BS in biology from Harvard University, a master’s degree in mathematical statistics, and a PhD in zoology from Columbia University. Lewontin is best known for his work in theoretical and experimental population genetics.
In 1960, he worked with Ken-Ichi Kojima to become the first population geneticist to identify the equations for change of haplotype frequencies with interacting national selection at two loci. He has become a vocal advocate for his theories on evolutionary biology, which has earned him both acclaim and criticism. At times, he has appeared to be hampered by his political beliefs, perhaps unwilling to consider possibilities that did not comport with his worldview.
He has challenged the notion of inheritability of intelligence and other traits, feeling instead that the lifeform is an active participant in evolution and the environment, rather than a passive participant. He has also theorized that genetically modified crops were not created just to be better, but to also force farmers into having to buy new seeds every year, rather than to use the seeds created by their last crop.
Areas of Specialization: Myrmecology, Biodiversity, Sociobiology
Edward O. Wilson is the world’s leading expert on ants, a specialty known as myrmecology, but that’s not all. He is also considered the father of biodiversity and the father of sociobiology. He is the Pellegrino University Research Professor Emeritus of Entomology at the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and a lecturer at Duke University. He earned his BS and MS in biology from the University of Alabama. He was named to the Harvard Society of Fellows, which enabled him to travel around the world studying ant species from Australia to Cuba. He graduated from Harvard University with his PhD.
His interest in entomology began at an early age. He suffered a loss of vision in his right eye, forcing him to look differently at the world. He began to focus on the tiniest creatures, as those were the ones he could see best. At 18, he was collecting flies to study, but a lack of insect pins caused by the war made him switch to ants.
Areas of Specialization: Evolutionary Biology
Marcus Feldman is co-director of the Center for Computational, Evolutionary, and Human Genomics and the Burnet C. and Mildred Finley Wohlford Professor of Biological Sciences, and director of the Morrison Institute for Population and Resource Studies at Stanford University. He earned degrees in mathematics and statistics from the University of Western Australia, a master of science in mathematics from Monash University, and a PhD from Stanford University.
While collaborating with L.L. Cavalli-Sforza, he introduced a quantitative theory of cultural evolution, which led to further research into the cultural transmission and gene-culture coevolution.
His work in population genetics is highly regarded. He has published more than 600 scientific works based on his research. He is an associate editor of Genetics, Human Genetics, Annals of Human Genetics, Annals of Human Biology, and Complexity. The founding editor of Theoretical Population Biology, he is also a former editor of The American Naturalist.
Areas of Specialization: Microbiology, Genetics
Emmanuelle Charpentier is the Founding and Acting Director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens and an Honorary Professor at Humboldt University of Berlin. She completed her undergraduate studies at the Pierre and Marie Curie University, which is now known as the Faculty of Science at Sorbonne University. She went on to earn a research doctorate from the Institut Pasteur.
Charpentier is well known for her collaboration with Jennifer Doudna on decoding the molecular mechanisms of the CRISPR/Cas9 bacterial immune system. Her work on CRISPR has enabled scientists to edit the genome using Cas9.
For her work on CRISPR, she has received the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award, the Gruber Foundation International Prize in Genetics, the Leibniz Prize, the Kavli Prize and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the Novozymes Prize, the Bijvoet Medal of the Bijvoet Center for Biomolecular Research at Utrecht University, and most recently, the Scheele Award of the Swedish Pharmaceutical Society.
Areas of Specialization: Molecular Biology
Monica Bettencourt-Dias is the Director of Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência. A biochemist and cellular biologist, she is also the head of the Cell Cycle Regulation research group. She earned her undergraduate degree in biochemistry from the University of Lisbon, and graduated from University College London with a doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology. She split her postdoctoral time between the University of Cambridge and Birkbeck, University of London, where she researched kinases and scientific communication. She earned a Diploma in Science Communication from Birkbeck College in 2004, which arose from her work on improving how scientists communicate with the public.
Her laboratory work has focused on complex subcellular structure and how they change during disease, development, and evolution, using complex cytoskeletal assemblies for study. For her research efforts, Bettencourt-Dias has won numerous awards, including the Eppendorf Young European Investigator Award, the Pfizer Award for Basic Research, and the Keith Porter Prize from the American Society for Cell Biology.
Areas of Specialization: Neuroscience, Bioengineering
Feng Zhang is a core member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University, the James and Patricia Poitras Professor in Neuroscience for the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and for Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Biological Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After immigrating to the US from China with his mother at the age of 11, he attended school in Iowa. He earned his BA in Chemistry and Physics from Harvard University and his PhD in chemical and biological engineering from Stanford University.
Best known for his work in optogenetics, is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences. His lab uses synthetic biology to develop tools and methods for epigenomic and genomic engineering, for use in neurobiological study. They have developed a new protocol for nucleic acid detection, SHERLOCK, which is based on CRISPR. His work has yielded important innovations in the use of CRISPR technologies.
Areas of Specialization: Biophysics
Jiankui He is a biophysics researcher, former professor at Southern University of Science and Technology, and the creator of the first gene-edited babies. He earned a BS from the University of Science and Technology of China and a PhD from Rice University. While at Rice University, he began working with CRISPR, and throughout his career, has used CRISPR on human embryos, mice and monkeys.
He is the founder of two biotechnology companies, Direct Genomics and Vienomics Biotech. His most notable accomplishment, a successful gene-editing experiment, resulted in the birth of the very first gene-edited babies. His supposed intent was to protect the offspring of an HIV positive father from contracting the disease.
The reception to their announcement quickly went from exultant to ominous. The scientific community writ large condemned his research methods and felt that he had breached ethical and moral codes of conduct.
Areas of Specialization: Microbiology
Hamilton Smith, M. D., is a microbiologist, distinguished professor and scientific director of Synthetic Biology & Bioenergy at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) in San Diego, California. He earned a B.A. in mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1952 and a M.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1956. He interned at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis and completed a Medical Residency at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan. From 1962 to 1967 he did a fellowship in the Human Genetics department, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. From 1967 to 1998 he was Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
He is co-credited with discovering Hindll, the first type II restriction enzyme and his work with DNA methylases and bacterial host restriction. He went on to earn, with Werner Arber and Daniel Nathans, a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, for their work on type II restriction enzymes.
Areas of Specialization: Computational Biology
Alfonso Valencia is director of the Spanish National Bioinformatics Institute and the Life Sciences department at Barcelona Supercomputing Center. He is a professor for the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies and former president of the International Society for Computational Biology. He earned his PhD in molecular biology from the Autonomous University of Madrid before completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory.
His scientific research has focused on biomedical systems, using computational biology and bioinformatics methods. Valencia’s research group has produced systems for protein networks, systems biology, text and data mining, protein structure prediction, and more…with useful applications in cancer genomics, disease comorbidity, and epigenetics. These areas together form a basis for personalized medicine with the use of AI and computer modeling.
Areas of Specialization: Computational Biology, Bioinformatics
Burkhard Rost is head of the Department of Computational Biology & Bioinformatics for the Technical University of Munich. He is also the chair of the Study Section Bioinformatics Munich with the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. He studied physics at the University of Giessen and physics, history, philosophy, and psychology at the Heidelberg University, where he earned his PhD.
Rost has focused on the use of machine learning to predict enzymatic activity, subcellular localization, functional effects of points mutations/SNPs, disordered regions, internal residue-residue contacts, and protein clustering.
He is currently trying to solve the problem of how to predict the effects of individual mutations such as single nucleotide polymorphisms. His group, Predictprotein, launched in 1992 and still releases helpful computational and machine learning models for other scientists to use in their research efforts.
Areas of Specialization: Integrative Biology, Conservation Science
Steven J. Cooke is Editor-in-Chief of the journal Conservation Physiology and a full professor and Canada Research Chair in Environmental Science and Biology for Carleton University. He earned a bachelor of environmental studies and a master’s of biology from the University of Waterloo before earning his doctorate at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He is best known for his work studying fish physiology, ecology, conservation physiology, fish behavior, and human dimensions of complex environmental problems.
Cooke has published over 800 peer-reviewed scientific papers regarding his research findings. He has researched reproduction in centrarchid fish, migration of sockeye salmon and Pacific salmon and conservation management techniques. He has been influential in policy making and consultation for recreational and commercial fisheries, with an eye towards protecting biodiversity and preventing overfishing. His work has provided helpful context for legislators seeking to promote ecological restoration projects and critical insights into the impacts of fishing on fish.
Areas of Specialization: Microbiology
David Baltimore is director of the Joint Center for Translational Medicine and President Emeritus and Robert Andrews Milliken Professor of Biology at the California Institute of Technology. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College and a PhD in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he also conducted his postdoctoral research on virus replication.
His research has produced remarkable contributions to cancer research, biotechnology, recombinant DNA research virology, and immunology. In 1975, he shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Howard Temin and Renato Dulbecco, for their work on interactions between the genetic material contained in the cell and tumor viruses. Reverse transcriptase was found to be an enzyme that can cause cell transcription — or replication of their genomes.
After receiving the Nobel Prize, Baltimore moved into immunology and virology, which led to his work on Abelson murine leukemia virus, lymphocyte differentiation, and the use of tyrosine as a phosphoacceptor.
Areas of Specialization: Entomology, Ecology
Adam Hart is a Professor of Science Communication in the School of Natural and Social Sciences at the University of Gloucestershire. He is also an author, broadcaster, and scientist for the BBC.. He earned a BA in zoology at University of Cambridge’s Churchill College and a PhD from the University of Sheffield. He is a well known scientist specializing in entomology.
Among his projects have been large-scale public science projects such as
Spider in da House, the
Big Wasp Survey and the
Starling Murmuration. These research projects, supported by the Royal Society of Biology, have been widely referenced and used as the basis for other research.
As an expert in zoology, he is a frequently sourced commentator, weighing in on everything from trophy hunting, tree diseases, ladybird invasions, banana disease and conservation issues. As such he is a fellow of both the Royal Entomological Society and the Royal Society of Biology.
Areas of Specialization: Physiology
Nancy Rothwell is the President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manchester, the director of AstraZeneca, a global pharmaceuticals company, and a physiologist. She is also a trustee of Cancer Research UK and chair of the Research Defence Society. She earned her first class degree in physiology and a PhD from Queen Elizabeth College.
Her early research efforts were focused on obesity, cachexia, and energy balance regulation. She is a vocal supporter of women in science and has provided visionary leadership in her roles as the president of the Royal Society of Biology. She was the first woman to lead the University of Manchester, a testament to her groundbreaking work and transformative leadership style.
Rothwell was named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and is a fellow of the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Biology and the Academy of Medical Sciences. She was named one of the most powerful women in the United Kingdom by Women’s Hour and received the Royal Society Pfizer Award.
Areas of Specialization: Systems Biology, Genetics
Eric Lander is founding director of the Broad Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, Professor of Biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Professor of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School. He graduated from Princeton University as valedictorian, with a BS in mathematics. He went on to attend University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, where he earned his PhD He is a founder of Verastem and a founding advisor of Foundation Medicine.
He began his career in mathematics, but soon started looking at mathematical applications in neurobiology. In order to make the transition, he studied cellular neurobiology and later microbiology and genetics. He founded the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research which quickly became one of the world’s leading genomic research centers.
Areas of Specialization: Ecology, Evolution
Jerry Coyne is professor emeritus at the University of Chicago for the Department of Ecology and Evolution. He earned a BS in biology from the William & Mary. He was drafted while attending graduate school at Rockefeller University, but returned to his studies upon his return, earning a PhD in biology from Harvard University. He went on to a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Davis. He is an expert in speciation and ecological and evolutionary genetics.
He has been a vocal critic of religion, intelligent design, theistic evolution, and creationism, and has authored several books on the topic, including Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible. As evidence for the truth of evolution, he cites the fossil record, embryology, molecular biology, the existence of vestigial organs (in humans as well as other creatures), biogeography, and DNA sequencing similarities. He also cites the existence of transitional fossils such as ambulocetus, which represents a transition between land mammals and whales, and the Tiktaalik, which represents a transition between fish and amphibians.
Areas of Specialization: Evolutionary Biology
Niles Eldredge is a biologist and paleontologist. He studied Latin and geology as an undergraduate before earning a PhD at Columbia University. His career and research have been devoted to the exploration of paleontology and evolutionary theory.
As curator of the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Invertebrates, and later, Invertebrate Paleontology, he specialized in the study of the evolution of Phacopida trilobites, which went extinct roughly 245 million years ago.
A critic of the more common, gene-centered, view of evolution, he and collaborator Stephen Jay Gould have hypothesized that evolution occurs via multiple mechanisms, including environmental and ecological systems. Their theory, punctuated equilibrium, states that evolution occurs in shorter periods of accelerated change, separated by periods of stasis. His theoretical approach situates the evolutionary process within the historical and ecological context.
Areas of Specialization: Evolutionary Biology
Masatoshi Nei is a Carnell Professor with the department of biology at Temple University. An evolutionary biologist, he studied at both Kyoto University and the University of Miyazaki.
He has been prolific in the development of the statistical theory of molecular evolution, developing new theories as new discoveries in molecular biology emerge. He has worked at institutions such as Brown University, National Institute of Radiological Sciences and Kyoto University, advancing his understanding of how mutations can drive evolution.
He is famous for mathematically demonstrating how natural selection enhances linkage intensity and his measure of genetic distance (Nei’s distance). He has written numerous books about his research, including Molecular Population Genetics and Evolution, Molecular Evolutionary Genetics, and Mutation-Driven Evolution. Nei holds the view that mutation is the driving force for evolution and that multi-gene families evolve through a model that looks like a birth-death process. With his group of researchers, he invented a method for identifying positive selection by statistical analysis of synonymous and nonsynonymous nucleotide substitutions.
Areas of Specialization: Biochemistry
Stuart Kauffman is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, an affiliate faculty member for the Institute of Systems Biology, a medical doctor, theoretical biologist, and researcher of complex systems. He earned his BA at University of Oxford and an MD at the University of California, San Francisco.
Among his best-known work has been his exploration of the complexity of biological systems and the origins of the Earth. He built the N-K fitness landscapes model, which expanded upon the spin glass physics models. His N-K fitness landscapes have since been used by biologists and economists to understand systems behaviors.
He is a prolific writer, with over 350 articles to his credit, as well as 6 books, including At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity, The Origins of Order: Self Organization and Selection in Evolution, and Humanity in a Creative Universe.
Areas of Specialization: Microbiology
Werner Arber is a geneticist and microbiologist. He studied at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the University of Geneva. His doctorate was completed at the University of Geneva, where he studied electron microscopy and lambda bacteriophages.
He was among the first to work in the University of Basel’s new interdisciplinary research center, the Biozentrum. His work on restriction endonucleases (and arguably his experience working with Daisy Roulland-Dussoix, a PhD student) led to a shared Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
He has provided exceptional scientific leadership, serving as a member of the World Knowledge Dialogue Scientific Board and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. In 2011, he became the first protestant to be appointed as President of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He is co-founder of the World Cultural Council and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.