A Message to Bio Majors Out There

Yes, that is what this is- the end of an era. It has been a very long journey to complete my bachelors degree: scheduling conflicts, financial difficulties, budget cuts, furlough days, broken relationships, and a very undisciplined student. But I made it! I’m finally part of the Class of 2011!

Unfortunately I get to look forward to another semester of prerequisites and then grad school, so it isn’t really the end of my education. I’m much older than most of my graduating class, by two years at least (which makes a big difference in your twenties, I think), and I have a lot of wisdom to give now that I’m coming to the end of my time as an undergrad. I’ve learned a lot that I will carry on to grad school and I have some tips for those bio majors just starting out:

1. If you plan to go to grad school (which you will if you are a bio major), transferring from a community college to a university is a really good idea, financially. If you’re like me and had to pay your own way through college, finding a way to cut out inflated college expenses is the key to staying out of serious debt and finishing your degree. Community colleges often have bridge programs with nearby universities, and the professors are just as good. Many actually teach at universities part time as well. The classes are smaller and you get more attention from the professor (if you like that-me? Not so much), and the counseling department is there to get you to transfer. Assist.org is also a good reference guide (for those living in California) to make sure you’re taking the right classes and not just wasting your time. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t do it in two years though; it doesn’t matter how long it takes just as long as you finish.

2. Learn how to study EARLY ON. We all think we know how to study in high school. Even if you’re not that smart and just show up to class and pay attention, you can catch enough of the material to slide by. College is not the same, at least not for biology majors. If you don’t have the same class every day you’re not reviewing and refreshing material in your mind. Committing new concepts to memory requires constant exposure. As much as you might hate it (I did and it cost me dearly), review your notes after class and on the days you don’t have that class, ESPECIALLY for subjects like biology, chemistry, physics, and math. A lot of the concepts in these classes are not intuitive and, to be honest, a lot of professors are not good at teaching these subjects so you may have to do a lot of self-teaching. I was a 4.0 student in high school simply because I a) didn’t have a smart phone in class with me all the time and b) have a really good memory. I never learned how to study because I didn’t have to. My first chemistry class was a wake up call for me (it was also my first C) because the professor was horrible, the book was worse, and I didn’t know how to learn something if someone wasn’t explaining it to me. And you can’t use memorization in chemistry to get by. You really have to know what you are doing. Of course, my first C didn’t make me learn how to study either! I honestly didn’t figure it out until after I had transferred to a university and started taking a full load of upper division biology and chemistry courses. I was FORCED to learn how to study because I had no time to do anything but that. In hindsight, putting aside my pride and taking those college workshops that teach you how to study and budget your time would probably have been a good idea. Oh, and less drinking and going out and drug use probably.

3. Take good notes. Get a system for note taking, and actually take written notes. Don’t even bring a laptop to class. I know having all your notes on your computer seems like a good idea, and it definitely could be, but scan the written notes and put them on your computer later (a good time to review them!). There’s something about seeing the PowerPoints, hearing the professor talk, and writing notes down that really makes you pay attention better than typing things out. If you’re like me, you type much faster than you write, so it may hard at first to get used to this. Use it as a challenge, though. The faster you have to write, the more you are going to put the lecture into summaries, which is really part of the learning process and is helping you learn the material. I’ve found this especially important for my cell biology, physiology, and biochemistry classes. You cannot type pathways. It is so beneficial to draw out feedback loops, kinase cascades, or mechanisms while the prof is going over it in class. Drawing as much as you can and then going back and adding more when you review will make you a more organized and successful note taker.

4. Be antisocial. I guess this goes without saying, but I mean it in the most general way possible.You are a bio major and your subject requires a lot of time and dedication to be successful. Bio majors don’t get to think of college as a social time. We can’t cram the day before an exam and get better than a D or C. We can’t go out the weekend before a bunch of assignments are due. We have to study days in advance and we study for hours. Expect to give up your social life during the semester, and if your non-bio major friends don’t understand you need to get new friends. We are the future researchers, doctors, and experts for this country and we have to make sacrifices in our youth to be the best at what we do.

5. Be humble. When you venture into the world of science you realize there is a lot of shit about this planet we don’t understand yet. With biology there are a lot of ethical hurdles to being able to research what you want. I currently do research on human embryonic cells, but those might not even be legal to use in years to come because of politics. And your non-bio major friends (and family) will not understand a lot of the cool stuff you try to share with them because it is too complex or it will cause a heated ethical debate. Don’t be prideful because you feel are above the discussion on ethics (because ethics is a huge part of science). And don’t get haughty because you got an A in genetics and now you think you know everything. YOU DON’T. Even the people that have worked in their field for decades are still learning. That is what our community is about- learning- and doing it in a traceable, repeatable way that other scientists can look at and see if your data and conclusions are bullshit or not. Also, don’t look down on non-bio majors, as hard as it is, just because they don’t heart science. You’ll just look like a dick and  everyone will be anti-science even more than they already are.

6. Stay interested. As I stated in my last point, there is a lot in this world even the experts don’t understand. What we are learning in EVERY class is fascinating. I know it’s hard to look at organic chemistry in that light, or genetics, or stats, but everything you learn is important. That’s part of what makes majoring in bio so hard and also so wonderful. We aren’t learning about dead guys or abstract ideas or the way the country works (or doesn’t work), we are learning about how the world around us work and what makes life so, lively. It is beautiful and complex and frightening all at once. It’s so easy to get caught up in thinking about our own futures with grad school, midterms, internships, research, finals, letters of rec, etc., but we seldom stop and enjoy what it is we are learning about. It can’t hurt to stay in awe of our subject of study, and if it can make us love organic chemistry? Nahh, but you get the idea.

I hope the bio majors out there can find some use of my advice. Until then,good luck on finals and happy studying! This time next week I’ll be a college grad. :-)

-JS

I Know, Science and Religion…

Cloning has been a much debated subject for most of my conscious life. I am proud to live in a time where these discoveries are being made, and I have the chance to be on the forefront of research within this field given the opportunity. But our country is much divided on the ‘rightness’ of the issue: Is cloning a miraculous discovery of science, or an attempt at playing God? The article “Cloning Trevor” by Kyla Dunn in Taking Sides gives some thoughts on the subject that I found interesting and disheartening at the same time. Therapeutic cloning has the potential to save so many lives, yet the Congress of the first Bush Admin and Bush Admin itself had the gall to pass laws saying that these lives weren’t worth the using the cells of embryos needed for research. An entire branch of research has been practically halted based on religious assumptions, and my reaction to this was anger, the honorable kind.

I have many complaints about the government for the past eight years. I can honestly say there were very few times I was proud to call myself an American until this past November. I have traveled abroad and have been ashamed to admit rumors were true like the laxness of financial regulation, the actions that take place at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, and the government inaction during Hurricane Katrina. These are only a few of the things that have disappointed me, but the amount of meddling in scientific research has put me on edge for a while now.

I am a biology major, and plan on working in the medical field either in patient care or research. This has been a passion of mine since I was very young, and it continues to grow the more I understand about the human body and about the condition of our nation’s health care system. I have read and been taught on the importance of keeping medical research in America on the forefront, that it is one of our advantages as a major world player. But for the past few years I feel like this sector has been severely neglected, as have others. Reading this article fanned the flames a bit on something I had been feeling for sometime, and in a way I felt it put my own reactions into words I couldn’t find before.

I grew up non-denominational Christian. I’ve had a passion for God and his creation for as long as I can remember. I believe, as a Christian, I am here to help bring healing and well-being to the world and I feel I can do that through medicine on one level, and through my treatment of people on another. Knowing this about my faith, I find it ridiculous for religious groups to say that cloning of any kind is ‘playing God.’ If by helping save lives we are ‘playing God’ then I will gladly play God for the rest of my career. Therapeutic cloning has potential to heal that we haven’t even imagined yet, and with lack of support and funding, we may never imagine in this country. I think the people that believe this wonderful technology is something against the Christian religion haven’t researched it to know otherwise. They don’t know the facts, or know too little of the process to see what good it could do. I have a major problem with the type of people that attend church and call themselves social conservatives for the purpose of being Pro-Life, or anti-stem cell research, without out reading up on what they are actually against first.

Therapeutic cloning could reduce or even undo damage caused by heart attacks, diabetes, strokes, Alzheimer’s, spinal injuries, and multiple other diseases and conditions that cause irreversible tissue damage. The possibilities are endless, though the risks are great. Anyone knowing the potential reactions the implanted stem cells have on the host body knows that this procedure and theory is far from perfect, but only with more research can it be improved. Stem cells are not taken from a fetus that has specialized cells already. They are taken from an embryo in its early stages, before its true fetal development has been determined (more fully explained in article). These are also things done in a Petri dish, not a human. Since when do we conceive children in Petri dishes? I don’t think anyone would agree that the future of the human race should depend on this process. It’s too sci-fi. Too frightening to thing of having a brother than was born in a lab. The best place to have a child develop is in a womb, in a mother, in a loving, caring situation. No one is trying to create human life here. The scientists that have devoted their lives to this research have been trying to enhance the human life that is already present and hopeless in hospitals and homes across the nation. And to cheapen that intention and call it ‘playing God’ angers me to a great extent.

I think a quote from a distressed mother sums up my thoughts for this subject very well: “How dare they tell me that I cannot save my son’s life?…’Let your child die, because my religious belief is more important than your child’s life.’…[they] have no right to stop me from saving my son’s life (Taking Sides 67).” We are concerned about human rights in America, supposedly. I think to say an embryo in a Petri dish has more rights to be protected than the people who are alive now and suffering from incurable conditions is completely outrageous. We need a reality check in this country. Social conservatives are afraid of something like cloning coming to be a commonplace reality here and they have it in their minds that this is something evil that has to be stopped. They have lost sight of the ultimate human right, which is the right to live and choose what they please. I agree with this mother. Choose what you want for your own embryos and children, but let everyone else choose to do what is right for their families and themselves. Let them choose a less risky option if they want, but at least let them make the choice on their own. For all the hope that’s been lost in the past eight years, we owe them that.

I think these religious interests groups and churches have forgotten what Jesus did when he came here: he healed the sick. If the only representation of God in the flesh we have is Jesus shouldn’t we be following that example? There is so much negative thinking in the realm of science by religious activists. People that think they can’t possibly coincide. If God truly created the world, science is the tool to discover how he did it, and what laws and patterns he set in place at the beginning so that millions of years later human life would surface and have the consciousness and ability to think about things before we start pointing fingers and making laws and accusing people of trying to play God. Stem-cell research is the beginning of something very big. Are we going to let our closed-mindedness stopper the success it could mean for the field of medicine? Or are we going to accept progress, and see where it takes us, what it lets us learn about God’s world? As believers, we forget that even our own faith was called wrong and people were killed for it… Sure, we don’t kill people for it anymore, but killing hopes and dreams may be even worse. Instead of persecution, they call it politics.

Lucky for us there is a new administration and Congress. I have high hopes, but there is a lot going on with the economy and foreign affairs that it may be a while before medical research gets a chance to shine again. Hopefully it begins to get the attention and praise it deserves soon, or I should start looking into a new career path.

-JS