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

How Am I Supposed to Care for My Health?

My dad is retiring and I now have health insurance for another month. Since my girl Hillary is undeniably out of the race for good reason, which candidate is going to give me an option that will make it so I can pay for health care on top of rent, education, bills, and groceries? I’m not sold on McCain or Obama. I think they both have policy flaws, McCain much more so than Obama, and frankly, I’m just sick of this corrupt two-party system. But unfortunately I’m a realist and so I will vote accordingly because I know no one has a chance outside the two major parties.

But enough about politics. I’m in college. I’m a waitress. I have no career, but in order to get my career started I have to finish college. In order to get good health insurance I need to have a career that gives me that option, and I also need to be living in an economy good enough to find companies that are actually hiring skilled people.

I feel like all of us are in a catch-22. And I feel like I understand my friend Lucky from Cambodia more and more. All I can say for now is that I hope I don’t come down with West Nile Virus before I graduate. And I also hope the economy gets noticeably better before then too.

I hope a lot of things.

-JS