Monday, June 26, 2017

Advice from a science prof for students interested in science & health professions

A message for first-year students interested in science and health professions:

Dear First-Years,

Allow me to join the chorus of excited faculty and staff and welcome you to Barnard College! As way of introduction, my name is Dr. Jacob Alexander, and I am the Director of the General Chemistry Laboratory and a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Chemistry. Over the years, I have done quite a bit of work with students interested in science (not just in chemistry!) and many of these were students interested in exploring a track which prepares them for one of the pre-health professions. This is the subject Dean Grabiner asked me to write about today, and I am happy to do so.

There are many possible paths for students interested in the pre-health professions, but for a First-Year student let’s focus on what to do immediately.

(more after the break)

As your first semester as a Barnard student approaches, you really only need to decide what courses you’d like to take this Fall. No matter what your long-term goals are in the pre-health professions (medical or dental school, physician’s assistant, nursing, allied health, etc.), the starting point is generally the same. All of these programs are going to require you to take a broad array of natural science courses during your undergraduate years. Typically, these will include coursework in biologychemistry, and physics with accompanying laboratory work. (There are many other requirements as well, and you can find them on the college website, but for this discussion I will focus on your science coursework). Given the number of laboratory classes you will have to take to satisfy the professional school requirements, we recommend students interested in a pre-health track start their lab science study right away. The most common question students ask me is “Where do I begin?” The answer is simple: “It depends!”

The first thing you want to think about is a survey of your general science interests and preparation in the subjects. If, for example, you have considerable experience in biology from high school it might be a good idea to continue that study and begin with Biology 1500, along with its associated lab and recitation. Similarly, if you had good experiences in chemistry or physics you might want to start with one of those subjects to begin your lab work. Be aware that the experience of a college laboratory science course is nothing like high school, even if you took accelerated courses. You might examine some of the same material, but the course will be wildly different in what is required of you. So, don’t get caught off guard – don’t assume that your prior experience will substitute for hard work here at Barnard.

The second thing to consider is your long-term outlook. I don’t like talking about choosing a major so early in your Barnard career, but if you are very interested in pursuing a science major it is very important to start your introductory courses in that subject as soon as possible. In chemistry, for example, the course sequence for the major is very linear, and we only offer certain classes in certain semesters. Delaying the introductory chemistry or physics course sequences until your sophomore year doesn’t make a chemistry, biochemistry or physics major impossible, but it restricts your scheduling considerably if you are thinking about pursuing those majors. This is somewhat less of an issue for the biology major, but the point remains. Another point to consider is the amount of time you need to invest in each of the areas of study to satisfy the pre-health requirements. Most pre-health professions will require one year (with lab) of introductory biology and physics, but two years (with one year of lab) of chemistry. Once again, the linear nature of the chemistry sequence can lead to a scheduling challenge as you must take the courses in the order they are offered. Some students like to get started on the "heavier" requirement sooner, while others are more comfortable waiting a year. It really all depends on you and what you want!

So, what should you do? I would recommend the following (and the appropriate laboratory and recitation sections) to any First-Year student interested in pursuing a pre-health track:
If you are at all interested in a chemistry or biochemistry major, you should enroll in BC2001 General Chemistry I this Fall, along with a lab and lab lecture that meet on the same day (the lab lecture is sometimes called recitation). Important reminder: be sure your lab and lab lecture meet on the same day as one another -- students who select lab on a different day from lab lecture will not be admitted to either.

  • If you are pretty sure that you are interested in science, but really aren’t sure in which area, I’d still recommend considering enrolling in General Chemistry. This isn’t just my bias showing - most of the natural science majors require BC2001x General Chemistry as a major requirement. You can fulfill that as well as getting a solid head start on your pre-health courses in the most coursework-demanding discipline. If you aren’t sold on that plan or don’t think you are quite ready, it is perfectly fine to consider biology or physics as a jumping-off point.
  • If you are very interested in one of the majors in the Department of Environmental Science, or a major in Neuroscience and Behavior, you have several options. All of these majors require both introductory chemistry and introductory biology classes as part of the major requirements, so you could choose either of these for your first semester. Do note that these majors have other recommended intro classes in other areas of study which they recommend taking early in your Barnard career. Consult with the appropriate Department for recommendations if you are thinking about a major in one of these areas when also following a pre-health track for good advice on how best to proceed.
  • If you are pretty sure you aren’t interested in a science major, and you just want to start satisfying the pre-health requirements, you can choose any of the above courses as a starting place. You can either choose the one you have the most experience or success in, the one which interests you the most, or the one you are most interested in completing first. It’s completely up to you!

Please note that these suggestions generally assume that you have some High School background in the subject and, for chemistry and physics, in your quantitative problem solving (roughly 600+ on your math SAT for chemistry and physics). If you aren’t sure about your preparation, contact the appropriate department and ASK! We will all work very hard to make sure you are in the right course – there are several alternative pathways available in addition to the ones I list above.

I also want to answer an additional question which we hear frequently: “Can I take two lab science courses my first semester?” The answer to that question is definitely yes! However, you should make that choice very carefully and in consultation with your adviser. Be cautious. As I mentioned before, college lab courses take up much more time and energy than you have needed to plan around in high school, and it takes a combination of strong preparation, work ethic and time management skills to succeed with two lab sciences on your very first Barnard program. That said, the advantage of taking GenChem and Intro Bio (as an example) your first semester can be very great and give you a lot of flexibility in your scheduling down the road. 

A final question is “What about Columbia? Can I take my pre-health classes there?” The answer to this question is yes…with a caveat. We believe very strongly that, although every student’s experience and needs will be different, there are many reasons that Barnard students are better served by taking their introductory lab science courses at Barnard. While some pre-health students do indeed take some of their pre-health requirements at Columbia, most do not. You should also be aware that Columbia and Barnard have separate introductory sequences in the lab sciences which may not be interchangeable (chemistry is one example) and you may not be able to freely cross back and forth between institutions. 
[Note from Dean Grabiner: if you run into difficulties in your lab science courses, we attempt to support all Barnard students through the Peer-to-Peer Learning program (stay tuned to the blog for more info on this program!), but there are greater resources available for students in Barnard courses.]

I hope these comments help you as you plan for the upcoming fall semester. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to any of the Barnard College science faculty with your questions. There is also a great deal of information available on college websites about pre-health professions and you should get in the habit of locating them and checking them regularly. If you can’t find the answers you seek, ASK.

See you in the lab!


Dr. J