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What to Expect

The future for biochemistry majors looks bright and wide open, but to get there, students are going to have to pay for it with a lot of hard labor.

Biochemistry majors have many doors open to them when they enter the work world. But first a lot of hard work is necessary in order to reach those doors.

"In my experience, a biochemistry student has one of the heavier course loads of the BSc. programs..." says Jenny Stodola. She's in her third year of a biochemistry program.

"There is a first-year requirement in biology, chemistry, physics and calculus in addition to taking various genetics, biochemistry and upper-year chemistry classes," says Stodola. "With many of these classes there are not only lecture times, but [also] three-hour lab sections that need to be attended each week (some universities differ). So in addition to doing coursework, there are labs to attend and lab reports to write up afterwards. It may be a lot of work, but definitely manageable with a little time management."

Alana Lerner is working on a PhD in biomedical sciences, with a specialty in cell biology, at the University of California, San Francisco. She completed her undergraduate degree at UCLA. Lerner says there was probably an average of two hours a day of homework and studying during her undergraduate studies.

Survival Tips

In short, attend class and do your assigned readings. There are no shortcuts in biochemistry.

"In science you kind of have to be on top of it," says Lerner. "I went to all my classes. A lot of people could kind of get away with skipping classes in other [programs], but it felt like in biochemistry, you skip a lecture, and I would have no idea what was going on the next time. It just goes really fast.

"There's a lot of pressure," Lerner adds. "And if you're in a big school where there's curves set on peer performance, and you have 300 people in the class and maybe two-thirds want to go to medical school and everyone wants an A, and they only give A's to 10 percent of the class, that's definitely pretty stressful."

How to Prepare

It helps to take a lot of science courses in high school.

"I think [you should be] definitely taking biology and chemistry classes," says Lerner. "I didn't take physics in high school, but if you are interested [then that's also a good idea]."

Those high school science courses shouldn't be just the basic ones.

"If the school offered AP (advanced placement), or advanced courses, in something like biology or chemistry, I think that's a good way to know what your interest level would be in college," says Lerner. "Because that's kind of how I knew I wanted to be a biology major, because I took biology as a freshman in high school.

"But it didn't really include experiments or anything that is going to be [similar to] how you're going to do biology as a career," Lerner adds. "So when I took AP biology they had more focus on experiments and they had people coming in who had taken that career path."

"Most universities require that you take calculus and two of biology, chemistry and physics," says Stodola. "If you can, I would recommend taking all of the above in high school, as you will probably have to take an extra 'high school equivalent' class in university for the one you are missing which may put you a bit behind in your program schedule."

Advanced classes focus more on experiential (hands on) learning. You're not just reading a chapter and answering the end-of-chapter questions, says Lerner.

Lerner participated in a science and education partnership program while in high school. The program partnered graduate students and post-docs from University of California, San Francisco, with public schools in the area. Programs like this show students the kinds of things you can do as a scientist.

You can find out whether your local university has a summer program for high school students. You might get the chance to work part-time in a lab over the summer. Science competitions and science fairs are also great experience. "Just anything where you're kind of getting out there," says Lerner.

Volunteering is also a good idea.

"Some people volunteer in hospitals," says Lerner. "If you're interested in medicine, there are some volunteer positions you can do in high school."

Besides volunteering at a hospital, you might be able to find a paid position working as a lab assistant. Anything that gives you hands-on experience is helpful.

"Some of the schools do tours of labs," says Lerner. "At UCLA there used to be school groups coming through all the time just to see what a lab looks like, because there's such a different image, I think, from what you're taught in school." Lerner says touring a lab shows you that not all scientists are, "nerdy, white-lab-coat, strange people.

"When you walk through, it's like, 'Oh, everyone's relatively normal,'" Lerner adds with a laugh. "I think if people can just see what we do, it gives you more of a [sense that], 'Okay, I'm not like a freak if I decide to go into this.'"

Stodola says there aren't specific extracurricular activities that she'd suggest for high school students. But she does have suggestions for when you get to university.

"[S]ince biochemistry studies at university are very science-intensive I would suggest getting involved with something outside this area," says Stodola. "For example, volunteering in your community, playing on a sports team, or keeping up with a hobby such as painting or building models will help you keep a balanced lifestyle and let you meet new people to gain life skills that may become important later in university life."


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