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Monday, May 27, 2024

The ABCs of “STEM”

It’s nine on a wintry Monday morning: Do you know where your future doctor is?

Professor Andreas Toupadakis’s Chemistry 2A class in UC Davis’ 500-seat Sciences Lecture Hall might be a good place to start.

Wearing sweatpants, Ugg boots and a glazed-over look of exhaustion, these future scientists, doctors and researchers plop down in empty seats and try to stay awake as a balding man with a thick Greek accent explains aerial and equatorial positions of electrons. At 9:50 a.m. on the dot, the students pack their backpacks and head for the doors.

“The lecture was okay. The professor probably knows what he’s talking about,” said first-year physics major Keisuke Sasaki.

Of the 6,369 degrees awarded in 2010, just over half were for science, or STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) majors. In the world of UC Davis science majors, it’s the end game that counts – an end game that most believe will be worth the exams, stress and endless studying that make up most of their days. And they may have a point – according to CNNMoney.com, six of the current “Top Ten Jobs,” determined by salary and growth opportunities, are science-related. The number one-ranked job, software architect, can expect a median salary of $119,000.

A genuine interest in science leads many to pursue a degree in the field. For these young people, learning about molecule shapes and the impact of chemistry on solar power are compelling. Junior food science major Lindsay Li described science as the ability to learn how things work.

“I’ll think about stirring up my coffee and putting the sugar in, and I’ve learned about sweeteners and alternative sweeteners – what the chemicals are and how they’re different,” Li said. “It’s cool to look at it and know what it is, not just some mystery molecules.”

But the sense that science is the most practical subject to major in pervades nearly every STEM student. Enjoying liberal arts is one thing – making a living out of it is completely different, they say. Why major in a subject with so few job prospects when the biotechnology industry is desperate for college-educated employees?

“Liberal arts is stuff that isn’t necessary to get by. When you have extra money you’re going to go to the movies. So for everybody working in the movies, when it’s hard times economically, there are not going to be as many opportunities,” said Marie Bays, a senior agricultural management and rangeland resources major. “People always have to eat. They always need clothes, always need houses.”

These science majors are a practical bunch and having a strong sense of direction and purpose is common, said Student Academic Success Center chemistry specialist Alicia Hart. Hart tutors primarily pre-med students for whom the drive to succeed is necessary in medical school.

If you’re going to pursue the sciences, you’d better know what you want to do, Hart said.

“They’re extremely driven – they have to be,” Hart said. “Their MCAT scores will decide if they get into medical school and 60 percent won’t make it.”

But are they driven for the love of science, or something else entirely? Senior biological science, emphasis in neurobiology, physiology, and biology major Andrew Dickie isn’t so sure. He said the status and wealth associated with becoming a doctor compels too many UC Davis students to choose a science major.

Initially, Dickie wanted to be a doctor himself, but working in medicine and observing a disheartening amount of apathy among pre-med students convinced him that he was pursuing medicine for the wrong reasons.

“They’re like, this class is stupid, I want to finish it, I’m not super stoked on it. They never seem really excited about the classes or discussions or being there,” Dickie said. “That’s the issue. I just don’t see any genuine passion in the sciences. I see it as a means to an end. That’s just saddening.”

No matter what their future careers, all science majors are usually required to take course series in chemistry, biology and physics. The homework and exams are undoubtedly demanding, forcing many students to their respective desks and corners of the library every day of the week.

Ask how often a science major studies, and the response is either self-deprecating laughter or dead silence as he or she tries to add up the many hours.

Surrounded by lecture notes outside of 194 Chemistry, sophomore animal science major Karina De Anda had the latter reaction.

“It’s hard to say,” she said after a pause. “It’s practically all the time.”

Both Li and Dickie estimate that they spend nearly every weekday studying until 10 at night. Non-science majors don’t understand how hard her classes are, Li said.

“I’m killing myself trying to learn all this. It’s not like I can just read the book. I have to read the book, do practice problems, go over them twice, go over the notes and write cheat sheets for myself,” she said.

Balancing work and a social life is a constant struggle, though many science majors say they make an effort to go out with their friends – when they don’t have a midterm on Monday, that is. Extensive planning is often involved; Li said she plans outings with friends weeks in advance so she can compensate for lost study time.

Chemistry lecturer Bryan Enderle claims that many of his students study too much. Rather than obsess over difficult concepts for hours, they should be going to the professors’ office hours for help. Students may not figure out the best way to study until senior year, and by then they may not have many friends, he warns.

Though many STEM majors are socially competent and get along well with others, Enderle and science majors admitted that some science students fall outside social norms. As Dickie pointed out, “You can’t translate the citric acid cycle into fun conversation.”

“There’s some nerd action going on,” Enderle said. “You’ve got the science people hanging out at the Silo and the cool non-science people out on the quad throwing a Frisbee.”

Students in science majors may congregate together due to similar class schedules and interests, but it is rare for students to have an exclusively science-oriented group of friends. Still, Hart said as a former theater arts major who later switched to psychology, she has noticed differences between liberal arts and science majors.

“With the sciences, it’s all about academics and looking good on paper. Everyone else is having fun. They’re more into exploring themselves and being people-oriented,” she said.

As part of the general education requirement, science majors must take a few non-science classes, which many do enjoy. But when writing is involved, students instantly proclaim their disinterest.

“A lot of science majors I know always say, ‘oh another writing assignment, that’s why we’re science majors, we’re not supposed to be doing this,'” Li said.

Not all sciences are equal. A hierarchy that puts engineering and computer science at the top, followed by physics, chemistry, biology and finally “softer” sciences like food science and psychology at the bottom indicates who is supposedly working the hardest.

But as senior pre-med history major Thomas Osterberg-Deiss reminds, it’s the end result that counts the most for these future engineers and physicists. The sacrifices will be worth it … eventually.

“Engineers are all miserable but then after they graduate they’re like, cha-ching,” he said. “They’re like, ‘did you have a good time in college? I didn’t, but now I’m making hella money.'”

ERIN MIGDOL can be reached at features@theaggie.org.


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