What did you wish you knew before going to your university? What made you choose this institution over all others? What are advantages and disadvantages of your institution or campus? List any advice for incoming first-year students about your university.
As a STEM major, I wish the educational system prior to post-secondary school created more awareness of STEM related professions, other than the typical professions such as nursing, medicine, dentistry and pharmacy. When I entered university, I realized that there is a whole world of STEM professions out there that lack awareness, one of them being research. I personally realized I wanted to get involved in research in my third year of university, because it took me three years of my undergrad to truly learn what research is, the importance of research and figure out whether it is something I wanted to get involved in. If high schools and programs for secondary students helped create awareness of such opportunities, I would have been able to get my foot in the door earlier and better prepare myself. One of the major reasons I selected York University over the other universities, was because I liked the balance between school and social life. The university has a welcoming environment and provides an abundance of support for incoming first year students, such free one-on-one peer tutoring, additional drop-in review sessions, lab-report editors, mock midterms and exams all free of charge. Further, York University offers a generous amount of scholarships and awards for both incoming and current students. Personally, I was able to secure a renewable scholarship that covered 90% of my tuition which is what really secured the deal for me. I graduated from my undergrad loan and stress free! Yes, YorkU did have the longest strike in all of history while I was doing my undergrad, which wasn't a pleasant experience for a lot of us. However, the university did try its best to provide accommodations and support, such as if 70% of the course was done you were able to take that as your final grade, dropping the course with a full refund, deferring finals and midterms until you were ready to write them. Luckily, I was not affected by the strike since the professors for all five of my courses were tenured. Courses who had contract professors were the ones mainly affected. If you are a STEM major looking for opportunities in hospitals, it may be a little more difficult to get your foot in the door since YorkU is not directly linked to any hospitals, in comparison to UofT which is linked to UHN. However, like others who do not attend UofT, I applied to volunteer positions to gain experience and I volunteered at the Hospital for Sick Children and the Humber River Hospital. My advice to incoming first year students is to not only focus on the academic aspect of university, but to also learn how to balance a social life. University is a long journey and creating a trustworthy, close knit social circle is essential for your mental health. Moreover, along with maintaining a good GPA, gaining experience is vital. In order to truly figure out your career path, keep an open-mind and try volunteering in different fields to get a feel for things. It's a lot different experiencing the world, rather than hearing about it from someone else or reading about it on the Internet. Lastly, many people will pass by in your post-secondary journey, including friends, upper-year students, grad students and even professors and try to give you advice, which is sometimes their opinion based on their experiences. Sometimes it can be good advice, but other times it can bog you down or make your goals seem impossible. Don’t lose sight of your goal because of someone else's perspective on things!
What did you wish you knew before choosing your specific program? What are the advantages and disadvantages of your program? List any advice for incoming first-year students about your program of study.
I completed a major in Biomedical Science and a minor in Psychology for my undergrad. I wouldn't exactly consider this a mistake, but a valuable experience. I would have tried looking for research opportunities earlier on in my undergrad because sometimes it can take a few months to find a lab with an available position. Further, I would have not only looked at whether the lab's research appeals to me, but the kind of support they provide to undergrad students. The first lab I got involved in was a very prestigious lab conducting valuable research, however, the lab failed to provide support and sufficiently teach incoming students. The advantages of the program is that you do get to experience a wide variety of STEM courses and labs, such as physiology, microbiology, virology, genetics, neuroscience etc. I personally loved my lab course experiences, from dissecting a shark in animals to growing different types of bacteria in microbiology to dissecting the sciatic nerve in a frog to stimulate action potentials in physiology to dissecting and mounting chick embryos in developmental biology. I learned a variety of lab techniques and had experiences, which I probably would not get if I chose a different program. What some might view as a disadvantage is that in this program you have to be willing to learn about both the animal and human side of things. For example, in physiology we started learning about systems in different animals and worked our way up to humans. Those looking for something more human and health geared, often switched into health or kinesiology related programs, however those programs do lack molecular lab experiences. Further, the program doesn't have many specializations such as microbiology and genetics if you learn that you have a preference for a specific field. The other disadvantage is that class sizes will remain within 200-300 students until second year which can often be intimidating. I personally enjoyed my 3rd and 4th year courses due to the small class sizes. My advice to overcome the intimidating experience of large class sizes, is to try to join clubs and organizations and talk to people in your labs to build your social network. If you are intimidated to approach professors after class, you can email them or visit their office hours to get a more one-on-one experience.
What was your favourite university experience?
My best experience in university was anything that involved hands-on learning. I focused on taking many lab courses since it gave me an experience I would only get during my undergrad! Although lab courses have additional hours on top of lectures, I enjoyed being able to practically learn by experiencing science concepts head on. My positive experiences in lab courses, led me to pursue an honours thesis project, which is a 8-month independent research project. This was my favourite experience because instead of having to spend hours listening to lectures and study for exams, I had the opportunity to work on my own research project and apply my knowledge practically!
What was your least favourite university experience?
My worst university experience was my very first Research Practicum in a lab. Research practicums are optional, free courses you can take to obtain research experience in a lab, however you are also responsible for finding your own placement. The lab I joined was very hostile and failed to provide me with a nurturing learning experience. Often, they frowned upon any mistakes made, rather than providing me with the necessary advice and skills to avoid making those mistakes. The supervisor was also never in the lab, which meant that the word of the grad students was always taken over mine. As previously mentioned, always look into the research that the lab conducts, the support the supervisor and grad students will provide you when you are looking into research opportunities.
What is the hardest part about your program and what were the steps that you took to overcome any difficulties?
The hardest part of my program is managing the heavy course load. In programs that are not lab heavy, you will usually only experience 3 hours of lecture per course. However, as a Biomed student, you will be taking very lab heavy courses, which means in addition to 3 hours of lectures each week, you will have 3 hours of lab each week. In addition to lecture related work, you will also have to write lab reports. The best way to manage your time is to arrange your time table so that your lab courses are spread out. I personally only took two lab based courses per semester, which meant that 2/5 of my courses had 6 hours of commitment each week and 3/5 of my courses had 3 hours of commitment each week. Further, try taking your lab courses with a friend or someone who is trustworthy. You will only have 3 hours to complete an experiment, which means you would want a lab partner who is prepared and on top of their game. Further, some courses will have heavily weighted midterms and finals, such as 50-60% final exams which can be very daunting. In order to better prepare yourself, make sure you complete your work on a weekly basis rather than procrastinating. For example, make sure you have your lecture notes, readings done, recordings for each course, each week. This way you will have your notes ready for review when midterm and final season arrives. Further, if you find it difficult to pay attention during long, heavy lectures, you can record your lectures. I would record my lectures and re-listen to the recording with breaks in the comfort of my study space, which reduced the pressure of having to listen to every word during lecture.
If you were able to take electives, what was your favourite elective? If you were not able to take electives, what was your favourite course and why?
My favourite courses were anything that had a lab component! Research methods (BIOL 2070) was an amazing course that consisted of only 6 hours of lab each week, where you learned to conduct biochem, genetics and cell bio labs such as PCR, gel electrophoresis, assays, microscopy techniques. Animals (BIOL 2030) had labs where we had the opportunity to dissect a variety of animals, such as a worm, cricket, jellyfish, squid, shark and many more! Microbiology (BIOL 3150), the study of bacteria and bacterial diseases, is a course where you learn very unique techniques related to growing, identifying and analyzing bacteria. Animal Development (BIOL 4450) is a developmental biology course and during the labs you get to dissect and mount different chick embryos. Lastly, my honours thesis (BIOL 4000) was my favourite experience, since it was an independent research project and I had a hands-on learning experience.
Research can very a very daunting field compared to other professions, however, I learned that it is a very valuable field because everything we learn and know about from the structure of the DNA to how a black-hole looks was discovered by a scientist! There are many ways to get involved in research, depending on the university such as volunteer positions, practicums, honours thesis, work-study, NSERC internships etc! If you are interested in learning about how to pursue research in your undergrad and beyond your undergrad, I will be sharing tips and tricks on my instagram page: @scienceadvice_everythingnice!