Let’s face it, staring into a microscope while taking in the smell of formaldehyde and safranin for hours on end isn’t exactly what most people would call “a good time”. For someone studying microbiology, this is a pretty normal day, maybe even a fun one. As a biology major, You spend the first year of your academic career in university sitting in a giant crappy lecture hall with a million and three other students, taking crappy classes, and learning the same crappy things that you did in middle school AND high school biology.
Okayyyy so maybeee that’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but that’s definitely what it feels like. The first year is not exciting. When I first chose micro, my aspiration was medical school. If you don’t know a whole lot about being a pre-med student, choosing a major of biology or chemistry of some sort seems to make the most sense. I could write a whole article about the specifics of that too, but that’s for another day. I was the person that sat in the back of the class thinking to myself “who cares how a cell divides, it just does”. My first lab partener here at UWM (and still my favorite lab partener to date) had an excitement for biology that I just couldn’t understand. While I rolled my eyes at having to re-learn the Krebs cycle or memorize the reproductive organs of male vs. female plants, he found it fascinating to know the ins and outs of their survival.
Between an awesome lab partner and an awesome professor, it began to grow on me. The farther into your academic career you get, the more fun it gets. You finally spend time in the lab, taking specimen samples to observe and conduct experiments on. You’re finally getting that hands on aspect that drew you to this field of study in the first place.
So what is it really like?
1. Flash cards ARE your best friend.
I myself was never a flash card gal… until I had to know dozens of different proteins by their specific amino acid chains, and how each one can alter DNA. Give in to the flashcards, they will help. I promise.
2. You don’t have homework but you have something worse…
In one week I only spend a few hours doing actual HOMEWORK. My schedule involves a lot of reviewing material on my own time, but there aren’t worksheets or quizzes or discussion posts. Which all sounds great and fun, until you have your first lab report which is grueling, painful, and requires every ounce of your attention until the day it’s due.
Yessss… everybody wants to be a scientist until they have to write a lab report.
3. Your roommate will hate your projects
My sophomore year we had to isolate a type of bacteria and grow several plates of it in different places to see how environmental factors affected it. While I thought it was great, my roommate wasn’t so thrilled to open our pantry one day and find my bacterial colonies growing behind the cereal…
4. Your slides are the most valuable thing you have.
There’s a whole process to making your own specimen slides that involves sterilization, heat setting, and several rounds of staining and counterstaining. The worst part is that it still doesn’t always turn out great so you’re forced to do it all over again. Because of this, when you’ve successfully made a good slide, it becomes the most precious thing in your bookbag.
5. What’s that smell?
It’s probably you. The smells that come from the lab are potent and persistent. Don’t be afraid to wash your bookbag and lab coat at the end of each week.
6. You never know what you’re looking at
You spend a lot of time looking into a microscope and trying to identity different organisms and cells. Your textbook or lab guide also provide a nice illustrated picture that is supposed to help you understand what you’re looking at, but the truth is you’ll be confused, uncertain, and second guessing yourself 70% of the time. Is that a neutrophil? An eosinophil? Oh wait…. I’m NOT supposed to be looking at blood cells….?
7. Organization is key
Sure sure, make fun of the girl with 8 different colored pens and 5 different highlighters that she uses to ferociously scribble in her physical day planner (no, not google calendar… an actual spiral bound, paper day planner). She’s the one who’s going to set your curve. Being in the sciences really teaches you the importance of time management, planning ahead, and personal discipline. Like I said earlier, most of my biology based classes don’t have a ton of deadlines, so it’s up to YOU set your schedule and stick to it if you want to be successful.
Like any major, it has its ups and downs. You’ll constantly be exhausted, give up on wearing anything but sweats, only wash your hair once a week, and constantly be assessing the microorganisms that you can’t see surrounding you at all times. But your first time doing gel electrophoresis, or watching a cell divide under the microscope feels pretty cool. At those times when even YOU don’t know the answer to why you picked this major, it’s those small exciting moments that remind you that you’re crazy enough to actually kind of love what you’re doing.