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  • Writer's pictureThe Mentorship Spot

From Physical Sciences to Life Sciences

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

By Jonathan Fu

I’ve just finished my 2nd year of biomedical sciences, which I switched into this past term. Before that, I was in medicinal chemistry, originally applying to Waterloo as a physical science major. In grade 12, I really did enjoy studying biology, but realized that a lot of the biology topics were based on molecular concepts, so I thought studying chemistry would be the better choice. However, as I continued on in university, I realized I didn’t like labs as much as I originally thought, which is why I’m trying to do a healthcare profession from my degree in biomedical sciences. Right now, I’m hoping to go into optometry.

Why did you initially choose medicinal chemistry at uWaterloo?

I wanted to do pharmaceuticals — I thought synthesizing new medication and knowing how drugs interacted with the body was interesting as I always had an interest in the human body and life sciences in general. I knew that I’d get to study lots of pharmacology in medicinal chemistry so that aspect of the program really interested me. To be honest, I should not have relied too much on high school course content when I was deciding on my university courses but rather, I should’ve done extra research about the fields that I was considering (such as talking to my teachers about what it’s like to major in that particular area). The heavy molecular basis of biology (from my high school classes) seemed less applicable to me and I was turned off from biology. Rather, I chose to do medicinal chemistry, which allowed me to study certain aspects of biology (enzymes, for instance) in depth without needing to take biology courses.

I initially wanted to go to Guelph, because during a semester I got to go to Seneca to study pharmacology which was one of the areas that I was considering in focusing on when doing my masters in the future. However, I later wanted to go to uOttawa since being a French immersion student, it would grant me more scholarships and receive a designation of “French Immersion” on my diploma. However, I went to uOttawa’s open house and asked about co-op (as I was accepted into the co-op program), but I’d have to maintain an 80% average for my first two years before starting a co-op term and I didn’t like that stipulation. Waterloo medicinal chemistry was co-op only, so the only way to lose co-op is if you get kicked out of the program, which had a less demanding requirement (for instance, only having to maintain a 60% cumulative and chemistry average). Waterloo also has an amazing co-op program and they alternate work and study terms (ultimately giving you the chance to explore your interests within a particular field and develop a variety of skills and experiences), and it was that which lead me to believe that Waterloo would give me the best background for starting a career.

What does the biomedical sciences major consist of and why did you choose it?

First, I switched from chemistry to biology as I realized that labs was not something that I had much interesting in doing. I also switched because the first term of my second year had courses more tailored to the chemistry program and I really had to make a decision before I got pigeon-holed into a program I wasn’t truly interested in. The biomedical sciences major at Waterloo emphasizes professional school admissions. A lot of the core courses are required for MCAT, PCAT, etc. and we’re given a lot of electives so we can tailor our courses to the needs of whatever professional school we’re interested in.

What’s the atmosphere like among teachers, TAs, and students?

In first year, a lot of my courses were very large and had lots of crossover with other programs, which is why I could switch over so easily. In my experience, most professors have been nice — I’ve had sit-down conversations with a few of them and they’re generally nice. TA’s are generally nice as well. I have met a few who are quite strict but, as they are getting student evaluations at the end of the semester, your opinions about their performance and fairness will definitely be heard. Student-wise, everyone is really friendly and willing to help each other. There were times when I had friends help me with my labs that I really had no idea on completing and took notes for me when I was sick and could not attend class. As well, thanks to two upper years that I met at University of Waterloo’s Pre-Optometry club, I was given the opportunity to message them questions about the Optometry Admission Test (which I am currently preparing for). Overall, I really like the atmosphere, faculty members and students are all very supportive and it has been really enjoyable studying at University of Waterloo.

What separates your program from other similar programs in Ontario?

Since I switched into biomedical sciences, I don’t really have that deep of a view of what separates our program from others in Ontario. However, what I love about my program is that it really sets its students up for professional schools. I love that there are lots of electives so I can pursue courses I need for professional schools and for self-interest. An example of how biomedical sciences at Waterloo prepares you for professional school is by having first-year physics as a mandatory course, which is not the case for the biology program. This means that it really sets people up to do optometry or pharmacy school, for instance. Similarly, we take courses which will benefit us for admissions tests — for example, we take both terms of organic chemistry, but the biology program only requires the first term.

What career prospects do you think your program provides?

As I mentioned before, this program mainly prepares its students for professional schools. However, our courses emphasize molecular biology and the human body as well. So not only professional programs, it also prepares you for research too. I know friends who went straight into Waterloo’s biomedical science program with the only intention of pursuing graduate studies. With the large number of electives, you can tailor your courses to choose specific classes on topics you wish to study more in depth. For me, thanks to the freedom provided by this program, even after switching programs from physical sciences to life sciences (thereby taking some courses that are not useful for my new goals) and taking classes specific for prerequisite requirements for optometry school, I still have space to add a bioinformatics option as a backup if pursuing healthcare does not work out.

What’s one piece of advice you have for those entering first year?

University is a place where there are lots of opportunities which you can take advantage of. You should really make an effort to go and accept those opportunities. For example, I personally think finding a research position is really difficult, but Waterloo has lots of clubs which can also set you up for your career. For instance, University of Waterloo has an iGEM team, which participates yearly in its worldwide synthetic biology competition which you can apply for (you don’t even need to be in Science!) and they’ll accept you if you show interest. That can really set you up for success and has fewer barriers to entry than something as prestigious as a research position. You could also go for leadership positions in clubs, and this will really help to prepare you for the workplace (as you will be given opportunities to improve and refine your soft skills) and make you a more well-rounded and employable individual.

What’s one thing that you’ve learned from having switched programs?

You should really try to have a general idea of what you want to do. I know that’s easier said than done and can be really stressful. But, I feel like a lot of people think that if you decide to change your major during university that you’ll be fine, and while that’s true, it will however, make your university experience more difficult. Keep in mind that while you’re trying to figure out what you want to do, you’re taking a bunch of courses which may not relate to your final goals. For example, I’ve taken a math and computational chemistry course from when I was in medicinal chemistry which realistically do not contribute to my goals, either as fulfilling a prerequisite for optometry school or core courses for my degree in biomedical sciences or for the bioinformatics option. I could’ve used those course spaces to expand my knowledge in the life sciences instead. As a result, with those two extra courses along with the additional prerequisite courses for optometry school, though I can successfully obtain my biomedical science degree with a bioinformatics option without making additional sacrifices, such as taking other additional courses during my off term, I will have to (and I am planning to do so) if I want to take some extra courses to supplement my bioinformatics option. I’d say that if you’re in high school, it’s worth it to take the time to research possible majors with the goal of having a holistic view (rather than a partial view like me) and have a general idea of what you want. For me, I should’ve either done some lab work prior into entering university to determine whether studying chemistry would be the best choice or at least asked my teachers about working in a laboratory setting to get a better idea. Maybe you won’t be able to make a final decision before you start university, but it’s worth it to try now rather than spending valuable course space and money on courses which won’t be valuable to you later on. Even if you do want to make a drastic change, remember, a little bit of extra work now so you can study something that you enjoy later on is undoubtedly worth it.

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