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  • Writer's pictureThe Mentorship Spot

McMaster iSci: What Makes It Unique?

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Written By Natasha Singh

Tell us a bit about your program:

The Honours Integrated Science program (iSci) at McMaster University is a four-year undergraduate program. Although the crowning achievement is earning a Bachelor of Science, there is so much more to this program that just the final diploma. Throughout your four years, the program helps you develop the analytical and problem-solving toolkit necessary for delving into areas of active research in science. Each experience in the program is crafted by an interdisciplinary faculty team to teach iSci students how to effectively weave together knowledge and techniques from multiple disciplines of science to comprehensively address a research question.

How does iSci differ from other science programs?

I would say that the main differences between iSci and other science programs are its focus on research and the group-based style of learning. Most of the learning in the first three years of iSci is structured around research projects. In groups, students are tasked with a research question or scenario that requires several weeks of investigation and inquiry. These project topics are extremely relevant to real world issues, like space exploration, climate change, etc. To address the research questions, students learn to integrate concepts from the biological sciences, chemical and physical sciences, earth sciences, mathematics, etc. Almost each and every lesson that is delivered to us is directly useful/applicable to our current research project. The final deliverables of each project vary enormously, from written scientific reports to oral presentations. Although there are many individual components to each project, group work and collaboration is highly emphasized in iSci.

What’s the distinction between being in iSci and being in a general science program but still taking a diverse course load?

To understand the distinction between being in iSci and being in a general science program, think of it in the context of puzzle pieces. Taking a diverse course load in a general science program can provide you with a breadth of knowledge in different disciplines of science. This essentially provides you with the pieces of a puzzle, each piece representing knowledge on concepts and techniques in science. iSci takes this a step further and teaches you how to integrate your knowledge into an interdisciplinary approach to a research scenario. In our puzzle-building context, iSci teaches you how to recognize connections between puzzle pieces, giving you the basic skills you need to do so (e.g., finding the border pieces, grouping like colours together, recognizing different puzzle shapes). Once you have a better idea of the bigger picture, iSci supports your journey to the finish line.

What’s your experience with the optional concentration in 2nd year?

Concentrations in iSci allow you to tailor your undergraduate experience to your scientific interests. There are many concentrations to choose from in iSci, from biochemistry to mathematics & statistics to earth & environmental sciences. All concentrations have a set of courses that you are required to enrol in, which are usually at the second-year level, and then further courses that you may choose from a course list, which are typically taken at the third- and fourth-year level. After my first year in iSci, I was pretty confident in which areas of science I was more drawn to. I really enjoyed biology, and after finding out more details about the required courses in the biology concentration, I discovered that I would have enough room for all of the elective courses required for a minor in anthropology. This sealed my decision to pursue a concentration in biology and a minor in anthropology. You have plenty of opportunities even within the concentrations to narrow your learning further; in biology, for instance, I chose to pursue courses in molecular biology instead of ecology, because this is where my interests lie. Furthermore, some students have no particular interests in any one area of science, and therefore do not opt for a concentration, allowing them to enrol in a wide expanse of courses in all disciplines. My advice for course selection would be to have a look at upper level courses (i.e., third- and fourth-year courses) while you are in your first and second years, so that you can enrol in any prerequisites that they may require before you plan to take them.

What’s your experience with having seven courses per semester?

The first year of iSci gets a bit of bad rep for having “seven courses” per semester. This stems from the hectic schedule of having to keep up with lessons and coursework in math, chemistry, physics, life science, and earth science from iSci faculty, the research and deliverables associated with the ongoing iSci group project on top of that, and the lessons and coursework from the one elective course you take per semester. This results in seven exams per semester: five iSci exams on those aforementioned core subjects, one iSci lab exam based on labwork and specific research project content, and one exam for your elective course. At some points, this does get overwhelming. I was definitely overwhelmed during my first midterm season in October. Although the program requires hard work and perseverance, help is NEVER out of reach. The iSci faculty (lovingly called iTeach) is phenomenal, and the availability/accessibility of our professors is unparalleled in my opinion. The profs actively listen to our concerns and make the iSci environment and atmosphere comfortable and conducive to asking questions or queries. Not to mention the fact that our program also has its own space in one of the campus libraries, giving us room and comfort to have group study sessions or collaborate on assignments/projects.

How do you think iSci sets you up for the future/career goals?

Since iSci is strongly research-oriented, many students graduate with plans to continue research in their area of interest in master’s or doctoral programs. This is my plan for the future. Some students continue on to professional degrees, like medicine and dentistry. Some students dive right into the job force, with professions in science communication, lab management, policy development. The diversity of careers spawning out of iSci is a testament to the program’s flexibility and adaptability. iSci provides you with opportunities to explore your interests even outside of science. Thanks to the flexibility of iSci, I have been able to learn the fundamentals of both scientific research and anthropological inquiry during my degree, making me feel prepared for a future research career in archaeological science.

What’s something about iSci that you know now but didn’t know before starting it?

I didn’t know before starting the program that science communication played such a huge role in iSci. Now, not only do I recognize the importance of science communication, I have also been equipped with skills and resources that are helping me to be a good science communicator. I have learned how to convey research to various audiences at different levels of scientific understanding. I have learned about digital programs and tools that can help me compose excellent visuals and infographics about science topics and research. I have learned how to write concisely, cite properly, compose effective graphs and figures, and construct different types of reports. Scientific research means very little to anyone if it is not communicated well.

What’s the most important thing that this program or being in this program has taught you?

One of the core iTeach members has a few catchphrases that they try to drill into iSci students. One of these catchphrases is “science is a process”. This phrase in particular really does resonate with me, and is probably the most important thing I will take away from my undergraduate experience in the iSci program. The scientific process can be incredibly arduous and soul-crushing, especially when experiments go awry or statistical software is being unfriendly. To persevere, you have to remember that you are only at one step in a lengthy process and you have to try not to lose sight of the bigger picture. Also, collaboration makes the process much easier and enjoyable!

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