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The Biology Student’s (Very Short) Guide to the Other Sciences

Updated: Mar 27, 2022

My name is Ariz, and I’m a second year BCEM major. To me, being an Academic Coordinator with the BSA means that I have to consider what academic-related pressures Biological Sciences students are currently facing, and what I can do to help alleviate them. Reflecting on my first year as a student at U of C, I realized that I had little guidance on how to prepare for and succeed in chemistry and physics courses, which I knew I would have to take despite being a biology student. Since I’ve already gone through the trouble of passing those courses and leaving them behind me, I thought it would be nice to share some things I learned along the way and hopefully make life a little easier for at least one person. So, I present to you, “The Biology Student’s (Very Short) Guide to the Other Sciences”.

Some Biological Sciences students are dismayed when they realize that non-biology science courses are required for their programs, and it’s not uncommon for first year Biology majors to be enrolled in courses like Chemistry 201, Chemistry 203, Physics 211/221 and Physics 223. These courses can seem daunting when you were expecting to only be taking courses directly related to your major, but these courses often make important contributions that can only be appreciated later on in your degree, so it’s important to try to succeed in these courses, just as you would in any biology course.

To effectively learn in physics and chemistry courses, you often have to change the way you think. Most people recognize that learning in biology, at least at introductory levels like in Biology 241 and 243, is in large part achieved by memorization. From learning to recognize and name all the machinery in a cell to remembering the various stages in evolution, there’s no doubt that memory plays a large role in succeeding in first year Biology courses.

Chemistry can give you grief because it’s a field made of rules, while biology is made of exceptions. Every theory you learn in a chemistry class is supposed to be used to reason a problem out and provide an in-depth explanation of the events you’re studying. This is quite a shock when first year biology courses often ask questions that can be answered by regurgitating a fact. There’s just one trick I learned that I use to help me take in new concepts in chemistry, a question that I always ask: why? When you ask why something happens or why something works the way it does, you’re getting to the root of the mystery. Learning the “why” means you don’t have to memorize what happens in every interaction between one molecule and another because you have the knowledge to analyze the situation and make an educated judgement on it. And when you understand the “why”, the “what”, “where”, “when”, and “how” usually fall right into place. So when you’re learning about a new type of reaction or a complex molecular theory, always ask yourself “why?”.

Physics, on the other hand, is often a tough nut to crack for biology students because it seems to require that a student be strong in math, in stark contrast to biology’s reputation as being the mathless science. In my experience, doing well in physics is not actually about being a math whiz; with equations usually being laid out for you on a formula sheet and a calculator in hand, plugging in values and solving for unknowns is not all that difficult. Most students struggle when given a question because they have no idea what they are being asked to do and how they can achieve that. It can really help to sequentialize tasks when tackling physics problems. First, identify what the question is asking of you because without this knowledge, you have no answer to solve for. Next, determine what information is given to you in the question. This can be specific values that you can plug into formulas, or context clues that might help you set up systems of equations. Finally, decide what formula seems the most likely to help you find your unknown using the information given to you. It seems like a simple process because it is, and it’s one that helped me break my learning down into manageable steps and ultimately helped me succeed in my first year physics courses.

These few tips got me through my first year non-biology science courses, but ultimately, you’ll need to have an adaptable mindset to figure out what each subject demands from you and how you can thrive in the unfamiliar situations. Persevere when you encounter hurdles and you’ll always succeed, one way or another.

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