My journey toward a Bachelor’s degree in biomedical biology is finally over. Tuesday, I graduated and celebrated with my friends and family after four years of sweat and tears (no blood, thankfully!). I walked across the stage and accepted the proof of my hard work and dedication. My family was there to celebrate, and I felt like I was on top of the world.
Finally. It’s over. *sigh* There were changed plans, personal struggles, mental struggles, overwhelming stress… but also personal triumph, failures followed by success, and relief after hours of anxiety and self-hatred.
Now that it is all over, I wanted to reflect on how I got through it, and what I learnt along the way, both in and out of class. I also wanted to write down the details while they’re more-or-less fresh in my mind so I can reread my thoughts later in life.
This post has two little tidbits of my thoughts on university and how I felt going through the years. I’ll have some future posts coming with other lessons or thoughts I have had about my experience. My thoughts would be too long for a single post. ☺ In writitng down my thoughts for this post, I hope I can help you to worry a little bit less, or to be a little bit happier during your school experience. ☺
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Don’t worry (too much) if you don’t know what you want to do. You WILL figure it out.
For nearly 90% of my studies, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with myself and my future degree. I started off going into my degree in biomedical biology thinking that medical school was where I would end up. That involved this 4-year undergraduate degree, another 4 years in medical school, and then another few years to specialize. What did I want to specialize in? I don’t actually remember, but I also don’t think I knew, either. Medical school just seemed like what I had to do, especially since my mom “wanted” a mechanic and a doctor. My brother was already the mechanic, so… you know.
When I started to realize in myself that I didn’t want to be a doctor of some sort and that I wasn’t the right person for that job, I resented school. This resentment began in second year when I considered dropping out to just study art over the internet. All of the pressures of school (and especially the struggles of my personal life) had gotten to me pretty quickly I have to admit, and I was second-guessing if university was indeed the place for me. This is also the time I started watching Twitch, a gamer streaming website, for the art streams. I figured I could make YouTube videos and stream to make my living. Starving artist, here I come. Except… I didn’t drop out. I did make a lot of art in my spare time though, that year.
After pushing through with the encouragement of my mom who suggested I “just finish this degree, then we’ll see what you think after,” I ended up continuing my education. In third year, I was really just coasting through school with no aim, but at least I had the dedication back. I was never trying to fail, but now I was actually trying to succeed again, which was difficult to do since I didn’t know what I wanted to be doing with my life.
I took a histology course, learning about cells and tissue, and decided without actually declaring it to anyone or looking into it myself, that I wanted to maybe be a pathologist. I wanted to work with a microscope, stain slides, and help diagnose patients. It would be a lot of cancer diagnoses, but it would at least be helping patients get the proper treatment they required. That same year in one of my other classes, a pathologist from the local hospital came over for a talk about her job. And I was pretty hooked. At the start of my fourth year, I decided to look at what it entailed to become a pathologist, finally, and I saw: medical school.
Well it was too late for that now, so I got a little scared, I started to panic a bit. What the heck am I going to do now? I guess I’ll wait and apply next year… But at this point, I was working on my thesis, and my mom had met a family friend at Costco. She told the lady that I was doing research, and after a lot of new panic, I started talking with the woman’s daughter who had also done research, and was now working at the University of Ottawa. We spoke about their cellular and molecular biology Master’s program, and after learning that I could study under profs there who worked with cells, I was pretty convinced now that I’d have to go for my Master’s to continue my education. Basically, “screw pathology, I can work in research!” The one thing really holding me back from this Master’s pathway was that I would have to move hours away from my hometown that I loved so much. And my family, of course.
Thankfully for my mom (who also didn’t want me moving away), and thanks to an Instagram user (@labslides), I found out about my dream job, the job that I never knew actually existed. She posted (beautiful!) pictures of microscope slides as viewed through the lens. Pretty pink H&E stains of samples, bright purple stains of blood cells, awesome pictures of lab equipment… I had to message her, and after a bit of a conversation about what she does to be working on a microscope all day finding microbes on slides, I found out about Medical Laboratory Technology. And… I cried. I cried happy tears because I finally felt like there was something out there for me, and that I wouldn’t just be going in to because I didn’t have any other options. I cried because this is what I had thought a pathologist did, and now I finally knew the path I could take to get my dream job, and to work with cells. No med school required.
After all of the tears of desperation and of hopelessness of not knowing what I would do with my life, I have finally found the path I will take. It only took 7 semesters out of my 8 to figure it all out, but I did. And I learnt that, in the end, even if I don’t know what’s coming for me around the corner, everything will always work out. You will figure out what it is that you’re supposed to do, just trust your gut and go for it. If I had not stuck with my degree, I would never have found out about MLTs, medical laboratory technologists, and I would never have had that EUREKA moment I dreamt of, and cried about.
Stick with it, don’t worry… too much. ☺
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Do what will make you happy, whether it’s easy or not. Always try new things.
Once I had decided to continue with my degree in third year, I chose to learn everything that interested me. I took courses that sounded amazing, courses that would be useful, helpful to me in figuring out my plans for the future. I mentioned taking a histology course, I took a lot of courses that delt with cells and their structures or functions, I took several courses relating to disease and their mechanisms, I took a course on the immune system, and I was also interested in the ethics of science, and in the environment. I took all of my courses without asking students how difficult they would be. I was actually told by an academic advisor once to “maybe take some easier courses to balance everything out,” but I couldn’t wait to take some of my classes. I wanted to take them now!
And I’m glad I did. Those cells courses prepared me for working with cells, and seeing how slides look under a microscope. I learnt about how they process different bodily molecules, especially in infection. I learnt about philosophy, and Utilitarian versus Kantian ethics in terms of medical choices. I learnt about how the media portrays environmental issues and how to decipher truth in the media. I learnt how to properly present myself and my research, and built up my confidence as a public speaker. I learnt so much from all of my favourite courses. Lots of my courses even helped me out with the thesis course I took, that was not mandatory for my degree.
I remember going up to the one professor who’d taught a cell course that I loved, and he was the only prof I sat down with to talk to about supervising my thesis. He asked why I wanted to do a thesis, and I replied: “I want to dip my toes into research, see what it’s like, see if it’s right for me.” We talked about the topic he had in mind, then much different than it would eventually turn out to be. We were going to clone something, which sounded awesome, but also a bit intense for a thesis that I just wanted to try out. Eventually, it turned into something a bit less complicated, but equally as labour-intensive.
Regardless, I still learnt everything I could have ever wanted to know about research and lab work, and what it would be like to do a Master’s project. What I often tell family members about my experience with a thesis, is that I learnt that I love the lab work, but not the research part of it. That’s not to say I hated the research part, but I could see myself being perpetually frustrated with research. It’s a lot of guess-work and preliminary experiments and optimization before you get to your conclusions. It didn’t help that I knew what I was expecting with the results, so I wasn’t as unbiased in my research as I wish I could have been. It’s also based on funding and the expected results. I was told that my project wouldn’t have existed if my supervisor didn’t think it would work out.
Other things I learnt from my thesis were how to take care of cells, how to plate and passage cells, how annoying working with cells could be, how frustrating and sad it would be to lose a plate of cells after weeks of growing them. I learnt how contamination works. 3 times. I also learnt how to use a plate reader, and how to complete very basic flow cytometry. I made many gels for protein separation, and learnt how to purify a toxin (STb, from E. coli).
I learnt that while I hate printing too many things and wasting paper, I have to print journal articles. For whatever reason, I couldn’t read and understand an article online, on a computer screen, it had to be printed. I also like highlighting.
To say the least, I didn’t take the easy path to graduation. I took courses that would help me figure out my life. I took a lot of courses for fun that turned into my favourite courses, I took a lot of courses that sounded great but turned out to be horrible. Either way, I took courses that made me happy. And that is what I learnt, to take the courses I would love. I can’t imagine having taken lame, boring courses, trying to study for those courses, and not having taken the courses I loved, just to get a better grade. I am very proud of myself for that, and also of my grades, which held up against the torment of difficult, unbalanced schedules. Proudly, I can say I graduated with honours. I “blame” my favourite courses for that. ☺ I know if I hadn’t taken those courses that I wouldn’t be as satisfied with my degree as I am right now.
Take the interesting course, easy or not!
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To summarize: Do what you love, love what you do.
Eventually, you’ll figure out what it is that you love. Trying new things will help you figure that out. If you’re like me and you hopped into school with an idea of your future, don’t be afraid when that idea suddenly becomes a distant memory. Take courses, or even more broadly thinking, do things that will make you happy. Don’t just do things to get ahead, or because someone told you it was easy… do things because you know you’ll love it, and if not love it, learn from it.
In the meantime, good luck to those who are deciding what to do after high school, university, college… take your time with your decisions, think about it, and follow your gut. Good luck! ♥
Again, this post is only the tip of the iceberg on my thoughts and experiences from university. I’ve got a few more posts to come: dealing with general tips about academic things, personal struggles during the school year, and a couple others, as well. Stay tuned!