Busting the myths: let’s talk STEM
As I have mentioned in some of my previous blogs, I think it is absolutely essential to speak to university students and academics at open days and read prospectuses and material online to acquaint yourself with the different degrees out there on offer. So, in this blog, I reached out to people studying STEM subjects and requested for a few words on what they actually study. The paragraph on chemistry is written by the same old me but this time we have other contributors (and lots of them). Oh this blog is going to get really exciting (and really long)…
I met Nisreen before coming to university through the Social Mobility Foundation events. Here is what third year biochemistry student Nisreen has to say about her degree:
“When asked to describe my Biochemistry degree, people often find it hard to differentiate it from the other Life Sciences. I have found it has a wider scope than Biomedical Sciences, as we cover more than just human disease. Like my high school self, you may think plants and bacteria are dull topics, but I have come to see how incredibly important they are in the battle against the food shortage and the search for sustainable materials/energy sources. It delves deeper into the detail than Biological Sciences, as we often study right down into the molecular mechanisms behind the overall function of enzymes due to our additional understanding of Organic Chemistry.
Through all the different optional modules we have chosen, I have really come to notice that all my peers are ending the same course with such different areas of knowledge and specialties, which have been tailored to their individual interests. However, at the same time we have all been equipped with the basic understanding of biology that enables us to learn about new areas of biology super quickly!”
I met Marta through The Boar as she is the former editor of SciTech. Here is what third year biomedical sciences student Marta has to say:
“While I absolutely love my degree, I don’t particularly love the assumptions people make about me based on it. Biomedical Science encompasses everything from microbiology and virology, to anatomy and neuroscience. What it doesn’t do, to the disappointment of a lot of my friends, is make me a doctor. While I understand why on the face of it I look like a good person to ask all of your health-related queries, I can’t diagnose your obscure ailments, as much as I’d like to. A lot of people do assume that my degree is basically the same as medicine, whereas in reality it’s a wonderful mix of medicine and biochemistry, without all the plant biology. Many of my friends think that all I do is learn about each bone and organ of the body, and the reality is often far from it. Instead of learning the difference between the tibia and fibula, I’m more likely trying to get my head around the complex signalling pathways behind the secretion of insulin, or how malaria evades the immune response.”
In chemistry at university, at a fundamental level, I think the entire concept of electrons has changed (after studying quantum mechanics and molecular orbitals in first year). More broadly speaking, everything has gone radically deep. Every single topic you study at A levels is relevant – except there is just a lot more to it.
Often I find that people imagine us either mixing things leading to dramatic reactions in the lab or limited to drug-makers. Lab experiments are not always as dramatic as imagined (although sometimes they can be) and my degree is a lot more than just drugs. Chemistry at its core, I find, is about studying the interaction of matter in this universe and this applies to everything. We study topics ranging from drug binding and function inside the body to fertilisers to improve food productivity, polymeric structures for food and healthcare products, the next generation batteries and fuel cells to making new materials, you name it.
Alicia is a third year computer science student I lived with in my first and second year and she always has a lot of energy. I blame the codes. Here’s what Alicia has to say about her degree:
“Computer Science is about problem solving, using good mathematical knowledge and computers to solve problems faster. A strong mathematical understanding and a love of problem solving is often valued over knowledge of programming languages. CS is much more about how you use programming languages than how many you know.
Another important aspect of CS is great communication. There is a need to be able to clearly convey your ideas and understand the needs of others well. This is true of group work with colleagues; work for a client; and for writing comprehensible documentation for anyone who may read your code later (including yourself).
With CS being rapidly introduced into many fields, you may find you can link up many of your interests through studying computer science or some of its modules!”
Nikhita is a second year engineering student my flatmate put me in touch with. This is what she has to say about her degree:
“Engineering is about innovation.
In order to successfully innovate, the science subjects – predominantly physics – must be utilised in a creative manner to conceptualise new technology as well as improve current products, whether that be via the chosen manufacturing method or improvement of product design by material selection or the like. A basic understanding of economic structures and the consumer’s needs are quintessential notions that should be considered during the design process so that products can realistically be implemented for the betterment of society.
Engineers are responsible for the design and construction of all structures and systems imaginable, hence there is a vast range of engineering disciplines available for study at degree. Creations, from buildings to robots to drainage systems, would not be conceivable with the knowledge obtained from just the education received off one discipline; teams usually incorporate the skills of engineers in most disciplines. This is the reason a small group of universities choose to educate their students in all the streams before selection. Whilst mastery of all the separate disciplines is, arguably, unfeasible, an appreciation for all backgrounds allows a greater understanding of all the aspects required in the assembly of products, and the skills available within a team composed of engineers from different backgrounds.”
My flatmate Ciaran (second year maths student) and I often end up having our own little Mock the Week in the kitchen and thanks to him I know about the wonders of the golden ratio now, and also tea. Oh the tea. Here is what he has to say about his degree:
“Maths. It’s all just numbers right? All we do is sit around and punch in numbers on our calculators all day, or so most people like to think. The study of mathematics is so much more than just plotting graphs and rearranging formulae; at its heart, mathematics is the study of patterns, whether it be finding or explaining them.
The biggest difference between mathematics at university and that studied at schools is proofs; before university, we simply learn how to carry out different procedures, and are told that this is just ‘the way it’s done.’ First year especially taught me the beauty and necessity of rigorous proofs, which are often much more complicated and technical than their respective result.
It can also get very philosophical; the most notable example of this is the discussion of where maths came from: Did we create maths, or discover it? The example I discussed with Manpreet was the golden ratio (to give some context, this is an irrational number): there are countless examples of the golden ratio showing up in nature (the one that comes to mind is the patterns on pinecones). This number has also been shown to be very important in the study of pure maths too. The way I see it is mathematics is the foundation of the modern world (and to some extent, the ancient world). Many current world issues are based on, or rely on many different complex mathematical models in some way: the development of technology, the rise and fall of our economies, the security of our internet, the rate of deforestation, climate change (which just for the record, is very much real), the exploration of our solar system (and the universe), to name just a few.”
Kate is a third year physics student my flatmate put me in touch with. Here is what she has to say about her degree:
“In GCSE and A levels, things are pretty over-simplified. You’ll wonder why things happen the way they do. At University, you will get the answers! Apart from the questions even the lecturers can’t answer – what is dark matter, for instance. And then there’s the things you’ve been flat out lied to about (brace yourself, electronic charge is NOT constant, and I only found that out this year)! If you like Maths A level, you will love physics at university; most equations you use will be derived in excruciating detail. Walking out of lectures having no clue what just happened is pretty normal. You’re given a lot more freedom at university and you have to make sure you use your free time to understand what you’ve covered.
The great thing about physics is learning the basics in the first couple of years allows you to really find what you enjoy and then begin to specialise, choosing modules you know you will love. Even then, specialising doesn’t restrict you. You get such a wide range of transferable skills that physicists are employed in nearly ever career sector. Finance, law, engineering, research, industry. There’s no limit to what you can do.”