STEM in a University Setting

Science in high school can tend to get a bit dry at times, since most of what is learned is just from the textbook. Science in college is very different since you have opportunities to directly apply what you learn. This is usually in the form of research experience in laboratory settings. Professors also are usually researchers themselves and often teach classes by incorporating tidbits from their own research. Depending on the university you attend, Nobel Prize winners may also teach classes!

A little about me… My name is Kavya and I am a third year undergraduate at the University of California, Davis majoring in pharmaceutical chemistry. I am particularly passionate about organic chemistry and helping STEM students transition between high school and college.

During the beginning of my sophomore year, I got involved with research in an analytical chemistry lab. Analytical chemistry involves the use of NMR, or Mass spectroscopic techniques, to determine molecular structure and composition. In my lab, we use these techniques to differentiate between the structure of N-Glycans (carbohydrates) on the surface of a normal animal cell and those on the surface of cancer cells. Initially when I joined the lab, I did not understand much since I barely learned any of these topics in my classes. However, during the latter half of my sophomore year and my junior year, I learned more about certain topics in classes and slowly began understanding more in the lab. Lab was a direct application of what I was learning. This application also helped me refine my concepts and understand them better.

How do you get involved in a research lab?

You can get involved in a lab during your first, second or third years of college. The best approach would be to contact a professor you took a class with and ask them to talk about their research. This will give you a good idea about whether you want to be a part of their lab or not. Sometimes professors will not accept you into their lab right away even if you are interested. When this happens, keep in touch with them and eventually they will let you join. If not, there are hundreds of professors on campus who will be willing to take you in. And no, you do not need any previous experience to join a research lab! All professors expect of you is to show interest and commit a certain number of hours each week. 

How to succeed in STEM classes

STEM classes in college will demand an immense amount of work from you. The best way to succeed in these classes is to study on a daily basis (in a worst case scenario, on a weekly basis) and attend professor or teaching assistant (TA) office hours. Whether you have questions or not, it is always helpful to attend office hours and listen to other people’s questions. I have noticed that whenever I go to office hours, I do significantly better in a STEM class.

On Campus resources for STEM college students

  • University Tutoring programs:
    • Most universities have free peer tutoring programs. This is where an undergraduate who already took the class holds office hours and you can ask them questions/ doubts about various topics covered in the class. This is a good option if you want to know what a professor’s tests are like or want to know how to do well in a specific class.
    • Sometimes there is also free tutoring available in the dorms or in specific tutoring centers on campus on certain days of the week for subjects like writing, math, general chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, etc. Subjects offered could vary depending on the university. Useful for understanding concepts better or clarifying homework questions. 
  • Private tutoring:
    • Graduate students (sometimes undergrads too) offer tutoring services for a certain fee. This is a good option if you are really struggling in a subject. Most people use this resource for difficult subjects like organic chemistry. 

STEM in college will get very stressful at times. However, it is crucial not to let your classes get the better of you. Taking care of your mental and physical health should be your first priority.

Good luck transitioning to college!

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