Put Your Med School Dreams On Pause: An Open Letter to Ryerson’s First Year Science Students

by Tara Upshaw, third year Biology student at Ryerson University

Firstly, welcome to Ryerson and the Faculty of Science! Ryerson is an incredible place to be getting your science education right now. Last year, the Department of Chemistry and Biology hosted its inaugural Research Leaders Challenge, which saw over 70 undergraduate students present proposals tackling real Canadian natural resources challenges to the Ontario Genomics Institute. The science was real. The competition was fierce. Dollars were won. It was truly great stuff.

In the spring of 2015, Ryerson became the first Canadian university to participate in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP), which enables students to compete for the opportunity to send a science experiment to the International Space Station (ISS)! In space! In microgravity! The winning experiment aims to turn mushrooms into a viable fresh food source for astronauts, and flies to the ISS in January 2016.

This is all great, and we have bigger, better things in the works for this year, but shameless departmental promotion is not entirely the reason I’m writing.

Here’s the deal:

A disproportionate number of you entering into biology-focused programs plan on becoming doctors, or some other type of professionalized scientist. These are incredible goals to have, but undergraduate science students with these kind of goals have particular difficultly envisioning their future if it doesn’t look like a Shonda Rhimes show.

Two lovers that don’t even exist in the multiverse.

If, as you read this, you are trying to suppress the knowledge that you don’t have a ‘Plan B’, read on. Even if you do have a ‘Plan B’, or if your heart is set on any post-undergrad path, just chill, and read this:

For the next two years at least, don’t allow yourself to worry about professional school or grad school, and what you have to do and the grades you need to get and the volunteer hours you need to put in to get there. Let it go. Put if out of your mind.

If you don’t do this, you have placed an enormous amount of pressure on yourself. You are facing a huge transition from high school, and not too much can prepare you for everything you have to learn to balance as a science student. You are about to encounter a host of new experiences and individuals with foreign perspectives and values; your preconceptions on social norms, gender or sexuality may slightly shift, or be completely upturned! Your experiences in university will coincide with the transformation of you from a kid designed by your past to a whole, adult person navigating their future. It’s a lot to deal with.

Every Ryerson community member would be delighted for you if you were accepted into your dream program after graduation, be it medicine, dentistry, a Master’s or an MBA program; but ultimately, what we want for you is to graduate from the Faculty of Science a more confident and socially engaged person than you were when you started here, enabled and fully capable of using your scientific talents to create waves of positive change in the world. It’s taken me four years and numerous flip-flops between career paths to realize that this is the ideal goal to have when you start in the sciences, because chasing it never leads you down an unsuccessful road.

So, I strongly encourage you to spend the next four years focused on becoming your own person and openly exploring possible careers for your unique talents as a science grad. If you’re not sure how to move forward, here are a few things to consider:

  • Ask for mentorship — from your professors, from older students, from your friends.
  • Look everywhere for friends, because the best ones show up unexpectedly.
  • Try new things. Go to the gym; work on your public speaking skills with Toastmasters; go to your professor’s office hours (the biggest fear for all First Years). The things that push your boundaries are what make you grow into someone capable of maneuvering challenges easily.
  • Get involved in research early. After first year, approach a professor and ask about volunteering in their lab over the summer; it’s the first step in figuring out what area of science you lean toward, and provides exposure to the crucial work done by scientists that drive professions like medicine or pharmacy.
  • Have fun; you are, in the opinion of many, going to school in the best city in Canada for young people. So, do all the dancing, sing all the karaoke, and eat all the food! You’re going to get a few good years where your body doesn’t violently punish you for enjoying your life. Embrace it.
  • Stay passionately nerdy; you chose science for a reason! Why? What motivated you? How does science enable you and how do you see it enabling others?
  • Don’t be afraid to break ground. The Faculty of Science at Ryerson is really young. Every cool thing that’s been done here was only an idea or less than that three years ago, from SSEP to Orientation. You are fully capable of shaping your experience here;

At his recent Columbia University commencement speech, Ben Horowitz said,

“…following your passion is a very me-centered view of the world. When you go through life, what you’ll find is what you take out of the world over time… is much less important than what you’ve put into the world… Find the thing that you’re great at, put that into the world, contribute to others, help the world be better…”

Science, and its many derivative fields, exists for the fundamental purpose of improving the human condition. You’re here, in science, because you like asking questions, understanding things, or being an expert. Spend the next four years figuring out which questions you’re good at asking, and make it matter.

The natural tendency of humans to ask questions is the basis for all accidental and methodical discovery, ever. That engine is still running, and the people with the questions keep it going (ie. the STEM folk). When you participate in science, you become part of a rigorous and systematic machine that has generated every biological, chemical, medical and technological advance, since time. Every piece of knowledge generated by this machine is at your disposal while you’re in university (i.e. Web of Science). It’s an incredibly exclusive opportunity. So, of the advice I have to offer, this is the most important bit: stay curious, and make it matter.

Good luck, and welcome to the Faculty of Science!

Tara Upshaw is a third year Biology student at Ryerson University. She’s still navigating her career path, but is now pretty sure she needs to somehow marry human and animal medicine using science! When she’s not focused on school, she’s advocating for women in and outside of STEM and balancing a quintessential mix of hobbies that span half-marathon running to training therapy cats. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @tupsheezy.