In popular culture, we are familiar with the physical scientist as a mad scientist-like figure writing complex equations on a window or hunching over a table with beakers and test tubes. The major similarity between what we see in film and real life is that students majoring in physical sciences have the opportunity to change the world; well at least how we understand its physical structure. This month, we spoke to Isabel Bogacz from Tilton, NH who is one of these students changing the world through science. Isabel graduated with her bachelor’s degree from St. Lawrence University in 2017 and is now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California Berkeley in Physical Chemistry. Here is Isabel’s advice for women in science, students interested in the physical sciences, and words of wisdom for students beginning the college search process:
The Center for College Planning: What is the most exciting aspect of learning about physical sciences?
Isabel Bogacz: When I first began college I thought I wanted to major in Biology, as I really enjoyed that in high school. However, when I started classes at St. Lawrence University I really fell in love with chemistry and physics. Problems in chemistry always felt like a puzzle to me. Each class I take I learn some more tools to help me solve bigger and more complex problems. I loved that throughout college each class I took built on the one before.
CCP: What can students expect from coursework in the physical sciences?
IB: Coursework in physical sciences is intensive and broad. Typically, a significant amount of math courses is required. Even courses that aren’t based in a mathematics department will be mostly math based. Many higher-level classes require regular use of calculus, trig, and algebra. However, you don’t need to be a math genius to do well. Generally speaking, once you learn the necessary tools the harder part becomes the science behind the math. Math is more of a tool that helps you arrive at a certain answer, and typically the math used is pretty well defined. However, if you progress to a higher level there are many chances to integrate a love of math or computer science with physical science. Another side of learning in the physical sciences is a lot of lab courses. This is great for hands-on learners. These classes add a significant amount of hours to your class schedule but are typically where concepts are cemented.
CCP: What advice do you have for women interested in pursuing a degree and career in the physical sciences?
IB: It is extremely important that women pursue STEM degrees. The field is rapidly changing to become more inclusive but there is still a long way to go. We need more diversity in science not only with respect to gender, but race, socio-economic background, age, sexual orientation and more. It can sometimes be hard to be the only woman in on a project or in a class. However, good mentors and friends will help you through anything. There is no one piece of advice that I’d give to women interested in pursuing a degree and career in the physical sciences. It is important that you realize that your journey will be different than anyone else’s. It may be longer, shorter, harder or easier but that’s okay. I think it’s mostly important to remember that as long as you are doing your best that’s all you can control. Additionally, as I said above, find a mentor and things will be easier.
CCP: How important is research to an undergraduate student’s college experience?
IB: Research during undergraduate is the single most important part of your college experience. You can be an absolute perfect student with perfect grades and still be denied from graduate/professional programs for not having research experience. Of particular importance are summer research opportunities, most of which are fully funded and offer room and board. Even if you don’t have plans to get an advanced degree, undergraduate research is beneficial in many other ways. Research is a way to apply what you learn, develop problem solving skills, and learn how to ask important scientific questions. Research is how you take science out of the classroom and into the real world.
CCP: What skills, outside of academics (e.g. math and science) do students learn as a physical science major?
IB: Physical science degrees give you so much more than mastery of applied calculus or the periodic table. I think the most relevant is problem-solving skills. People often go on from degrees in STEM to fields like business, law, and consulting. This degree will teach you how to look at a variety of clues and draw conclusions. This may sound simple in theory but in practice it is often very, very hard. Other skills you’ll learn are time management, sorting through large amounts of info to find the important things, and critical thinking.
CCP: What advice do you have for high school students beginning the college search process?
IB: The most important suggestions I have for students looking at colleges is to follow your gut, look for scholarships, and find places where you get outside of the classroom opportunities. Classes are great and you’ll learn a lot, but finding a school where you’ll have the opportunity to work directly with experts in your field, and learn in a collaborative environment is the key to becoming the best scientist you can be.