College Advice from a Hopkins Neuroscience Graduate

 

I was a neuroscience major at Johns Hopkins University and although challenging and stressful at times, it was an incredibly enriching experience that continues to help with my career though I strayed the typical pre-med route to become a Registered Dietitian. I recently had the opportunity to speak at the Nu Rho Psi (National Honor Society in Neuroscience) Alumni Career Panel and coming back to this campus made me feel so inspired and filled with that same enthusiasm that carried me through the four years of undergrad. You can witness this enthusiasm whenever you ask any Hopkins neuroscience student what their most recent research project is on or what their favorite class is (mine was Psychopharmacology with Dr. Gorman!).

After graduating from Hopkins, I have lived in many places, attended different universities, and worked in diverse environments and I must say Hopkins students are incredibly unique. You really don’t find many smart, passionate people who go above and beyond just because they genuinely want to, and I think that’s what makes Hopkins what it is.

The questions the Nu Rho Psi students asked were so thought provoking that I had to take several days to think about my answers. There were some things I forgot to mention during the Q & A that I wanted to share in hopes that it will help someone in their future career or maybe even avoid the mistakes I made myself during undergrad.

Getting used to challenging coursework!

Sure, its acknowledged that college classes will inevitably be harder than high school classes. But Hopkins is its own thing – Hopkins does a great job upholding its reputation to be challenging and rigorous and is well known for its grade deflation. We used this as a badge of honor to describe the hardships of our college years and bond with other students. Like many others, I was someone who didn’t have to study very much during high school, so I wasn’t prepared for my Sophomore year when I took Organic Chemistry, Calculus 2 and Cellular Molecular Neuroscience (now called the Nervous System), three of my hardest classes, in the same semester. I wasn’t aware that I had to change my way of studying (i.e. procrastinating until days before to cram material). I still remember the first day when the Orgo professor said that one third of the class would fail. I didn’t believe that I would be one of them!

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It’s often assumed that succeeding academically is a matter of intrinsic intelligence or the amount that you push yourself to the point of constantly pulling all nighters. That’s not the case. It is usually due to conquering the unknown challenges that hinder new students including the decreased class times, different class structure and learning how to study by learning concepts rather than route memorization of the material. So, if you find yourself struggling in these class it could very likely be the way that you study or that you’re not used to the new structure of class. It’s not that you are not intelligent or can’t handle the material. Learning how to study is a skill that requires time to practice and learn how to do it properly.

Looking back now, I realize that I should have thought about grades differently, enjoying the process of learning and achieving the grade instead of the grade itself. Having a clear vision of what you would like to do after undergrad will also help provide motivation for earning good grades. The motivation could be to become a physician and get into med school, or an internship or graduate school. Then learn to enjoy that process of studying and learning the material.

This is something I talk to with my patients if they come in wanting a certain blood glucose level or weight. I ask them what is driving their motivation. For most people, only having external motivators such as a family member or doctor’s recommendation is not enough to initiate a behavioral change. The patient had to realize why it’s important to them to achieve that, like wanting to be alive and active for their grandkids or feeling better. Once acknowledging their true motivations, my patients start enjoying the process by enjoying cooking, walking and feeling better and that’s what allows them to ultimately achieve their goals and make a lasting change.

What worked for me was to do more problem sets that would simulate what would be on the exam, not to read and memorize every word in the chapters. The professors at JHU will challenge your ability to apply the material and not merely memorize it. This helped me truly understand concepts and underlying disease mechanisms that I would have otherwise tried to get away with memorizing for the test and forgetting later.

Going to class and office hours helped too. I thought I didn’t have to go to some classes because I could just read the material at home. But, as we learned in our neuroscience courses, being exposed to the material multiple times in many ways helps to solidify the information.

Don’t take the amazing professors and classmates for granted!

Sometimes you don’t know what you have until its gone and that’s how I feel about the classes at Hopkins. Hopkins professors, especially neuroscience professors, were amazing! The professors at Hopkins are leading researchers in their field and like to use up to date material and discuss their own research in their classes to supplement the course material. Dr. Hattar’s circadian rhythm research and Dr. Hendry’s research in the visual system were often discussed in class and were a lot of fun to learn about. Their enthusiasm for their own research added to the classes was contagious and made the material interesting, applicable and engaging. Dr. Gorman taught psychopharmacology and used her lectures on addiction to educate the community on what happens in the addicted brain. These were some of the best classes I’ve ever taken and it’s because of the way the professors taught them. This contrasts with other universities where some teachers would continue to reuse the same slides from 6+ years ago, or simply read off a Powerpoint presentation.

You will also be studying with such intelligent students and although people say Hopkins students are cutthroat, that was not the experience I had. Others were very willing to study with you and go out of their way to help you and share notes. It was a fun collaborative environment. I recently read an article on cerebellum function that goes beyond motor coordination and I couldn’t have thought of anyone better to share it with other than my undergrad neuroscience peers who would have appreciated it!

Be realistic –  there is no need to overdo it

A breakthrough for me was when I found that I don’t need to stress myself out by taking the most challenging course load ever and learned to be more realistic with what can be done. It’s hard to take a step back like that especially in this competitive and overly ambitious environment, being around others who are somehow able to do a million things without appearing burned out and view being overworked and not sleeping is a sign of success. You know what’s cool? Adequate sleep! Which turns out is good for our brains.. who knew?

Take care of your Health! – of course I must include this as an RD

Make it a priority to take care of your health including getting enough sleep, exercising and eating well. I thought I had a test taking anxiety but it turns out I was eating too much sugar and too little micronutrients, like magnesium, which play important roles in learning and memory.

Translational skills from being a Neuroscience Major

So, you learn neuroscience now, what is the point and will you ever use this material again? While it may not be directly used, there are many skills and concepts that can translate to anything you chose to do later. With this challenging course load and many other opportunities outside the class room, you will come out with valuable tools including a high quality education, sound work ethic and leadership skills. This will make you undoubtedly successful anywhere you want to go. For me, I believe it prepared me for graduate school and made it a lot easier. Later on in my career, it truly helped with keeping up with current research and being able to digest difficult concepts to explain to others.

My research during undergrad was in neurodegenerative disease, which is something I still study today but in a different capacity. I was a undergraduate research intern at an Alzheimer’s Disease lab that focused on generating an antibiotic for amyloid beta plaques, which ended up failing its clinical trial. Acknowledging this helps to highlight the importance of preventative care in chronic diseases. My current project now is on nutritional therapies for AD that target brain metabolic dysfunction and mitochondrial dysfunction. Learning about chronic diseases like AD and understanding the link between environmental factors like nutrition on health is what got me interested in becoming a dietitian. Because of my background, I enjoy learning the intersection between health and nutrition in the brain.

Learn outside the classroom

While your coursework here is clearly important, an essential part of the college experience is what you learn outside of the classroom. One of the best things about JHU is how easy it is to get involved in anything you want to do on campus and in the community. The campus is small enough that you can take up leadership roles and large enough to have a wide range of activities. I think most of you know this and I honestly didn’t meet anyone at Hopkins who didn’t have a million other extracurricular activities but try everything! In addition to Nu Rho Psi, I was in ROTC, a sorority, volunteered as a mentor, volunteered at nursing homes, went to lacrosse games, studied abroad and attended various events on campus. Being a college student, you will learn to find balance and take on an array of roles.

Putting too much pressure on yourself to succeed academically may take away some of the time spent on non-classroom related experiences. My non-classroom experiences are what shaped me and sparked my interest in my career now. As a mentor in the inner city I observed actual hardships in the inner city related to access to food, stressful environment, and untreated preventable chronic diseases. Being a mentor at the Juvenile Justice Center opened my eyes to understanding other experiences as I saw some of my students had suffered in ways that were foreign to me.

There are a ton of opportunities for internships, research, and it’s relatively easy to get a research position at the undergraduate campus, the public health campus, or the medical campus. Oh, and if you can, request to contribute to writing a research paper. That would give you great experience!

Try everything – especially things you think you’ll fail

One mistake I made was I often sold myself short, wrongly thinking I wasn’t capable of doing certain things. Or not going for challenging things as I was afraid of rejection or failing. I realize now that I should have just gone for it! Getting rejected is a good thing because it means you are pushing yourself and you will learn how to become more resilient.

I think its better to go after what you are afraid of. For me, that was public speaking. It was only after college that I started putting myself in scenarios that I would have to speak in front of groups of people because I realized that it is a required skill for almost every career. This is what got me to leading boot camp classes, teaching nutrition in classrooms and nowadays I don’t shy away from opportunities like even doing an interview on TV, teaching an undergrad nutrition lecture or doing a presentation. I found that the previous nervousness was just excitement and though I still get nervous when I’m speaking extemporaneously, I learned that with practice I started to truly enjoy it. But I never would have learned that had I not tried!

Spend more time with friends

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If I were to do this all over again, I would spend more time with friends and stress out less as the four years goes by so fast. Some of my best friends now were from my undergraduate days. It’s a great time to bond over studying all time, not having AC in the AMRs, eat fried oreos at the Spring Fair, and having adventures in Baltimore. Campus is gorgeous and very convenient to get around since everything is about a 15 min walk or less away. My favorite place on campus to study was The Hut and when it got warmer, the beach! The Den and CVP were fun local hangout places though that has probably changed over the past almost 10 years. We often took the free shuttle to Hampden and venture out to other neighborhoods like Mt. Vernon and Fell’s Point. Occasionally maybe to Towson Town Center but it was soo far.

Hopkins campus is full of people who have diverse backgrounds and are passionate with unique talents and intellect. Making friends with people who have radically different opinions and backgrounds than yourself will be a valuable experience in many ways. You’ll gain a whole new perspective and expose yourself to different values. And if you set out with a notion that you can learn something with everyone, that will help you to expand your mind.

Applying to jobs and grad school

Grades are important but are only ONE factor. Other things that are often more important than grades are a clear vision of what you want to do in the future and the ability to explain that clearly, professionalism, passion for the field, and volunteer/work experience. I had bad grades as an undergrad yet got into my top choices for master’s programs. I think what set me apart were my work experience during my gap years as a nutrition intern and that my passion for the field clearly showed. Like many others, I was in a rush to move on to the next part of my life right away and really, it’s not a race to find your dream career. Two or three extra years is nothing in the span of the lifetime! I maybe was discouraged since all my peers were in their master’s program or med school right away but in the end, it turned out even better as I used my gap years to figure out what I wanted to do.

Finding your calling

In Angela Duckworth’s book Grit, she describes the difference between a job, a career and a calling. An analogy she used is a person who is a bricklayer. The bricklayer can view what they do as a job, a career or a calling based on their perspective.

Job: “I’m laying bricks”

Career: “I’m building a church”

Calling: “I’m building a house of God”

Each answer is correct, but the perspective is different. A job is a means to an end and is a simple exchange of input (labor) for output (money). If you view your work as a job, then you won’t feel compelled to perform the best you can as you don’t see yourself in it forever. A career is an upward progression. You understand that where you are now is crucial to get to where you want to be next. A calling is a greater sense of fulfillment and purpose and is something that you love to do and you probably would do it even if you weren’t getting paid as you know you are positively impacting others. In order to be fulfilled at work, you must use your strengths and do something you won’t get bored learning about and have a greater impact beyond just yourself.

It’s important to pursue a path not because you think you should, your parents told you to, or because you always told yourself you would, but because you’re happy doing it. See if you feel inspired about your education and enjoy studying it and not doing it out of obligation.

There comes a time in all premeds lives when we might find ourselves at the crossroads: do I stick it out or do I pursue a different path? My story is probably same as many others when I say that I was pushed into the pre-med track because of my parents urging and I thought that was the only career available to me worthy of esteem. However, when I shadowed doctors in my junior year, I realized it was not for me and that I would much rather be on the preventative side of health care as I started enjoying coursework related to public health and biochemistry. Though difficult to do and despite being called a slacker, I dropped the pre-med track and years later I found my new career in dietetics. It wasn’t because I wasn’t smart or hardworking enough to stick out that competitive premed path, it was because I was meant to do something else that better suited my strengths and interests!

In the end, do what makes you happy if its premed or something else. Despite what others may think, its ok to go to Hopkins and not be pre-med.

Being a Neuroscience major from Hopkins, you will be equipped to face challenges in whatever you choose to do – remember you got through The Nervous System and Orgo while being exposed to rough neighborhoods in Baltimore after all!

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Resources:

Career Center

Writing Center

Career/writing books I liked:

Grit by Angela Duckworth

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