Deciding what to study at undergraduate level

by tomme1 min read14th Mar 201214 comments


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I'm a high school senior from Europe and in a few months I'll be heading to university.

I have a keen interest in the human body. As such, I would like to work in emerging interdisciplinary fields, such as stem cell transplantation and suspended animation.

I could go on to study, say, Biomedical Science, but I'm also fascinated with Engineering. That is, I think that my aspirations, which are to improve human condition, could be well served from an Engineering standpoint.

What do you think? Would my interest in the human body and its applications be better suited for Engineering or for Biomedical Science? How should I decide what to study?

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I'll second the recommendation for bioengineering, that's exactly the field you're describing.

However, you might find at the undergraduate level that you'd be better off studying something that will get you a very solid foundation in mathematics and computer programming, which are the languages bioengineering uses to represent and model the behavior of biological systems.

Being an interdisciplinary field, it's critical to balance your time spent learning the various sciences to become an effective bioengineer. You need to have an understanding of very different areas of science such as cell biology and fluid mechanics, so you can integrate these ideas together in your research.

In my experience, students with a background in physics, mathematics, or chemistry actually do better in graduate level bioengineering courses than students whom studied bioengineering or life sciences as undergrads. The formerer were learning to solve complex problems and represent phenomena with mathematics while the bioengineers were memorizing facts and nomenclature in biology classes. Memorizing biological facts is much easier to pick up on your own when you need it, whereas math proficiency is a skill that must be developed over years of practice.

Many prominent professors of bioengineering actually have their degrees in the physical sciences, and taught themselves the relevant biology.

The most important advice I can give is to start doing research in your field of interest NOW. Even in high school, you can volunteer to work in a professors lab. Performing research is where the real education occurs, not in the classroom.

[-][anonymous]5y 0

I feel like choosing employment by industry or field of interest is silly. I thought clinical coding would be a good career because I'm interested in encylopediac knowledge of medical stuff. Beware a career in clinical coding if you are interested in medical taxonomy academically. Clinical coding gets low pay, repetitive, automatable and ut's a skill specific to hospitals so that limits your employment field.

Bioengineering looks like the right choice but, unfortunately, my only available options are either General Engineering or Biomedical Science. To illustrate how these courses are organized at undergraduate level, see this for Biomedical Science and this for General Engineering.

I guess I should go with General Engineering.

In my experience, students with a background in physics, mathematics, or chemistry actually do better in graduate level bioengineering courses than students whom studied bioengineering or life sciences as undergrads.

I think this should be emphasized. I did physics before electrical engineering in grad school and they were taught much differently.

My physics classes (and background math) taught how to figure out how to solve problems, while the engineering classes only taught specific algorithms for solving specific problems. My physics classmates ended up doing all sorts of different things because the knowledge generalizes pretty well. My EE classmates all seemed to be cargo cult engineering, and even a lot of the professors didn't seem to know that there is a difference.

The general engineering looks best to me also because you can work on your own project, so you can choose one in your specific area of interest.

See if you you can talk the advisors into letting you custom tailor it to bioengineering by replacing some of the class requirements with biochemistry courses.

I'd go with Biomedical Science. If you plan to study those kind of subjects at graduate level, you need a lot of experience in the lab as an undergrad. You're going to need to do a summer internship in a lab and a lab-based final year project if you're going to have any chance of getting into a PhD programme when you graduate. If I were you I'd email the types of graduate department you'd be hoping to join after your undergrad studies and ask them what they look for. I think you'll find that practical experience is very high on their list. It's not too early to start thinking about where you can get that kind of experience either. It's a highly competitive field and the more proactive you are the better your chances.

There's a field called bioengineering.

I don't know all that much about biology / subsets, but some general academic advice: it's always easier to roll down than climb up. Find what you think is the most challenging approach to where you want to go, and start there.

Bummer your U. doesn't have an explicit bioengineering. As an undergrad though you should be fine. The basics of engineering and biomed are pretty set especially for the first two years. Try to get these, concurrently start learning about what bioengineers do. In the best case, get summer jobs either with profs doing bioengineering research (doesn't have to be at your U. but that is easiest if it exists) or even better with companies. This will inform your education goals and you can even quiz the people involved on the topic.

You should also take up a team sport. If you are intelligent there is a high likelihood that in a few years time you will be applying to Investment Banks, Management Consultancies, etc., and nothing (other than a high status university & good people skills) will help you more.

Tissue engineering is another cool field - that's making and developing scaffold tech for growing replacement (or presumedly novel) organs and limbs, s'far as I know.

Don't make a definite decision until you have to. Most universities don't make you have to decide on a major until sophomore or junior year. Use your first year as an opportunity to take classes in different areas that seem interesting. After you've done that, you'll have a much better idea deciding what to major in.

This is true in the US, but not in the UK - pretty much everyone in the UK has to pick their major over a year before they start university. I'm not sure if the situation is the same on the continent.

If you can pick and choose, I think the best advice is: Statistics! There's nothing I regret not learning more.

I second the recommendation for statistics I made a post about it earlier

You might also want to check out the "LessWrong for Highschoolers" post (and facebook group), "LessWrong mentoring network", and all the other dozens and dozens of post that have asked for advice on what to study.