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Dispelling the Biology Major Stereotype

Elaine Wan

MIT is known to many as a place where students are constantly hosed. The Class of 2001 brass rat has engraved above the motto “Mens et Manus” two men leaning on a fire hydrant in place of the usual podium. The reality is that MIT is more than constant work, technology and science. It is a place of true camaraderie.

It is not uncommon to find study groups in the Student Center from midnight until dawn, to find students taking notes together in class, or to make friends from different classes and get advice from upperclassmen. When it comes to getting good grades and learning their subjects well, students at MIT work together to get the most out of their education.

During one of my sessions heading the Big Sib/L’il Sib program sponsored by the Biology Undergraduate Student Association, I realized that, although camaraderie is present in most majors, it has been rumored to be dying, if not already extinct, among the biology undergraduates.

The Big Sib/L’il Sib program introduces lowerclassmen to upperclassmen. Freshmen and sophomores are paired to juniors and seniors so that the lowerclassmen will be able to learn the detailed process of applying to medical school or graduate school, career options after graduation, and the nooks and crannies of being a biology major at MIT.

As an icebreaker so that the 26 biology students could get to know each other better, I asked the freshmen and sophomores to comment on rumors they heard about being a biology major. Then, I asked the juniors and seniors to comment on experiences or classes that made them feel choosing biology was the right choice for them at MIT. Most of the lowerclassmen spoke of the tense competition among classmates and the stereotype that biology majors are “cut-throat,” “uptight,” “reluctant to share information,” and “reckless when it comes to grades.” Fortunately, the upperclassmen were there to bring the truth to light. Biology students have lives outside of the lab, and they are aware that extracurricular activities are just as important as academics.

Many students of other majors recognize that there is great competition among biology undergraduates to get good grades for medical and graduate school. Actually, competitiveness amongst pre-med students from all majors has contributed to a building stereotype that they are concerned just about grades.

But everyone on campus is concerned about grades. Freshmen need at least passing marks to get credit for their classes, and students intending to complete a Masters of Engineering program also need to keep up their grades. Biology undergraduates may be a bit more worried than other students, but they are by no means outcasts from MIT’s theme of camaraderie.

When I first started the Big Sib/L’il Sib program, I was surprised to see that many upperclassmen were enthusiastic to join the program and give advice to those planning to follow in their footsteps. At our first meeting, they talked about their UROPs, their favorite classes, and why they chose to study biology. They were definitely not the “cut-throat,” “reckless,” “self-centered” biology students that they were rumored to be.

MIT is prized not only for its extremely talented students but the team effort that these students utilize to reach new heights. Although this theme seems to disappear when we better ourselves individually and compete against our classmates, when it comes to working towards the same goals in the long run, MIT students stick together.