Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Degree Dilemma: Astrophysics vs Molecular Medicine

I've spent the last few days thinking about what degree I want to come out with. 

I went into college thinking I wanted to study Physics because I loved it at school, but wasn't sure so I signed up for a general science course, TR071 Science at Trinity, and did the first year credits required for Physics (40 credits of Physics and Maths) plus 20 credits of Chemistry. 

There are 15 possible degrees from Science, plus possible transfers into the Nanoscience course if you do certain modules. The degrees, aka moderatorships, are: Biochemistry, Chemistry, Environmental Sciences, Genetics, Geography, Geology, Immunology, Microbiology, Molecular Medicine, Neuroscience, Physics, Physics & Astrophysics, Physiology, Plant Sciences and Zoology. 

Because I didn't study Biology, Geology or Geography in first year and the moderatorships have prerequisites in first and second year, I'm eligible for these moderatorships: 

  • Biochemistry
  • Chemistry
  • Immunology
  • Molecular Medicine
  • Neuroscience
  • Physics
  • Physics & Astrophysics
  • Physiology
I hate organic Chemistry and Anatomy, so Biochemistry, Chemistry, Neuroscience and Physiology are out, leaving us with:


  • Biochemistry
  • Chemistry
  • Immunology
  • Molecular Medicine
  • Neuroscience
  • Physics
  • Physics & Astrophysics
  • Physiology
Interestingly, my score in Physical Chemistry was 20 percentage points higher than my overall score for the year (my results came out a few days ago), but organic chemistry in college, unlike at Leaving Cert, is the spawn of the devil and I'm not subjecting myself to more of that. 

This year, I didn't like Mechanics or Electromagnetism and wasn't particularly fond of Quantum Physics or Waves either -- the only subjects I liked in Physics were Astronomy and Statistics. So let's take out Physics too. An unfortunate truth is that I studied far too little this year, not realising how much work college requires, so struggled with tutorials and exams etc -- so I don't know if the reason I found Physics difficult was because it's not for me or because I didn't study, or both. 

  • Biochemistry
  • Chemistry
  • Immunology
  • Molecular Medicine
  • Neuroscience
  • Physics
  • Physics & Astrophysics
  • Physiology
Okay so with all that negativity out of the way, I've narrowed it down to three moderatorships: Immunology, Molecular Medicine and Physics & Astrophysics. Let's put down some things I like/care about:
  • Research
  • Astronomy
  • Statistics
  • Programming
  • Medical diagnostics
  • Curing/treating diseases
  • Helping people
  • Antibiotic resistance
  • Vaccination
  • Understanding rather than memorizing
So they look fairly even from that. But there are some other factors: (a) how much of the degree is actually the thing I'm interested in? (b) what do I want to do after college? (c) How much do I care about the subject? 

For part (a), I analysed the modules and estimated how enjoyable they looked. A big worry is that I haven't studied Biology since Junior Cert aged 14, so I don't really know what it's like, but I've read as much as I can find about it, down to the content of individual lectures that are helpfully online. 

I've been really biased against biology for ages because it's a softer science, and because of this whole "have to do the hardest possible thing to show I can" thing, and also because there are so few women in physics I feel pressured to be in it. I'm not even saying molecular medicine would be easier, but that perception has caused a lot of bias against biology that I've absorbed. I also know I can much more easily pick up Biology than I can pick up Physics, and if I do Biology I'm unlikely to ever go and learn the complicated maths, and I'm kinda jealous of other people knowing it if I don't. 

I didn't do the analysis for immunology for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it has the same prerequisites as Molecular Medicine, so I don't have to decide on that until next year. Secondly, it doesn't look as interesting as MolMed -- it's much more about the immune system (duh) than about diseases, which is what I'm more interested in. So it's just between Physics & Astrophysics and Molecular Medicine.

So here's that. The colour code: brown means awful (like organic chemistry), pink means yuck, white means eh fine, blue means looks reasonably interesting/looks tough but cool, and green means awesome/excited to study it.

JF means Junior Freshman aka first year, SF means second year and so on, so SS is Senior Sophister or fourth year. S1 means semester one. Click the image to enlarge it. 



As you may be able to see from the chart, the Astrophysics degree is only actually about 30% Astrophysics through the whole degree -- I'd have to do a LOT of the Physics I don't like, because the degree is normal physics plus astrophysics. In second year, for example, I'd have to do 40 credits of physics and maths for the prerequisite and only about 3 credits of that is Astrophysics. 

As for part (b): the sad thing about astrophysics is that it's not an experimental science, so most of the work is either observation, spectroscopy, computer simulation or instrumentation. I'm also thinking about my research and how my two big ones were both health-related. And if I want to cure diseases or do something epidemiology-related, molecular medicine seems like a good bet. 

FInally, part (c): how much do I care about the subject? Well, like I said, I don't know what biology is like, and I still need to find out how much is memorization (hopefully not much as I hate memorization), and it bothers me that I'd end up with much weaker mathematical skills than my friends who do Physics, and I worry about doing a course with "molecular" in the title since I hate organic chemistry, but something I realised in the last few days is this.

I like astronomy, I think cosmology is cool, but thinking about fighting disease has made me realise what a calling is. Astro might be fun once I got past all the horrible maths, but working on things like my antibiotic resistance project and my medical diagnostics project makes me feel fulfilled, because it feels like I can help people and change the world that way. Molecular medicine is a weird degree, because a lot of it is about how you treat diseases, but it doesn't make you a doctor -- but it does seem like a great place to start for researching and curing disease. And even if I ended up hating a lot of the biology, at least I'd have that calling, the knowledge that I could help people, to pull me through. 

In the words of one of my best friends, Will (Leon has also been not-so-subtly pushing me towards biology having seen how my projects are based around it), "Elle, astrophysics wouldn't fulfil you as much as molecular medicine, I think. Molecular medicine allows you to work on something that can and will yield results. Astrophysics...you can observe, and maybe come up with a model of some sort. You are an absolute go-getter, and it's why I think mol-med would suit you better."

So I have a few choices. 

  • Commit to Physics with Astrophysics: do 40 credits of Physics and Maths in second year and use my remaining 20 credits to do the bits of Biology that look fun but don't get me the prerequisites for a Bio moderatorship
  • Hedge: do the 40 credits of Physics and Maths required for Physics, and the 20 credits required for Immunology/Molecular Medicine, which would involve doing all the Biology modules that look horrible plus a lot of horrible physics, but would keep all my options open and bring me back to this dilemma again next year. 
  • Commit to Biology: drop Physics, do the Bio prerequisites plus a bunch of bio modules that look really fun, like Infection, and Behaviour, and Microbiology, with three or four maths modules (say Fourier Analysis, Multivariable Calculus, Data Analysis) to fill out my credits since I don't want Organic Chemistry and Physics has too many coreqs to fit in with all that Bio. 
I haven't fully decided yet, but the whole calling thing is making me lean heavily towards Molecular Medicine, which would have shocked the me of a week ago. I have all summer to decide on my modules for next year, but I'd like to get it out of the way fast, so I'd love any advice you guys have. If you've done Bio or Physics in college or have any advice, hit me up on Twitter @frizzyroselle or by email at izzyroselle@gmail.com. 

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