Narrowing Your Interests in College

I came into Rice with a certain mindset and I know for sure I am leaving with a different mindset, both academically and personally. I came in wanting to major in Biochemistry, make a career out of science and medicine, and conduct biological research. Now as a junior in college, my intended pathway in life is different. I am majoring in Cognitive Sciences with a minor in Neuroscience and Medical Humanities, conducting qualitative bioethics research, and starting a 4+1 MPH program during my senior year into the next year after I graduate from Rice.

How did I change pathways over these past couple of years? I think the key is to be open-minded. I’ve talked about this before in one of my blog posts, but I cannot emphasize how important it is to explore your options. There is no better time than college to do that, and I guarantee you that it will be worthwhile.

I ended up choosing to major in Cognitive Sciences because it better reflected my love for Neuroscience. My transition began when I started taking more social science classes for my major. I became super interested in all of the interdisciplinary subjects. I remember thinking how intriguing the experiments my professors mentioned in class were and how worthwhile it would be if I conducted that kind of research (Rice certainly offered me those kinds of opportunities). Studying the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences all at once led me to apply for a qualitative research program at Rice during my sophomore year.

At the same time, I became super interested in public health and policy studies after participating in an education policy Alternative Spring Break and looking at the new medical humanities classes being offered at Rice. By then I had realized that studying STEM in college was not for me. I didn’t want to take classes with so many numbers and facts, but rather those where I could discuss ideas with my peers and do more direct work with advocacy.

The summer before my junior year I spent 2 months in Cape Town conducting a public health project. That experience led me to apply for and get into the 4+1 Rice-UT Houston Public Health Scholars Program, where you get your Masters in Public Health from Rice by taking graduate classes during your senior year and the year after you graduate.

I should also note that throughout college I had been grappling with whether or not I wanted to pursue medicine. Junior year, I started taking those medical humanities classes, including Medical Professionalism and Intro to Medical Humanities. Those classes covered some of the most interesting and thought-provoking topics in my college career. Now, I can safely say that I want to become a physician after I get my MPH.

I know that my transition isn’t necessarily the most life-changing. But my pathway wasn’t straightforward, and yours shouldn’t be either. I came in thinking that college is just a linear trail you take, pushing requirements out of the way and planning what you have to get done every year. Deciding what you want to do with the rest of your life takes time and effort, and you have to be willing to put in that time and effort to get the most out of college. During my time at Rice and the wonderful opportunities I’ve been offered along the way, I narrowed my interests into what I truly want to do. And who knows— maybe by my senior year of college I’ll discover more passions in my life.

Looking Through A Different Lens

“You know you are more than welcome to come back and shadow anytime. You could even work here over the summer,” Dr. Hopping told me as I walked into the optometry office one Thursday morning.

It was spring break, and I had chosen to spend my time doing an externship in Houston. Through the Owl Edge Externship program pioneered by the Center for Career Development at Rice, I was assigned to a 4-day shadowing externship with optometrist Dr. Desiree Hopping (Rice class of 1976) at her private practice Hopping Eye Associates. I knew nothing about optometry nor had the specialization held any particular interest to me, but I wanted to explore my options.

I arrived at the office on my first day, and Dr. Hopping welcomed me with open arms. She introduced me to the other optometrists in the group practice: her husband, her son, and two other optometrists. As I followed her around for the day, watching eye exams and listening closely to her explanations for her actions, I took great interest in her personality and interaction with her patients. Most of her patients had been visiting Hopping Eye Associates for decades. There was never any need to go to another optometrist. Dr. Hopping was personable, curious about the well-being of each of her patients. She was also a great optometrist, skillful and smart in her diagnoses. I watched many eye exams over the next four days, learning more about eye conditions and how to detect them with eye imaging, the academic course to becoming an optometrist, and the different kinds of cases you could deal with depending on your training. But most of all, I appreciated Dr. Hopping’s hospitality towards me during the week, bringing me to her house to eat lunch, telling me about her grandkids, taking me along to pick up some cupcakes, and inviting me back to shadow and work at Hopping Eye Associates any time.

At Rice, spring break is not the only time that you can go into the field like this. Right across the street in the Texas Medical Center, you can shadow and volunteer all throughout the year. In doing so, you not only gain insight into what goes on behind the scenes, but also get a feel for the clinic environment, learn about the kinds of people you’re caring for, and gain connections amongst many medical professionals – all things that you can’t access by simply going to class and burying your nose in textbooks. Rice fosters both sides of preparing you for the future, offering a top-tier education while making experience and opportunities to get into the field more than accessible.

Dr. Desiree Hopping and her partners in crime

Hopping Eye Associates had a huge office. Besides eight private exam rooms, they had a large vision therapy clinic and their own in-house optical (pictured). I had a lot of fun trying on glasses in my down time.

Research Says: Follow Your Heart

Whether you’re interested or not in research, there’s no doubt that Rice University offers innumerable opportunities to advance the sciences, arts, and humanities in innovative ways. Early on in my undergraduate career (and even now, if I’m being honest), I was an incredibly undecided student. I was undecided about my major, my long-term goals, and about my career options. I knew that I was fundamentally really fascinated by the human mind and helping others, but my knowledge about what I wanted to do with that pretty much ended there. To resolve this conflict, I did something a bit strange, considering I was a teenager at the time: I followed my parent’s advice.

Another busy day in LA

My mom and dad have always told me to follow my heart and to push hard for what I wanted. That philosophy is a large part of the reason that I ended up at Rice, so I thought it would be a pretty good place to start my journey as an undergraduate student. I began by purely taking classes that interested me – neuroscience, linguistics, and psychology – and I figured out early on that these topics were what got my heart beating (or brain racing, more appropriately). As these classes progressed and got harder, I was exposed to more and more research behind the theory, and started to think: why can’t I be the one conducting that research? This spurred a whole new series of events that led me into the world of social, clinical, and affective research, especially as it pertains to psychology. Although there was definitely a learning curve in the beginning, I’ve learned a lot and been exposed to a number of topics, opportunities, and brilliant people that I never would have interacted with had I not come to Rice. Not many universities allow their undergraduate student body to have an active, independent, and highly engaged experience with the research their faculty or collaborators are doing, but Rice believes that its student body is composed of some of the most intelligent and driven students around, so they encourage rather than dissuade. They lift up rather than put down.

Very scientific doggo in an fMRI machine

It’s this supportive attitude that I’ve readily felt all through my three years here at Rice and that I continue to feel as I engage in research around campus and the medical center. Even now, I sit writing this blog from a beautiful venue overlooking the University of California at Los Angeles, just having finished a conference in social and affective neuroscience with some of the best and brightest minds attending. I think that it is a huge testament to Rice’s belief in its students that a fellow lab member and I were only two of a handful of undergraduates in attendance. Rice funded our trip (and likely many others for similar students in widely different ventures) because they believe that their students are competitive and deserve the same opportunities as graduate students, post-doctoral students, and seasoned faculty and researchers. The only requirement is your passion, dedication, and love for what you do.

A Rice Owl meets a UCLA bear

While I’m saying this, I want to emphasize that I still identify as an undecided student. I may not even continue with research beyond my undergraduate years, even though it’s surely been a wild ride. The point is, I don’t have everything figured out (not by half!) and you don’t need to have everything figured out either – you don’t even need to have most of it figured out. You just have to follow your heart. I sincerely hope that your heart leads you to Rice.

How to Conquer Applications

In every application there is an opportunity to present yourself, and this should not be taken lightly. You will get to choose what activities are on your resume and which experiences have meant the most to you in an interview. This means that interviewers will judge you on what you present to them, so you should be thoughtful about which side you show them. It is by no means an easy process, because application season runs year-round, but it is not insurmountable. You will go into application season with a plan, and you will be relentless and you will get the job you want, deserve, and only ever dreamed of.

LinkedIn headshot ready to go!

When applying to the position you really want, do not hold back. Answer every optional question and contact 3 people aside from the interviewer and physically show up at the job site, because they need to see you. They need to see as much of your greatness as possible, so this is where you stand out. An application is not a one-minute process, an application is part of a picture, and you need to paint with a micro-paint brush to make sure they get the details of what you can bring to the position. Because you are going to apply for the top positions in the world, and you are good enough, and you need to be sure they see that by preparing with resume and interview help from the career center and cover letter reviews by your peer career advisors, and hype sessions with your roommate. It can take weeks to create a perfect application, but you will earn that job.

When applying to a position you don’t really want: Question why you are applying. If that time could be spent on applications for positions you want, you could be spending your time more wisely. “But there aren’t any more jobs I want;” you can get companies to make positions you want. “But I’m tired of applying;” are you more tired of not having a job? “But it would look good on my resume;” if you put an experience that you didn’t enjoy on your resume, you are more likely to get hired into positions you do not enjoy, and that is not a happy trajectory.

An accurate depiction of the number of drafts of your cover letter and resume.

When applying to the position you don’t think you can get: think again. You are an extremely qualified candidate, and even more so, you are humble. You have done incredible things just to attend this university much less what you have done once you arrived. You just need a night in or out with your friends to gain that self-confidence, because there is nothing you can’t achieve if you put your mind to it. Under no circumstances should you NOT apply. The only way to ensure you won’t get the job is by not applying, but your community of support here at Rice is ready to see what you can do.

Research at Rice

Coming into Rice, I definitely knew I wanted to do research here. I remember going to research panels as a “prospie” (prospective student) during Owl Days and hearing about all the wonderful opportunities and ways to start research here. Personally, I really wanted to work off-campus at the Texas Medical Center because I wanted to work in a clinical environment as a premed. I remember continuing to attend other research panels once I started going to Rice. These panels often advertised research opportunities or discussed ways to getting involved. There are emails that you can subscribe to that publicize research opportunities and other programs that you can apply to as well. I find that emailing the principal investigator (PI) of a lab you’re interested in is the most effective and worthwhile way to get involved in research. If the PI is interested in speaking with you, then you usually meet up at their lab and discuss the next steps.

This is how I found my first research opportunity. I worked at a lab in the Neurological Research Institute (NRI) at the medical center. I investigated the effects of certain gene splicing errors on the behavioral, physiological, and neurological components of fruit flies. My lab was another community I found at Rice, and I had my own project to work on independently on my own time. As much as I enjoyed the experience, I realized that this type of research was not for me. I wanted to do more social sciences research and not so much work in a wet lab environment.

Rice is right next to the medical center, which makes it super convenient for students who want to work there.

A year later, I had a new opportunity to be involved in the Health, Humanism, and Society Scholars Program at Rice’s School of Social Sciences. This program allows students to work on medical humanities research at Texas Medical Center schools. I am still involved in this research now and it has been one of the most interesting and unique experiences I’ve had thus far at Rice. I am studying the moral, ethical, and legal implications of genomics at the Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy. A lot of the work I do is on my computer, coding interviews, writing up literature reviews, and researching case studies. I don’t have to go to the medical center as often, which makes it much more convenient for me. As I’m moving forward with my research, I’m excited (but also a bit nervous!) to present at the Rice Undergraduate Research Symposium this coming April. Not only has this research made me learn new skills and turned me into a more inquisitive and analytical student, but I’ve also realized what my academic interest are. In addition to wanting to go to medical school one day, I also want to go to grad school to study public health.

A lot of people, like me, don’t always stay with the same lab during their four years here. Sometimes it can take a while to find a lab that suits your interests and schedule. Regardless of what kind of research you do, it is a time commitment and you will get the most out of the experience if you put enough effort into it. For example, if you do research for credit, you usually need to put in 9-10 hours a week (equivalent to a 3-credit class at rice). Students can also get paid for their research, which can be extremely rewarding.

Research isn’t for everyone, but if you are slightly interested, I encourage you to try it out. It’s also important to note that at Rice you can do research in all sorts of subjects (sociology, engineering, science, history, etc), so don’t be discouraged to get involved just because you don’t think your major suits it. Just because you’re in a certain major does not mean you can’t do research in another subject area. The kind of research you want to do is super flexible, so I encourage you to take advantage of that. Research has developed me into a more well-rounded and mature individual who is more prepared to take on the real world.

Academic Realizations and Reflections, Junior Year Edition

I am a Psychology and English double major, which means I get to read and write – a lot. On a daily basis, my backpack is full of thick reading packets, several novels, and a hefty textbook or two. To some, this may sound like a nightmare. For me, reading is what I’m all about.

Double majors are pretty common at Rice. But before I got here, I thought that I would solely focus on Psychology as an academic major. “College is hard, how could I handle not just one but two sets of requirements and workloads??” This was my mindset in high school. Since then, I have learned some very important lessons about academics. Though this all comes from my own personal experience, I want to share a few valuable realizations I’ve come to during my past two and a half years at Rice:

  1. If you love what you’re doing, you’re learning in more ways than one. You’re not just completing major requirements – each and every class can teach you something about your passions, how you communicate, your work ethic, and your capabilities. When you enjoy reading lengthy articles, conducting research, or finally completing a challenging problem set, you’re not just checking things off of a to-do list, or storing information in your mind for a midterm. You learn a thing or two about yourself when you realize what kind of information jumps out at you in articles, where you have to stop and scratch your head while you’re writing out a proof, or how you contribute to a group project.
  2. No major is better/easier/harder than the other. This becomes pretty obvious when you spend time with friends who are majoring in vastly different things. Your passions as well as your work habits may not line up with theirs – but you’re not the only one working hard. Media articles “ranking” majors according to intelligence, average income, and popularity do not reflect reality; majoring in something is a personal experience. No two Psychology majors are the same. That goes without saying, but it’s important to remind ourselves, and to respect others. Thankfully, Rice has so many incredible, different people doing incredible, different things. And that is by no means defined by how “good/hard/challenging” their majors are – those are value judgments we need to save for the media (if not altogether get rid of).
  3. Taking advantage of the endless opportunities that a university like Rice offers can make the biggest impact on your life. A single email recruiting job applicants, sent on the Social Sciences mailing list during my freshman year, changed my life. I applied to an English immersion summer camp abroad, where I discovered (or perhaps rediscovered, in my case) my passion for teaching and working with young kids. I have worked there for two summers now, and I cannot even begin to express my gratitude for the self-discovery and the friendships it has offered me. Although I am still a junior, I am now hoping to teach English at primary or secondary schools after I graduate. I learned so much about myself from one single opportunity that Rice offered me; all it took was a single click on an email attachment.
My suitemates and I are vastly different people, with very different majors, doing very different things – but we are constantly supporting and encouraging each other’s’ endeavors. We are all enjoying our individual college experiences here at Rice.

My suitemates and I are vastly different people, with very different majors, doing very different things – but we are constantly supporting and encouraging each other’s endeavors here at Rice.