Researching your career revisited: Wisdom from a STEM professor at my HBCU

I originally published this piece on the Examiner back in January of 2013. It discussed some simple, but valuable career advice a professor from my undergraduate institution gave me and my classmates. If followed, this advice would likely save the student, their family and their schools money, time, and heartache.

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Though the importance is questioned by some today, there are advantages to attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Two big advantages are small class sizes and the personal relationships that can be developed with the faculty. These two factors were integral to my success at Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU).

It isn’t just the close relationships with the faculty that are advantageous, but also the “tell it like is” mentality with which they taught us. The instructors felt as though they had to be hard on us students in order to make us competitive, to help us reach our potential, and ultimately, to achieve our dreams. Some students rejected this approach, while others embraced the guidance and the coaching.

Many students who major in the biological sciences do so with hopes of going to medical school and becoming a physician. Not only is being a medical doctor a well-respected profession, but it is also believed to lead to a life of wealth and prosperity; something many doctors and the author of The Millionaire Next Door, Dr. Thomas Stanley, would debate.

During my first year at JCSU, a very simple but important piece of advice was passed along to the students in our Concepts of Modern Biology class. That advice was simply that we students should take some time to research our careers of interest. Again it was simple but very powerful advice.

“You all keep saying that you want to go to medical school, but you don’t have the slightest idea as to what it takes to get into medical school, or what’s going to happen once you get there,” our professor, a Ph.D. of Cell Biology, passionately said to us. She was small in stature but was a very tough-minded professor.

“What you all need to do is to go to the library, pull out a book on the healthcare professions and read up on what it will take to become a medical doctor,” she further advised us. She’d often say, “the slots are limited,” meaning that it was very competitive to get into medical school and they would only take the best of the best. A couple of driven, motivated and talented students from JCSU in that era did in fact go on to medical school to pursue their dreams.

It was debated quite a bit at the time whether or not students from a small HBCU like JCSU could get into medical school. The students who made it in proved that it could be done, but again they were some of the best and brightest that our Natural Sciences Department had to offer.

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I took my professor’s advice and investigated the path towards becoming a medical doctor. In between semesters, I visited Buffalo’s downtown public library and pulled out a book on the healthcare professions. Some of what I discovered in my research, I’d heard before; applicants needing a competitive score on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), a competitive grade point average (GPA) particularly in the sciences, letters of recommendation, and scientific research or volunteer experience in a clinic or hospital.

What I read next though were the real eye openers. Financially, many medical students offset their tuition with loans and graduated with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. Medical school graduates are required to complete something called a “Residency” which usually involved them getting little sleep over long periods of time, depending on their specialization. They further had to be willing to move to often remote and undesirable locations in some instances initially. Finally, most don’t start making significant money until long after they’ve graduated or completed their training.

After doing the research, I decided that I didn’t want to go to medical school to be a physician. I stayed in science but decided to go into research which itself had its own notable challenges and struggles, though ultimately quite a few rewards. See my post on that.

The point of this story is not to discourage anyone from going to medical school, especially if treating and caring for patients is a student’s underlying motivation, dream and passion. A career is a personal choice and must be decided by the individual. That being said, it’s important to do the research, study the process and figure out all that will be involved when pursuing a particular career path.

At one point, being a medical doctor may have been a very lucrative profession to pursue, but as with most areas of life, things seldom stay the same. Significant factors that medical doctors have to contend with today that they didn’t worry about as much in years past, is the impact of Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) on the degree of care patients can receive, and the threat of malpractice lawsuits.

“You want to do something that you’re going to enjoy doing every day. If you’re doing something just for the money, it’s not a good thing,” a mentor advised me. In general, careers should be pursued not simply for the money, but based upon what a student is passionate about and has a natural talent for.

Furthermore, the cost of seeking a professional education such as attending medical, dental or law school, for example, should be strongly considered before pursuing a given career. Specifically, the amount of debt that will have to be repaid should be one of the major considerations as it will impact an individual’s lifestyle for a potentially significant amount of time.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

The story of how I earned my STEM degree
A look at STEM: What are the Basic Sciences and Basic Research?
A look at STEM: What is Regulatory Science?
The transferrable skills from a doctoral degree in the basic sciences
A look at STEM: What is Pharmacology?
A look at STEM: What is Toxicology?

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right-hand column in this post and throughout the site, or add my RSS feed to your feedreader. You can follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, and Twitter at @BWArePowerful. Lastly, you can follow me on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

The keys to learning college-level general chemistry revisited

The first principle of my blog is Creating Ecosystems of Success, and a key focus is awareness of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. A key class for many STEM-hopefuls is ‘college- level’ General Chemistry, both in high school and college. Some students, particularly those attending very competitive high schools, take college-level Chemistry and struggle with it.

Several years ago when I tutored part-time, I worked with several students in Northern Virginia where taking ‘Honors’ and ‘International Baccalaureate’ (IB) General Chemistry as freshman and sophomores was a normal occurrence. For three to four years, I worked in the former Northern Virginia Tutoring service where I consistently coached lost and struggling students, and helped them confidently finish their classes strong.  The service was run by my mentor and fellow blogger Dr. Ralph G. Perrino (Dr. Perrino’s blog).

I originally published this piece on the Examiner back in March of 2013. I’ve decided to republish this revised version as tutoring was a fun and rewarding experience for me, which also helped me earn some extra income. I myself didn’t fully grasp General Chemistry back at Hutch-Tech High School as a sophomore. It wasn’t until I was an undergraduate at Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) that I understood and mastered this exciting quantitative science. I went on to use that knowledge in my graduate studies, in my federal science career, and eventually as a tutor.

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After starting my federal science career, tutoring not only allowed me to supplement my income, but it was a very educational experience for me as well. When applying to work as a tutor through the Northern Virginia Tutoring Service, I listed Biology, Chemistry, and Physics as my areas of expertise. I had some experience with all three disciplines in my undergraduate and graduate studies.

Chemistry by far was the course that generated the most demand for me, specifically ‘Honors’ and ‘International Baccalaureate’ (IB) Chemistry. IB courses are basically ‘college-level’ and can be quite a jump for some high school freshman and sophomores. Even some upperclassmen struggle in them. These classes are particularly problematic when the students fall behind in them early, lose confidence, and when the subject area falls outside of Mom and Dad’s areas of expertise – hence the need for a tutor.

The students who needed my help weren’t ‘slouches’ by any means. Most of them resided in Virginia’s Arlington and Fairfax Counties.  Fairfax County is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation – a county with a very strong school system where 90% of its students matriculate to college. The parents’ vigilance and drive to assure that their children do well academically is also a hallmark of this county. This was manifested in their willingness to invest some of their hard-earned money into tutors – sometimes several at one time for multiple children. Those parents were very impressive.

When working with the students, my initial goal was to approach them with a positive and optimistic attitude. Patience, understanding and a bit of humor were parts of my approach as well.  These were particularly important for students who had lost hope. After this initial part, we dove into the actual science and turning their grades around. There were four key principles that I stressed to my students: time management, taking initiative, practice and attention to detail.

The kids I worked with were ‘high achievers’ and typically juggled multiple classes, and in some instances, multiple Honors/IB courses. They were also involved in a plethora of after school activities (sports and clubs of all kinds), which often caused a bit of an overload. In cases such as these, time management for each class, especially the demanding classes, was very, very important.

The next principles I instilled were taking initiative and the importance of practice. College-level courses require students to assume more responsibility for their studies with less coddling by teachers. This is especially important for quantitative sciences like Chemistry and Physics, which are calculation-intensive and require rigorous practice. I stressed to my students that this was the only way to feel confident at test time, when students were tasked with working their way through several pages of complex problems, usually within 45 minutes to an hour.

The argument that teachers aren’t ‘teaching effectively’ in these subjects may be partially true in some instances, but what’s also true is that the teachers can’t do everything. They can’t make the students practice what they’ve learned after hours and on weekends – arguably the most important part their learning. This is where the most meaningful part of students’ learning takes place as was the case for me as an undergraduate when the light-bulb turned on one Sunday afternoon in Charlotte, NC.

Finally, I impressed upon my students the importance of learning to pay attention to several key details. Chemistry tends to start off with ‘concept-based’ learning: the trends of the “Periodic Table of Elements“, the micro-particles that comprise atoms, and then chemical bonding. With the balancing of chemical equations, the class becomes more ‘critical thought-based’.

The ‘quantitative’ phase starts with the “Stoichiometry” chapter which permeates throughout the remaining chapters. This is the phase in which the calculator becomes one of the student’s ‘best friends’ as they must calculate decimals, express numbers using ‘scientific notation’, and sometimes calculate ‘log’ values. When calculating acids, bases and pH values, students also must be able to use the ‘^’ calculator function in some instances, which admittedly confused me as the tutor once. An important part of this phase is understanding and being able to convert ‘units of measure’ – converting grams to kilograms, and then grams to moles, Celsius and Fahrenheit to Kelvin, and so on.

The calculation of moles, percent compositions, percent yields and so on, leads the class to become highly quantitative and the students then must also keep track of various equations/formulas, and chemical/physical constants, while also integrating concepts from earlier chapters. This continues into the “Solutions”, the “Gas Laws”, “Kinetics” and “Thermochemistry” chapters. While specific calculations are used throughout the course such as the conversion of grams to moles, some chapters have their own unique equations, formulas and units of measure such as ‘millimeters of Mercury’ (mm Hg) in the Gas Law chapter which is a measure for atmospheric pressure.

Examples of chemical/physical constants include “Avagadro’s number”, and the “Universal Gas Constant”, which itself has many different values depending upon the units used. As we progressed through the chapters, one thing I constantly had to remind my students of was always keeping their Periodic Table of Elements handy. I consider this the student’s first best friend in the class, as it has pieces of information about every element necessary to answer questions in even the more advanced chapters.

This all sounds like a lot right? Again, it can be particularly problematic if the parents have no experience in the area. Once lost, students typically need extra help in the form of spending more time with the teacher or working with a tutor. When the above-mentioned keys are introduced and the student buys in, he or she can gain confidence, get back on track and find the class to be fun. Tutoring caused me to have to relearn some material I’d forgotten over the years, and to learn concepts we hadn’t covered when I was an undergraduate.  In some instances I was learning along with the students I tutored.  This was fun for me and created a sense of adventure.

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If you’re a STEM-professional, tutoring is a really good way to generate a second income depending upon the demand for your knowledge set in your area or elsewhere. With the technology available to us today, tutors can work with students remotely in some instances without having to physically be there. In either case, helping students to understand their subject matter, and ‘to get over the hump’, is a very rewarding feeling, and an accomplishment all in itself.  It’s also gratifying when the parents thank you and stay on their children about when their next tutoring sessions will be.

What also helped me out during my tutoring experience was that I could go back and ask one of my veteran undergraduate Chemistry professors questions when I got ‘stumped’.  In some instances, I needed to be refreshed on some of the nuances of some of the problems I was doing with my students. I don’t think he’ll mind me mentioning him, and I’m very thankful that he was willing to provide guidance when I didn’t know what to do. This underscores the importance of not burning your bridges and maintaining relationships with your professors long after you’ve earned you degree.

My former professor also pointed me in the direction of the Chemistry Olympiad Exams for challenging and fun practice problems. You can download the yearly exams as pdfs for free.  The answers are in the back, so you can go over them yourself or with your student, and even work your way backwards to figure out the right answer, if either of you answered the question incorrectly.

Thank you for taking the time out to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this one, you might also enjoy:

The story of how I earned my STEM degree as a minority
The transferrable skills from a STEM degree in the basic sciences
Don’t Be A Mad Scientist: Avoid These Stupid Lab Mistakes
A look at STEM: What is Pharmacology?
A look at STEM: What is Toxicology?
A look at STEM: What is Inhalation Toxicology?

If you’ve found value here and think it will benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right-hand column in this post and throughout the site, or add the link to my RSS feed to your feedreader. Lastly, follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Challenging misconceptions and stereotypes in academic achievement

playlandThe following piece was my second piece published on the Examiner back in November of 2012.  It was based upon an actual conversation between me and my father during my youth growing up on the Buffalo’s east side.  Early on I developed misconceptions and stereotypes about peers from various ethnic groups and what they were and were not good at – Asians in particular.

My father challenged those stereotypes which is something that empowered me later on in life and helped change my academic paradigm and world view.  The visual for this piece is a playground for young children, because at a young age before we get socialized and develop racial biases and ideas, we all start off with the same potential to learn and achieve.  It’s what happens to us as we grow up in our unique environments that determine how our lives turn out, our successes, our achievements, and our failures.

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“Those Asian kids are smarter than everyone else and they’re on the honor roll every quarter,” the son said to his father.  His statement was partially true.  At his school there were students of Asian descent who were on the honor roll every quarter and consistently had grade point averages of 90% or greater.

He was an average student from the inner city.  Like many young people, his views of the world were shaped by what he saw in his community, his peers, the media and ignorance.  His older brother and his best friend, both of whom he spent most of his time with, were not honor roll students either.

The father challenged his son’s statement saying, “They’re not necessarily smarter than you; they just spend more time in their books than you do consistently after school every week.”

“A study showed that Asian students study an average of 12 hours a week or more after school.  For Caucasian students the number is six hours, and for African American and Latino students the number is four hours,” the father said citing a study he had read.  The study suggested that academic performance was a function of time invested, not the intelligence of one race over another.

The conversation changed the son’s educational paradigms allowing him to become an honor roll student himself later on.  This true story demonstrates the importance of both parenting and mentoring.  With limited experience and wisdom, young people don’t always understand the world around them and can make conclusions that aren’t accurate.

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People the late Stephen Covey describes paradigms as mental road maps that guide our behaviors.  These paradigms direct us and tell us how to react in certain situations.  Paradigms largely influence perceptions of academic achievement.

Dr. Ralph G. Perrino, of the Northern Virginia Tutoring Service, describes in The Socialization Process and Its Impact on Children and Learning, that a student’s academic performance is influenced by family, school, peers, mass media, public opinion, work, volunteer groups and religion/spirituality.  In summary, the expectations and culture students are exposed to, affects their performance.

The counties in northern Virginia, for example, are inhabited by families with highly educated parents.  “These parents are willing to invest their financial resources to make sure their children do well and go to college,” said Dr. Perrino.  The 90% college matriculation rate in these counties is thus a function of values and resources, and not necessarily an innate superior ability over other students such as those within the neighboring District of Columbia.

In Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol argues that the quality of education available in any community is strongly affected by economics and politics.  These two factors directly impact not only educational and neighborhood environments, but also the culture, expectations and long term goals of the parents and children within communities.

Circling back to the opening of this article, at the University of Michigan and similar research institutions, a trend started in the early 21st Century.  Many of the research labs, particularly in the biomedical sciences, were employing large populations of Asian scientists.

It wasn’t magic though.  A professor noted that these scientists were “extremely hardworking, dedicated, and not concerned with things that their American counterparts are preoccupied with things such as having social lives and lots of leisure time.”

“Not everyone in China is smart.  Similar to America, there are a lot of people who aren’t smart and successful,” said Dr. Cheng Fang, a talented scientist from China, discussing the stereotypes about his people and his country.  Simply put, some of China’s most motivated and successful families come to the United States seeking the opportunities for advancement that this country has to offer, many in the sciences, and those are the ones that are seen most often.

Interestingly, Cheng further revealed that there are no second chances in China academically.  In the Asian countries if you don’t excel early in school, numerous doors and opportunities permanently slam shut.  In the United States you can under achieve in the lower grade levels and still positively make something of yourself through higher education or other avenues such as the military, entrepreneurship or entertainment.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

The benefits and challenges of using articulate speech
Challenging misconceptions and stereotypes in class, household income, wealth and privilege
Your net worth, your gross salary and what they mean
We should’ve bought Facebook and Bitcoin stock: An investing story
Who will benefit from Apple’s $350 billion investment?

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site, or add the link to my RSS feed to your feedreader. You can follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, and Twitter at @BWArePowerful. Lastly, you can follow me on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.