Fish Out Of Water: Memoires of an English Major in a Biology class



As someone double majoring in English and Secondary Education neither my peers, my friends, my professor, nor my advisor could hold back their tones/looks of frustration and confusion.

“Why in the world would you take BIO 141: Foundations of Cellular Biology to satisfy your science credit?”. As I was told over and over again: BIO 141 is the intro class for biology majors, thus making me an interloper. Though I admit I was out of my element, I was frustrated by the power of these labels. I could’ve walked into Cornell as a science major and no one would’ve questioned me; declaring a major (with the exception of art/music) doesn’t mean you have any talent in the field, yet we place a lot of value on these labels: making them indicators of what we are, or are not, capable of.


As an Education major, I subscribe to the philosophy that no one is inherently gifted in a subject. We all have strengths and weaknesses, but thats because we have things we do constantly (for me thats reading/annotating, writing, and public speaking) and things we rarely do (for me thats science, math, history and pushups). Often we end up enjoying the things we are “good” at, thus we do them more, and inadvertently widen the gap between our talents and shortcomings. It’s a cycle: we dislike the activity because we’re “bad” at it, so we avoid it: thus preventing ourselves from ever becoming good at or enjoying the activity.


BIO 141 was by far the hardest course I’ve taken all year. My final grade hasn’t been entered but I am predicting a C+ or a B-. While this is well below the 4.0 “A” I am used to, I did my best and stayed true to myself by taking a course that challenged me. As difficult and foreign as my time in West Science was, if I could go back in time I’d sign up for the course again. My professor’s scrutiny over presentations has made me a better speaker and cellular biology will always be fascinating to me.

It’s always good to get out of your comfort zone when you can. As I discussed in my last blog, we don’t know our limits until we test them. I was comfortable with the tangible goals of reading comprehension and essay writing. But in biology everything felt up in the air, it was about “understanding the concepts and being ready to answer any questions of or relating to the 8 or 10 hours of lecture, plus the lab”. Taking this course made me dust off old study habits that’d been gathering dust during my education blocks.


1. Talk to your professor (but be genuine!)

Don’t talk to your professor for brownie points. Talk to him/her if you have genuine questions/concerns about the material. I talked to him because the reality of not having taken a biology course since 2009 sunk in pretty quickly. And throughout the block, I asked him to clarify/reiterate portions of lecture. Overall, this made me more comfortable in the classroom and let my professor know I was a hard worker.

Just don’t be fake. Don’t meet with your professor solely to get your name out there. The last thing you want to do is annoy your professor with pointless bantar (play it by ear, you’ll be able to tell pretty easily how receptive your prof is to communication).

2. Get trustworthy lab partners

As much as I believe anyone can take this course there is no denying that prior knowledge is an advantage. Having two hardworking partners, one of which has a biology background was a stress reliever.

However, it doesn’t mean you can coast. In fact, you have to work harder to understand somewhat basic material. But being that we had two presentations in lieu of lab reports, it was nice to have a trustworthy relationship amongst my group. If one of us missed info or couldn’t answer a question someone would pick up the slack. There’s nothing worse than carrying the team (especially because a quality presentation demands a cohesive unit capable of having equal speaking roles).

3. Record the lecture

As with many science courses, all the info you need to know comes from the lecture (the textbook is just an additional source you can examine). I relistened to each lecture. However, if that’s too painstaking for you: you can write down the topics discussed in lecture and write down the time intervals they are discussed. When you are studying you can relisten to the sections you are struggling with.

4. Put in the hours

This course only had one homework assignment all block. Our homework was to study. That means you have to study. My professor said you need to spend at least an hour a day reviewing the information but in my opinion it takes at least 3-6hrs a day. For me review was relistening to lecture/taking notes. And then creating drawings/diagrams from those notes.

5. Have a study buddy

Sure you can study alone, but I’ve found that having a buddy helps tear down the studying wall we all inevitably hit. It’s someone to hold you accountable.

Find someone near your level or a little better: you don’t want someone completely clueless but if they’re extremely beyond your level that may not be helpful for either of you. Ideally, you can both “teach” and challenge each other.

You also want someone who has your sleep schedule. Mine is: if I can sleep, great! If I have more work to do, okay! I’ll sleep later (if at all). My study buddy pulled two allnighters with me. But if you’re adamant about getting your sleep, find someone who lives by the “let’s-get-a-good-nights-rest-before-the-exam” philosophy.

6. Appreciate and respect the craft (some people are majoring in this!)

One thing that helped me enjoy and survive block biology was appreciating the experience. One of my goals is to be a well rounded individual, that cliche liberal arts education archetype, it’s one of the reasons I took this course. Enjoy the novelty of it: learning about the world at a cellular level, creating stock to add to neuroblastoma cells, and looking through a 40,000 microscope was a unique and amazing experience for me. It was incredible, like switching lives with someone for a month.

This helped me gain a new respect for biology majors, for them to dedicate their lives to not only understanding the information that’s out there, but applying it, and possibly coming up with their own theories is beyond impressive. Dear biology majors, let me buy you a cup of coffee. You deserve it!

7. Mini vent sessions and positive affirmations

Emphasis on the “mini”. This block I discovered that there really is no use in complaining (especially to people who are not in the class). All you’re going to hear is “you’re gonna be fine” and various other fluff phrases that will make you want to carve the electron transport chain into their desk. (But it’s not their fault, what are they suppose to say?).

I’ve found its best to pad your negative thoughts or vebal vents with positive affirmations. Saying things like “I’m not ready for this exam but I still have the rest of the night to prepare so it’s gonna be fine”. Trust me, “fake it till you make it” is an effective mantra to live by.

Work hard. Stay positive.

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