Preparing for a Life in Science

Biological Sciences major Wenji Guo is a 2012-13 recipient of the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, which is awarded to college sophomores and juniors who are pursuing careers in science, mathematics and engineering. This year 1,123 young men and women were nominated by faculty members from institutions nationwide; trustees of the Goldwater Foundation awarded 282 scholarships on the basis of academic merit. Guo is studying toward a career in medical and public-health research and practice.

Wenji Guo

Wenji Guo. Photo by Micki Leventhal

I distinctly remember flipping through the 1,000-plus foreign pages of one of my dad’s graduate-level molecular biology textbooks and thinking, “How can anyone possibly remember all this stuff?” Then, with each passing year of grade school the body of available facts grew and my own textbooks became heftier, but it was not until the beginning of high school that I began wondering how those brainy textbook writers were able to find their answers. How could they be so sure that DNA replicated itself in the exact way that the colorful diagrams depicted?

The floodgates of scientific inquiry opened the summer I began working in a research lab. As I learned how to read scientific publications and painstakingly generate DNA constructs with specific mutations, the mystery behind my textbooks dissipated. I realized that science is not just a body of facts augmented by bolded key words. Instead, science is something inherently much more fascinating to the young mind—an entirely new way of thinking! Science is a dynamic process of logic that evaluates whether an idea holds, and merits further experimentation.

The lessons learned from my high school research experiences have shaped the attitude with which I approach my undergraduate career. Signal transduction pathways, thermodynamics, and electromagnetism—these are just a small fraction of the vast stores of knowledge that science majors encounter. On the surface, there is nothing more tedious than memorizing a list of organic chemistry reagents and reactions. However, when one digs deeper and studies the fundamental reasons why a certain reagent will work for the reaction, while another reagent will not, the process becomes much less laborious. Approaching a problem using critical thinking, rather than rote memorization, is immeasurably more interesting and rewarding.

I view my time as an LAS student as the foundation for building a meaningful life. 

Research also teaches me to keep challenging myself. My first few weeks in the UIC lab were supremely terrifying. I struggled to understand what the senior scientists were discussing, my mentor threw questions at me that I usually could not begin to answer until hours later, and I was far from “a natural” at the lab bench. Because I was constantly pushed out of my comfort zone, I learned more efficiently than I ever did in high school classrooms. Working in an environment with a steep learning curve strengthened my drive and my willingness to make mistakes and learn through them, and increased my resourcefulness and perseverance.

At UIC I began to consciously push past my limits in other areas. As I gained exposure to the issues facing the UIC community I was finally able to shed my shell of shyness because I realized I wanted to actively work toward public solutions. Chairing the Interpersonal Relations Committee of Undergraduate Student Government and working with the national student advocacy group, United for Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity (U/FUSED), have taught me how to effectively take action on issues of direct relevance to students. We have organized a highly-attended workshop on how to finance graduate/professional school, written a financial literacy lesson plan for seminars, coordinated networking events for student organizations, created a resource guide to help new students, and much more. We continually expand our efforts to talk with more students so that we may better represent and address their concerns.

I view my time as an LAS student as the foundation for building a meaningful life. A liberal arts education exposes us to a multitude of interesting questions and it challenges us to learn as much as possible while ultimately choosing a direction for career and life. My experience here has been nothing short of transformative. Every step of the way my eagerness has been met by the enthusiasm and efforts of numerous faculty and staff. I am grateful for the professors in the biological sciences department who encouraged my curiosity by taking the time to sit down and answer my questions and for the countless other individuals within the guaranteed-admissions GPPA-Medicine program, Honors College, Student Affairs, College of Medicine, and Centers for Diversity who have served as my mentors.

As a recipient of the LAS Alumni Association Merit Scholarship last fall, I can attest to the importance of supporting students. Not only does receiving support from the college affirm students’ personal motivations, but it allows students to actually pursue them by reducing the financial pressures that may be hindering their goals. Applying for scholarships provides students with a valuable opportunity for introspection during which they can ask themselves the very questions a liberal arts education poses: What motivates me? How do I pursue a meaningful life? How can I make the world a better place?