Integrated Science pays off for graduates
The integrated science curriculum, now in its sixth year, continues to attract students with an interest in pursuing graduate programs and careers in the sciences. Through its notoriously difficult multidisciplinary program of courses, the curriculum arms graduates to work at the cutting edge of many fields, said students, professors and alumni.
Students attracted to the unconventional structure of the program work through four intense semesters. “Everyone who decides to take Integrated Science is — in some way, shape or form — crazy,” Jane Yang ’11 said. “At some points, you feel like your life is disintegrating, but the people always help you pull it back.”
The program was introduced in 2004 by molecular biology professor David Botstein, director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics. It distinguishes itself from conventional science education by combining chemistry, molecular biology, computer science and physics in a rigorous two-year double-credit course.
Botstein said the program’s multidisciplinary approach and emphasis on using quantitative tools in scientific analysis represent important steps toward 21st-century science, because “the futures of all these sciences are closely tied together.”
“The days of sort of naturalistic walking around and looking at flowers are long gone,” he added.
Botstein also noted that one of the motivations for the program’s creation was to prevent students from being discouraged from pursuing science in college because of the many requirements involved, some of which he thinks are unnecessary.
“Even medical schools are reconsidering how important organic chemistry is to actually functioning as a doctor,” Botstein said, and computer programming should be emphasized because “no one does experiments by hand anymore.”
Students typically enter the integrated science sequence in their freshman year, beginning with the specialized freshman integrated science courses, ISC 231/232 in the fall and ISC 233/234 in the spring. The completion of the freshman-year courses is given the credit for two semesters of introductory chemistry, two semesters of physics and one semester of computer science.
Freshmen take on a rigorous schedule, with five one-hour classes, a three-hour lab session, a three-hour precept and a weekly problem-solving session each week.
Sophomores who wish to continue with the sequence take ISC 235 in the fall and ISC 236 in the spring. The completion of the sophomore-year courses is given the credit for introductory biology, genetics and biochemistry. These students meet for 80-minute classes twice a week in addition to a weekly problem session and precept.
The curriculum is designed to provide students with a foundation in many scientific disciplines so that they are prepared to select a major at the end of sophomore year, according to the webpage for the integrated science program.
For many who follow the integrated science program, one of the hallmarks is its collaborative culture which is embodied by problem sessions, which provide students the chance to work together.
“It’s really nice to have a clarification of the concepts,” Edward Zhang ’13 said of the problem sessions. “The professors are there sometimes to help, or senior students who have already taken the course [attend]. The atmosphere is just a casual working together on problem sets.”
Despite its appeals, the integrated science curriculum is also notoriously challenging. Max Weidmann ’09 said it is rigorous to the point that it “tends to scare a lot of students away.”
“The program needs to provide more assurance to its students that they are not going down the wrong path, especially when they are having difficulties with problem sets,” said Weidmann, who is also a former associate news editor for The Daily Princetonian.
Botstein acknowledged the difficulty of the course, but he explained that the program is challenging for good reason.
“We’re not making [the problems] difficult on purpose,” he said. “We’re just trying to get you to that level. That’s what it takes to be a scientist.”
Though it can be difficult to get As in integrated science courses, simply having the courses on one’s transcript carries weight, students said.
“There were a few times when I was worried about a grade or something, but when push came to shove, I knew it would be recognized as Integrated Science, a pretty rigorous program,” Weidmann said.
Yang feels that the “comprehensive overload of work” that is almost unique to the program helps its graduates persevere a bit more than their peers in other challenging classes at the University and beyond. The course covers much of the material in upper-level science classes, which makes life easier for its students later in their time at Princeton. Yang added that the people she met in the program helped her cope with the workload and that she met many of her closest friends through working on problem sets.
Admission to graduate school
For many students, the integrated science sequence is a means of preparing for a graduate degree in the sciences. Alumni of the program have been admitted into top graduate programs or are now pursuing successful careers in scientific research.
“It really cemented my decision to go to grad school,” said Max Staller ’08, who is in his second year at Harvard pursuing a Ph.D. in systems biology. “Integrated Science was phenomenal preparation in that respect. For my program, it was without a doubt the best prep there is in the country.”
Students are introduced to probability and computer science during their freshman year, which helps them be comfortable with programming and performing calculations. This, he explained, is “incredibly unusual in the biological world.”
Graduate schools are aware of the challenges presented by the course, and they factor this in during the admission process, students said. Professors at the graduate schools are often enthusiastic about meeting graduates of the program, and recommendation letters from professors in the integrated science program go a long way with admission committees.
“Integrated science students have a special place in applications,” said Juan Alvarez ’09, who completed the integrated science curriculum during his time at the University.
Weidmann said that the courses made him more aware of how pioneering technologies could be applied in surprising ways. He is currently working as a research technician at NYU, and he said he will soon be applying for M.D. and Ph.D. programs in New York.
“As a research technician, I’m not sure I could say that my work is the exact work that Integrated Science was meant for, but I think I’m able to bring in a new perspective even just working in a lab that’s not highly computational,” Weidmann said. “My boss also comes from a biophysics background, and I can talk to him more on that level than many of my colleagues can.”
He added that some of the courses in the curriculum allowed him to have his own computationally based projects, where he studied areas of genomics relevant to science and medicine. This made him more aware of how the concepts he used in these projects could be relevant to a science career later on.
The integrated science sequence’s emphasis on computer programming was also important for Daniel Gadala-Maria ’09, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in computational biology and bioinformatics at Yale. Gadala-Maria said he feels “very well prepared” compared to classmates with less experience in computer science. “We have these problems in my courses, and they seem like nothing,” he said. “Everything is smooth sailing right now.”