Science Safari: Career Opportunities in Biology Come Alive in Special Course for Students

By Ed Moorhouse

Julia Manchester had it all planned out. She would attend Rutgers University–Camden and major in biology, which would serve as the starting point to her final destination: medical school.

“I didn’t want to consider any other career paths because I thought that was the one for me,” says Manchester, a junior from West Deptford.

"Exploring Careers in Biology" gives students like Julia Manchester a chance to discover the many paths their degree could taken them.

“Exploring Careers in Biology” gives students like Julia Manchester a chance to discover the many paths their degree could taken them.

Medical school is an aspiration for many undergraduate biology majors, but what many students don’t consider is that it’s just one exit on a long highway with many other roads to take. Instead of speeding straight ahead, Manchester and her fellow biology majors are taking their time to explore other avenues, and perhaps go off the beaten path.

Through the one-credit course “Exploring Careers in Biology,” students are exposed to the many different career options they may have never considered before coming to Rutgers–Camden.

“I’m open to more careers that have to do with research and other careers in the medical field, such as a pathologist assistant, which is something I probably wouldn’t have discovered,” Manchester says. “Right now, I am still figuring out what I want to do, but I feel very different now about my academic future than I did a year ago. I have more motivation to pursue the things I want.”

Kwangwon Lee, an associate professor of biology at Rutgers–Camden who teaches “Exploring Careers in Biology,” says many first-year students don’t know what options are available to biology majors.

“One practical problem we have is that about 70 to 80 percent of students coming into our program every year think they’ll end up in medical school,” Lee says. “Some of them are serious, but many have not given it much thought.”

Lee says the course is not designed to discourage students from going to medical school, but rather, to “lead them in all possible directions.”

“The goal is to allow them to try biology on for a while to see where there is a fit,” Lee says. “I want them to make informed decisions. There’s nothing more frustrating than to hear a student say, ‘I didn’t know.’ We have a plan to expose them to possibilities.”

The course is a collaborative effort between the Department of Biology, the Rutgers–Camden Career Center, and the Office of Civic Engagement. It introduces students to five different biology career paths: research, nonprofit, for profit, teaching, and medicine or public health. Professionals from various industries come to Rutgers–Camden to give talks on their careers and answer questions from the students.

Students taking the course may also participate in research with a faculty member or a graduate student and there is a civic engagement component that allows the students to work in the community throughout the semester.

John Rapacz, a senior biology major, says he had an opportunity to work on a collaborative research project with Amy Savage, an assistant professor of biology at Rutgers–Camden, and the experience inspired him to pursue an advanced degree after he graduates.

“When I came to Rutgers–Camden I was pursuing a degree in biology, and that was the sum of the plan,” Rapacz says. “The class encouraged me to continue my education here at Rutgers–Camden. I am currently applying to the master’s program here and wish to continue my work and research in biology.”

Lee says out of the 23 students who took on a research project as part of the course last fall, more than half decided to continue the work even after the course concluded.

Rapacz says it was also important to him to participate in a civic engagement project in which he and some classmates planted trees around Camden.

Lee notes, “It’s an opportunity to get students to start thinking civically. When they think about their career, we want them to think about how they can serve the needs of the community as well. We want them to become leaders in the community, and that’s a huge quality to have, no matter the field.”

When the course was first offered in 2013, only 12 students enrolled, but as more students learned the benefits of taking the course, the numbers grew. Lee says 60 students took the course in the fall 2015 semester.

Shannon Bonn, a senior from North Carolina and military veteran, says, “I believe the most important thing is that it encourages you to get as much out of college and your biology degree as possible and to really think about your future, not just on a whim,” she says.

Lee asks, “Why narrow your choices? I want to shake the tree and teach them that there are so many options.”

“Exploring Careers in Biology” is offered every fall. For information, email Lee at kwangwon.lee@nullrutgers.edu.

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