Fiona: Apply, complete, repeat

Hello y’all cool cats and kittens!

I hope you’re all ready for another intense blog post by yours truly! The topic today is quarantined, critical reflection on my time at Cal… and whether I would do it again. (Long post incoming)

Sunsets from Berkeley Hill

First things first, Berkeley closed and switched to online courses 1.5 months ago, as one of the first universities in the US to do so. At the time my boyfriend and I decided we would stay put for the moment and use the additional time to explore Cal (like we initially intended to). However, when Jacinda announced that there will be no more flights coming into New Zealand we bought our tickets for a flight 2 days away. We chucked everything we owned into our suitcases whilst I was still taking tests and virtually attending lectures and trying to not let sadness/confusion/denial (?) get the better of me. Now I’ve been home for a few weeks and stuck inside, still completing the Cal semester online which has given me an opportunity to thoroughly reflect on my (cut-short) experience. I’ve obviously been keeping track of what the other 360 ambassadors have been up to and compared it to my own experiences and noticed that some of the other experiences are more travel-focused whilst mine are very academically-focused and a bit less.. colourful, I would say. I have definitely made friends and had a good time and expected having to work hard but I think I underestimated how time consuming the academic side would be as the standard at Cal is exponentially higher than at UoA, at least this is the case for Biological Sciences. I spent a lot of time playing catchup with concepts I didn’t know/understand and at the same time had to adjust to a new University environment, complete assignments and attend lectures. I had no time to travel to the places I intended on travelling to and trips into SF city were a rarity, even going out with friends was non-existent unless we decided to study together in our study group. The only thing my boyfriend and I had coming up was the Spring Break trip to Cancún which we missed as we left the United States one week before our planned Cancún travel date.

I guess it was… worth a try?

Reflecting on my expectations and comparing it to reality I have to admit that I probably should have been a little more realistic with how much time I would get to spend outside of Uni. Berkeley is a world renowned University with an acceptance rate of 8% for a reason and I think this is something I should have considered when setting my expectations for my free-time. If you have been following my posts you will know that I decided to go on an exchange for academic reasons and not necessarily to explore the country. It honestly would have been nice to see a little more of the country, however I am obviously so grateful to have been taught by such a distinguished academic body. Just to name a couple (humble brag much); my bacterial pathogenesis lecturer is Dan Portnoy, the leading expert in Listeria monocytogenes,who contributed significantly to the development of microbial cancer treatments, or my neuroscience lecturer Diana Bautista, who advanced the field of pain receptors and developed a particular type of GM mice that helped other scientists advance this field, too; both of whom could really have not been nicer or more down-to-earth people. However, the pressure I unintentionally put on myself really caused me to feel stressed out for most of my time at Berkeley (you might have figure out by now that I’m a serious nerd) and I was unable to enjoy and explore what was around me. Classes changing to online courses with compulsory lecture recordings and 24 hours to complete tests helped me get on the same level as everyone else and I finally feel like I am on top of everything (literally 2 weeks before the end of the semester, sigh).

Nerding out whilst making our way up to the Space Sciences Laboratory (this is by the Lawrence Hall of Science).

I think I really just want to give a well-meant word of advice here: depending on your objective for your exchange, choose wisely and do a lot of research. If someone had told me that I would be unable to spend any time outside of uni to explore California, I would have thought twice about going to UC Berkeley – however, when considering my (hopefully) academic career and my inspiration to become a scientist, going to UC Berkeley has really helped manifest my aspirations for the future. I feel that, whilst I didn’t quite get the “typical” overseas-uni experience, I will still be able to travel at a later date and explore California and, at the same time, I was able to meet and be taught by the most incredible, inspiring academics that helped us shape modern science. I really couldn’t fault the opportunity I was given and will treasure it, knowing that I likely wouldn’t have been able to find the biological niche I want to focus on in my career if I hadn’t gone to UC Berkeley. I got to make connections I would have never dreamt of making and I am able to hold on to, and treasure, friendships that will hopefully last beyond the end of my semester (I have zoom hangouts with my pals a lot!).

I may have accidentally gotten addicted to IKEA and Amazon Prime in the US.

Another few pointers on how to specifically approach going to UC Berkeley:
– make sure you enrol in a mix of classes that balance “doing new things” with “doing fun things” so you don’t get exhausted and still get to enjoy the international expertise Cal can offer
– expect to spend a lot more money than the requirement for the visa states as Berkeley is really expensive and it’s difficult to cut costs on anything (especially because you can’t just go and get a part-time job)
– be ready to adjust to a different learning environment – Berkeley’s high expectation and a lack of student support (such as lecture recordings) can make it difficult to follow lecture content
– Berkeley is not the university to go to if you want to see the country and “have a good time” (whatever you read into this is up to you), you will not have a lot of free time unless you are willing to sacrifice your passing grades
– whilst it is voluntary, definitely attend Golden Bear Orientation, it will help you getting to know people that you can approach with the most random questions and the Orientation Leaders make sure you are eased into the Bear vibes of the school.

After I left my friends and I realised that we never took pictures together so please accept this very serious picture of my lab partner Angela as evidence that I didn’t actually make up my friends (and yes, no lab coats are required at Berkeley unless handling dangerous substances).

Cal will always have a special place in my heart, and to get back to original question of whether I would do it again: I am seriously contemplating applying for Grad school despite (or maybe because of) the academic pressure. Cal has pushed me to work hard every day and has helped me lay the foundation to my academic aspirations. Whether you decide to come to Cal or go somewhere else, I hope that, just like me, you will find what you are looking for on your big overseas university adventure.

So long,

Fiona – Midterms, Spring and Soccer!

Hello y’all,

The first month at Cal is over and soooo many things have happened! Here is your inclusive insight into Fiona’s very lively rollercoaster ride in America:

Midterms

My first midterms are done and dusted and boy, I am so relieved. None of our lecturers were willing to instate a piazza or provide previous exams for practice and there are no lecture recordings, which made studying for the midterms quite a challenge and unnecessarily anxiety-inducing – at least for someone like me that can get a bit freaked out when I cannot practice under “fake” exam conditions with a practice exam beforehand. If I hadn’t found people to create group chats with before the midterms I think I would have just ended up sitting in a corner and feeling sorry for myself – so make sure you make some friends in each class that are happy to communicate with you and answer questions as they arise or give you lecture notes if you missed a lecture.

Midterms are generally ongoing because they are regular and at different frequencies in each class, unlike at UoA, but the first set of Midterms (after one month) was bunched together and quite challenging as everything had to be learnt at the same time with extremely limited resources. I know better now and here are a few tips that will hopefully make your studying at Cal a little easier:
1. Make sure you’re up-to-date and reflect on lectures on the same day;
2. Ask a bunch of questions during office hours (I cannot recommend enough smaller-group time with lecturers!)
3. Talk to other people in the group chats about lecture content.


To me, these things helped a lot in this huge University with limited access to resources and no class reps that could make facebook groups (I cannot stress this enough! We are very spoilt and coming here has made me feel quite grateful for what we have at UoA). I still love every single day here but feeling lost and ‘uncared’ for has had a big impact on me mentally until I found the right people and, as far as I am aware, it’s a very common thing here – so it’s important to make connections and find people you can relate to to have a good time at Cal! (Go Bears!!)

Spring feels like summer?

Now to my second topic – Spring feels like summer! Spring has only just begun but I wildly underestimated the weather (and apparently the impact of climate change in sunny North California) so I am sweaty all the time.

If you come here during spring semester make sure to bring summer clothing, you will need it for at least 2 reasons: Firstly, whilst the buses are free for Cal students, they come infrequently, go down very random routes, and there is no collective app that shows current schedules so you will find yourself walking through the spring heat regularly – I often ended up not trying to find a bus and just walking up and down hilly North Berkeley instead. Secondly (and the slightly more exciting reason), a lot of people like to chill in one of the many grassy areas and play frisbee or have a drink in between lectures. There’s limited shade but the vibes are amazing and it’s easy to feel right at home – lots of people have picnic blankets or hammocks and I can guarantee you that there will almost always be a doggo that’s chasing a ball that you can sneakily observe.

On another note, I recently decided to raid the ReUse store on campus that has cheap second-hand clothing and is student-run so now I am kitted out with a lot of promotional Cal t-shirts, all for 2$ each, and feel like a real Bear that doesn’t need to evaporate in the sun. (Go Bears!)
The only thing is that I am starting to miss the beach a lot – I used to go nearly every day in New Zealand (rain or shine!) and the closest beach here is nearly 1.5 hours away on the bart and bus. I haven’t had time to go because I finished the midterms just recently and something just doesn’t feel quite right without sand, water and fish’n’chips nearby!

Intramural soccer team!

Lastly, I am very excited to tell y’all about Intramural sports teams! I didn’t realise that there was more than the famous athletics teams but when my Golden Bear Orientation leader told me about Intramural sports I knew I had to get a whiff of American soccer! I decided to join as a free agent which means that a captain from any team can invite me into the team if they’re within capacity. It’s a small fee (~$25?) to sign up for a rec membership and I had to buy some new turf boots (~$45) but everything else was pretty straight-forward. The games are weekly and so far we’ve had two – which we both lost (yikes)! It has been so much fun participating in a team sports and just being able to enjoy the game and be around people from different countries where we all communicate in the same ‘language’ on the field has been awesome. The other free agents and I are included in various activities, on and off the field, so I feel like we truly are part of the team and that’s been a great experience. (Go Bears!)

Intramural soccer – we played pretty late, at 9pm! That blurry chunk is me!

As y’all can see, there’s lots going on and I’m having a great time, even if the academic side is a little stressful. I’m looking forward to the next months and can’t wait to tell you more!!

Bye for now!

Fiona: Challenges even before leaving the motherland (and why it’s totally worth it)

Greetings from the Bear territory, y’all!

I see that a lot of essential topics have already been discussed so I will not talk about them but I can really only stress that you should have a read through the other blog posts to get an understanding of the expectations you need to have. When it came to deciding what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it, the posts have been incredibly helpful as pretty much all organisatory things have been covered! Harvey’s advice on preparing for classes is also very useful, my classes are exactly the same (relatively large workloads, no recordings, no tech allowed, expectation to participate, etc).

A very excited me on the day before Golden Bear Orientation in front of the Sather Gate.

Anyhow, since I am the first BioSci student to go to Berkeley from UoA I have come across a pretty unique challenge that I wasn’t adequately prepared for so I have decided to share some insights on to other BioSci students that are considering applying for Cal. Please bear (haha) with me whilst we encounter a slighter drier topic than I had anticipated in my first blog post: organising the academics. This is including me having to worry whether I am even going to be able to go until about 4 weeks before my departure! But fear not, like my undergrad advisor said during tear-filled meetings with me; “just keep going, I promise you it’ll all be worth it in the end!”

A quick snap of part of campus, we often need to walk from one end to the other between classes and I easily get 10000 steps each day just from attending my classes!

Now here is the tea: Bio classes at Berkeley are either solely theory or solely practical and, since practical classes (labs) are a requirement for all students, the seats are reserved for the specific majors, no exceptions. However, UoA doesn’t approve Bio courses as equivalent unless there’s some kind of lab involved during the exchange as at UoA, all Bio courses have a theory and a practical component. Unfortunately without a UoA full-time course load, the exchange doesn’t get its final approval from our faculty. I quickly saw my dream of having intellectually stimulating conversations with Jennifer Doudna (the co-inventor of CRISPR-Cas 9) vanish into thin air, especially after being rejected for concessions by 2 lecturers at Berkeley and desperately running between UoA’s Bio and 360 departments for literal weeks. After many emails with UoA Bio and various lecturers at Berkeley, I finally found a Microbiology lecturer that was happy to have me in his lab. Everything fell into place very suddenly and a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders.

A meme shown during Golden Bear Orientation. You’ll see what this means when you get here 😉 (GO BEARS!)

Now to the present time and a slightly more delightful topic, classes here at Cal! The variety and very odd specificity of classes was what interested me in Berkeley in the first place and I was not disappointed. I have one class that is literally about only Microbial Genomics and Genetics and another one on Bacterial Pathogenesis! Whilst I sometimes feel a bit behind, no student or teacher seems to be getting tired of any of my questions so I’m learning a lot just by asking follow-up questions all the time. What’s even better is that everyone seems to love Microbiology just as much as I do! It’s easy making conversation with people when they like hearing random fun facts about local bacteria. It has been very enjoyable nerding out with people and learning from them, especially since a lot of the students have student jobs in real labs and have lots of interesting stories to share. Getting involved in the labs and conducting research is a very normal thing here and students from all levels and backgrounds can participate. I myself am very excited to be able to have a project lined up and will finish the blog post with a promise to keep y’all updated about the project!

Sciencey regards… and GO BEARS!!