Biology and organic chemistry course sequence takes toll on pre-medical students


Illustration by Lily Ogburn

For pre-medical students taking biology and organic chemistry at the same time, labs can take up as many as eight hours of their week.

Samantha Powers, Assistant Campus Editor

It’s a fate many pre-medical students at Northwestern can’t avoid: taking biology and organic chemistry classes at the same time. The two-quarter sequence, which includes labs that can run between two and four hours each, leaves some students feeling emotionally and mentally drained. 

Most students choose to take the combination during their sophomore year, though others can choose a different path. For Weinberg sophomore Tara Chen, who completed the sequence at the end of Winter Quarter, the combined course load proved difficult to manage.

“Having it done is a huge relief,” Chen said. “It just really put a massive burden on my sophomore year, and I really did not get to enjoy my second year of college at all.”

They said they had “zero free time” outside of studying, eating and sleeping during the first two quarters of the academic year, due in part to lengthy lab sections.

By the second quarter of the sequence, students typically take two four-hour labs in addition to their normal course work for the biology and organic chemistry classes. Chen said attending eight hours of lab each week in addition to studying took a toll on their mental health.

Chen skipped a Chem 215-2: Organic Chemistry II exam at one point during Winter Quarter due to panic attacks they had the night before. That week, they had two tests within 24 hours of each other, followed by a four hour lab and an additional lab report. 

“I would have had to do my lab report and study for the orgo exam after finishing studying for the bio exam,” Chen said. “It was just such a brutal combination that I ended up being like, ‘I absolutely cannot do this right now.’”

Though their professor was accommodating and excused them from the exam when they procured a doctor’s note, Chen said some students may not have access to health professionals who are readily available to write such letters.

Weinberg freshman Ethan Lee is currently taking the biology and organic chemistry sequence and is set to finish it in Fall Quarter 2023. He said his organic chemistry professor treats the course’s lab like a separate class with quizzes, midterms and finals of its own.

“Even though I’m only taking 3.3 units of credit, it feels like I’m taking four, just because of the lab,” Lee said.

He said he chose to take three classes a quarter, rather than four, while in the sequence, a time management technique he learned from older students on the pre-medical track. He plans to take two online classes this summer to keep up with his course plan, he said.

Lee said he manages the course load by utilizing resources like peer-guided study groups, office hours with professors and drop-in tutoring opportunities.

Weinberg sophomore Julie Paska, who completed the sequence in Winter Quarter, said she also utilized all the help she could find by staying after class to ask questions and setting up one-on-one meetings with professors. She said though the courses were difficult, she was able to do well by the end of the sequence.

“You are learning how to interpret, analyze and utilize a whole new language of science while also balancing that with other classes at the same time,” Paska said. “That ends up being a little stressful, but I will say that it’s not completely impossible to do.”

On a typical day while she was taking biology and organic chemistry courses, Paska would wake up at 6 or 7 a.m. and study until about 10 p.m. Then, she would wake up the next day and do the same thing.

Paska said while she worked herself too much in the fall, she had learned to prioritize her sleep by Winter Quarter.

“I realized that you could study for all of these hours at a time, but you’re not really actually going to acquire anything if you’re not sleeping enough,” Paska said.

Paska said enduring challenges the classes presented made her a more resilient student and taught her to take initiative on seeking support.

Now that she’s no longer in the sequence, Paska said she is “straight chilling.”

“I feel like I actually have time to do things non-academic and just spend time by myself or with friends, without fear or pressure,” Paska said.

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @sqpowers04 

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