Reflections from Pre-Med Iowa BIG Alum

McKenna Cole was part of the 17-student beta test of the Iowa BIG model in 2013. Her project, in community partnership with the Solon Wastewater Treatment Plant, studied phytoremediation via poplar trees and later won a Google Science Fair award through these efforts.

Yes, it’s hard to believe but I am a senior at UW-Madison and will be graduating in May with a double major in psychology and neurobiology. After graduation I will be moving home and applying to medical schools.

I can’t even imagine what my college career would have been like without experiencing BIG beforehand. I think the main skills, and the ones that have helped me the most, that I learned from BIG were how to be my own teacher and manage all the working parts of a large project. While the professors at UW-Madison are fantastic, no one has ever held my hand and taught me everything. BIG gave me the skills needed to do research on my own to learn what I needed (or what I was interested in) by forcing me to practice doing so every day. Maybe even more importantly, by being involved in BIG I was able to learn how to effectively communicate with teachers in order to get my questions answered. This has been an awesome skill to have when my organic chemistry professor has 20 students waiting in line for his limited office hours. With only a few minutes to answer each person’s questions you have to be really efficient when asking your questions!

“(I) can remember never really feeling comfortable with the fact that I didn’t fully understand the theories behind the calculus I was doing or why exactly mRNA exists.”

Additionally, by managing and coordinating my research project for a year I was able to practice the crucial skills of time management. With a billion things to do every day, having good time management before even coming to college definitely gave me a leg up over many of my peers. Similarly, being able to prioritize things (a skill I learned when the deadline for the Google Science Fair came up a lot quicker than anticipated) has been lifesaving when I have too many things to do, not enough time to do them, and also really want to sleep a few hours that night.

I think most importantly though, BIG helped to further develop my intrinsic love for learning. When I think back to high school before BIG (which seems like ages ago), I remember simply going through the motions and “learning” information for the test. I was doing really well but can remember never really feeling comfortable with the fact that I didn’t fully understand the theories behind the calculus I was doing or why exactly mRNA exists.

After being involved in BIG though, my whole perspective on learning changed. I realized that I didn’t want to simply memorize facts just to ace the test and forget everything a couple weeks later. I truly wanted to know everything simply for the sake of knowing and understanding more, regardless of if I would be tested on the information or not. Because of BIG I have the skills and desire to look things up that I don’t understand or know much about in addition to digging deeper into the materials that are necessary for my classes. Besides gaining more knowledge in general, this skill has actually helped me so many times when I have to take cumulative finals. It turns out when you actually, truly learn the information the first time it’s so much easier to recall that information months later and study for the exams!