Name: Neil M. Neumann
Year: Class of 2009
Hometown: Des Moines, IA
THE LIFE OF A BIOPHYSICS MAJOR AT JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
Hello everyone, my name is Neil and I am a senior undergraduate majoring in biophysics. I wanted to give an introduction to my major, tell you some of the things I love about it, and share a little about myself and how I came to be interested in biophysics.
Since most of you reading this are applying to college right now, I would first like to say that everything will be all right and you will get into some fantastic school that fits you and you will love it. Once you get in to college, all those standardized test scores won’t matter and all of those extracurricular activities that you do just to put on that college application won’t matter either. All that matters is you love what you are doing and you pursue your passions.
Before moving on, I’d like to give you a little background to me and how I came to be at Hopkins.
I was born and raised in Des Moines, IA, where I have two older sisters and my parents. Both of my sisters went to East Coast schools at UPenn and Vassar. My oldest sister majored in political science, economics, and Spanish at UPenn. My other sister majored in art history and Spanish at Vassar. My dad is a business lawyer and my mom is a gifted and talented program coordinator.
Growing up I wasn’t any child prodigy in school; I just did well in my classes and ended up in the advanced program. By the time I left high school I had taken 12 AP courses and was one of my school’s valedictorians (there were 50 of us because anyone with a GPA over 4.0 was considered to be one). During high school I did lots of activities – all because I loved what I did. I started volunteering later than most because I didn’t want to earlier. I was always the kid in my family who came to things on their own. If you tried to push me into something against my will, then I resisted. But when I did find something that I loved, I pursued it. So I did lots of sports in high school and took courses that I thought were interesting, with no particular direction. I played football, wrestling, and track. Growing up I played soccer and competitive road cycling. My senior year I was a captain of the football team and made the all-conference defense team.
The interesting story here is that my sports actually ended up leading to my future interest – translational medical research. During my sporting days I sustained three injuries, all requiring surgeries. I had knee surgery, shoulder surgery, and then my senior year I broke my back playing football. Don’t worry, it wasn’t that serious because I was still able to play the rest of the season out. Anyway, it was my interactions with the surgeons and physicians and physical therapists that led to my interest in science and the body. This then led to my interest in medicine as a way to connect science and the human body. I then excelled in the classroom at my science courses, enough so to get into Hopkins. When I applied to college, I applied to eight schools. I got into Hopkins, Middlebury to play football, and University of Rochester on a half-ride academic scholarship. I was wait-listed at WashU in St. Louis, Dartmouth, and Duke. Then I was rejected from Harvard and early decision at Yale. And man am I glad I got rejected from Yale because I would not have liked it at all.
During my senior year, I was fortunate enough to get involved in scientific research. I highly recommend this to all of you potential science students. I worked at the Iowa Cancer Research Institute on translational cancer therapies. I worked there for nine months and then I was off to Hopkins.
Once I got to Hopkins, I just took hard classes during that first semester. I was going to take advantage of those covered grades that we have here to try to see how I could excel in this rigorous environment.
Starting in the Intersession term, I began working in the laboratory of Dr. Robert Schleif in the biology department. I was immediately given a graduate-level project and was set off on my own. Of course I had help from members of the lab, but this was my project and it succeeded or failed by my efforts. I worked, and I am still working in this lab today, on protein molecular biophysics. Essentially, I study how this particular protein interacts with itself and quantifying the strength of that physical interaction.
That spring, I declared my major to be biology. It was good for a while when I was getting the general requirements out of the way, but I realized that something was missing from my undergraduate experience although I did not yet know what it was. I then took a course, on a whim, called Introduction to Biophysical Chemistry. The “Introduction” is a misnomer, because this is an advanced course if I have ever taken one. It was this course that changed my direction and I switched my major to biophysics, the department that offers this course. There are a couple of reasons that I switched over from biology to biophysics. The first is the students in the biophysics department. Biophysics is not an easy major by any means, and I’ll talk about that in a little bit, but the students are all about collaborative efforts to succeed in a course. There would be late nights where many of us would stay up working in the biophysics computer laboratory on problem sets and actually having a good time doing it. The second reason is the professors in the department. By far, these professors are some of the best at Johns Hopkins. One of them, and the main reason that I switched to biophysics, is Dr. Doug Barrick, who recently won a teaching award for his Biophysical Chemistry course. The professors are encouraging, and they care about your development as a thinker and as a future innovator in whatever field you end up in. The third reason I switched is because this department is smaller than most on campus. We have around 30 or so students majoring in biophysics. This is compared to around 300 in biology. So, you get a lot of personal attention from professors and a department who knows who you are. You’re not just another student who comes for four years and then leaves. You are a student who influences the direction of the department and you can have your voice heard with the professors.
There are even more reasons why I have stayed on in the department, the main one being that I wanted to come out of my undergraduate experience having learned how to think. This seems like a very simple concept, but it is actually quite profound once you realize it. In a biology major, you can memorize facts and learn things from a textbook that will change within the year, but it is an entirely different thing to learn how to approach novel tasks and research with no textbook to guide you. I wanted to be able to approach problems that I had never seen before, such as in doing scientific research, and be able to solve them. I wanted to push myself to find new limits in areas that I never imagined I would be working on. The breadth of material and depth that we cover in a biophysics major is intimidating at first, but manageable with the support of your fellow majors and the professors. It will be hard, but you will have learned so much and taken away more from being an undergraduate. We have requirements in the major that make other majors cringe. We require five math courses (Calculus 1, 2, and 3, linear algebra, and differential equations), two years of physics (intro courses and then two upper-levels called Biological Physics and Wave Phenomena), upper-level chemistry (Biophysical Chemistry, Biochemistry, Organic Chemistry 1 and 2, and Physical Chemistry 1 and 2 are highly recommended), and upper-level biology courses such as Cell Biology (but you can choose among many courses to fulfill requirements). There also the biophysics-specific courses such as Bioinformatics, Spectroscopy, and many others. I have taken courses on the structure of chromatin and on quantum mechanics. QUANTUM MECHANICS!! How is that possible – I never thought I would be doing it, but I did and it was really great. I learned the foundations of the physical world and how it applied to biology. Few majors allow this cross-fertilization of ideas that is found in biophysics. So yes, you will push yourself, but you will be greatly rewarded intellectually. If you are looking for an intellectually rigorous major with professors and fellow students who care about your development, then this major is most definitely for you. If you don’t think you’re qualified to do the major, take a course in the department and you might surprise yourself.
Although there is a lot of hard work to succeed in the major, all work and no play makes for a dull undergraduate experience. We have lots of department parties such as for Halloween, winter break, and others. Then we have a going away party for seniors. One of the professors has this huge deck off of his office. So each spring the department has a buffet on this porch with departing seniors and all in the department are welcome. It’s a great time to interact with professors and other students.
Outside the major I have a very active life. I do many things on campus that keep me constantly busy. I work in the research lab that I mentioned before. I write for two campus publications – The JHU Newsletter and The Triple Helix Magazine. I am in Beta Theta Pi, a fraternity where I have held numerous executive positions, such as Vice President. I volunteer at the hospital in a pediatric oncology ward working with kids and their parents. For me, it’s been very important to have things that balance my life and take my mind off of school. A lot of kids get lost in the workload here, but if you take the right approach, you can have the best time here, like I have. Below are some pictures of some of my outside activities.
Along this same vein, I felt like it was important for me to realize that Hopkins isn’t the last stop for everything. I felt it was important for me to get out and experience the world. So, during the summer of 2007 I moved to Boston to work in a stem cell research lab at Harvard Medical School. Then the following fall, I traveled to Scotland to study abroad at the University of Edinburgh for my junior semester. Along with traveling constantly while I was there, I took challenging courses and I worked in another stem cell research lab at the Institute for Stem Cell Research, the place they that they cloned Dolly the sheep. All of these types of experiences have added to my time at Hopkins and I can honestly say that all of them have been very positive. I feel that the biophysics major has prepared me so well for the intellectual challenges that I have already had and will face in the future. The courses that I have taken during my time at Hopkins have been tough, but they have already prepared me to keep up with some of the best researchers at Hopkins, Harvard, and abroad in Edinburgh.
In fact, I love research so much that I am pursuing a combined degree program upon graduation. I am currently applying to MD/PhD programs to enter the fall of 2010. I am taking a year off before I enter the program. During that year I will be moving back to Boston to work in the same lab that I did during the summer of 2007. I will work there for a year and then go to school. I am particularly interested in translational stem cell therapies. I want to use stem cells to grow new tissues and regenerated damaged ones. Also during that year I will be taking Spanish classes and piano lessons.
Click here to access more information about the Biophysics Undergraduate Program of Study.
To further your exploration of this academic program and ask any question you may have of current students, be sure to visit the Hopkins Forums’ Academics: The Insider Perspective as well as the Biophysics question thread._______________________________________________________________________________