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Student Perspective of the Integrated Science Program

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What is ISP?

Think of the Integrated Science Program as a biology minor, chemistry minor, physics minor, and math minor combined into a single major. The primary intent of this program is to expose students to all fields of the natural and mathematical sciences so that they can see commonalities among different fields of the natural sciences. As such, many ISP students choose to pursue a double major in biology, chemistry, physics, or math, among other popular disciplines. The second major is the science or engineering discipline in which you choose to specialize.  

The ISP major allows you to see connections across different disciplines. Here's an example: upon majoring in math and ISP (which is what I am doing), you may find that the process of figuring out a reaction mechanism in organic chemistry (i.e., how to get from the reagents to products so that each intermediate state follows directly from the previous state) is quite similar to the process of proving a mathematical statement (i.e., how to get from the assumption to conclusion so that each statement in the proof follows directly from the statement right before). This is the kind of connection across distinct fields of the sciences that you won't find unless you study both disciplines. 

Another important aspect of ISP is its emphasis on mathematics. The math courses in the ISP curriculum are in place so that you can see how different mathematical techniques are used in the natural sciences. For example, in Math 381 (Fourier Analysis), you will see how one of the classes of functions, called spherical harmonics, is intimately connected to the atomic orbital shapes, which you may already be acquainted with from chemistry classes. Spherical harmonics, however, can also be seen in earth science (Earth 350) when you learn about seismology.


Some benefits of being an ISP student

The ultimate benefit of being able to see these connections across disciplines is that you gain proficiency in a wider variety of approaches to tackle scientific problems than those who receive training in only one field of the sciences or engineering. This is particularly useful if you plan to go on to a graduate program in a natural science field.

Also, many ISP students get involved with research. Students in ISP are often able to find a lab or research group at an earlier stage in their undergraduate career than their non-ISP peers. This allows students to work in a lab/research group longer, which increases the likelihood of producing work for an honors thesis or that can be published in a peer-reviewed journal . 

What to expect when you start ISP

You should get yourself ready to: 

  1. Jump right into multivariable calculus (i.e treat concepts from Calculus BC as prerequisites). The first year-math sequence (Math 281) will start with multivariable calculus, and very little time will be spent on reviewing Calculus BC concepts. 
  2. Collaborate with other ISP first year students during your assignments for multiple ISP-specific classes (mainly first-year physics and math). This is your main opportunity to get acquainted with your entering class peers and make friends along the way!
  3. Not be afraid to ask for help whenever needed. You WILL need help at some point in your ISP career.
  4. Participate in research over an extended period of time. This is one of the main ways to make your ISP major count. The longer you are engaged in scientific research activities, the more likely you are to be able to produce interesting work and learn about the different aspects of scientific research. (That said, however, do not hesitate to find a different lab if you want to broaden your horizons or if you find that your current experience is not what you were looking for! Also if you start research in year 2 or 3, don’t worry. You’ll still have time to get a lot out of it) 
  5. Apply for external fellowships before graduation. ISP and Northwestern have a lot of experience helping students apply for fellowships while they are in the program as well as applying for graduate schools when they are about to graduate, such as by writing them very detailed recommendation letters. 

To be successful in ISP, it helps to:

  1. Know what you want and don't want. Being clear on what your priorities are is one of the aspects of successful students in ISP.
  2. Get stuff done efficiently and know how to ask for help (either from TA's, other ISP students, or professors). The workload of ISP courses, especially during your first year, will be demanding. You will be spending nights working on problem sets and writing up reports for physics/chemistry lab assignments. Time management is key. 
  3. Work hard, but make time for fun. ISP hosts recreational events throughout the year. Take part in them.
  4. Have a strong belief in yourself. Being confident that you can get through struggles is also one of the core aspects of successful students in ISP.
Written by: Eugene Park, ISP