Mid-Semester Break and USyd Academics

It’s mid-semester break and I am in Queensland (The Sunshine State), three hours north of Sydney by plane.  I spent the beginning of the break enjoying Easter in Sydney, which included the Sydney Royal Easter Show, a massive fair with carnival rides, livestock competitions, woodcutting, and showbags (bags of candy and themed souvenirs at low prices).  The Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales runs the Easter Show to raise funds to invest in agricultural programs in rural NSW.  Here are some photos from the Show:

Packages of different kinds of sheep's wool

Sheep’s wool

Chicken with black feathers in cage with ribbons

A champion chicken


Alpacas behind fence in exhibition hall

A brooding alpaca


Light pink, dark pink, and orange roses in vases with ribbons

Some Australian-bred roses


Display with Pusheen and Riverdale merchandise

Pusheen- and Riverdale-themed showbags


Hot air balloon on grass in stadium at night with bleachers and lights in background

The evening entertainment (included a rodeo, truck (“Ute”) racing, and fireworks)

But before the Easter Show, I had midsems (perhaps obvious translation: midterms).  In a week much like the ones before Thanksgiving or Spring Break at Amherst, I had three big assignments in the four days before Good Friday: a research report for Introductory Psychology, a research paper for Cell Biology, and a project for Data Science.  Generally, the education system is a lot more self-directed by the student here than in Amherst.  Most of the graded work at USyd is produced by the student, i.e. a paper based on new research as opposed to an assignment interpreting existing research.  I have problem sets only in my physics class and there are only three assignments for the whole semester, a far cry from the weekly assignments at Amherst.  I do miss the structure of constant practice problems, but a few weekly quizzes have helped keep me aware of which material I need to spend a bit more time with.  It’s also probably good for me to have to organize my own study plans instead of relying on the professor’s list of homework problems.  I haven’t had much assigned reading either; it’s expected that I’ll be able to supplement lectures with reading appropriately when I study for the final exam (worth ~60% in each of my classes).

Undergraduate education in Australia is also a lot more pre-professional than at Amherst.  Entering students are limited to certain degrees based on their university admission scores.  In New South Wales, this is called an ATAR score.  The most selective degrees are Medicine and Law, which start with bachelor’s degrees here.  For me, the most shocking change is how unpopular natural science degrees are, based on the size of my science classes.  People with science degrees are expected to work in research science here, which, though certainly a path for science majors in the United States, is not the only option.  Meanwhile, at Amherst, these science classes are ever-growing and the skills developed are considered applicable to a wide range of professional pursuits.  Science majors at Amherst are also popular among pre-med students because the requirements overlap.

Intro Psychology and Intro Data Science are very well-populated, which is no surprise.  Both provide information that everyone should probably learn at some point.  It’s extremely valuable to hear an overview of Freud’s theories outside of the popular definitions his terms have accumulated over the years.  It’s perhaps even more valuable to learn what standard deviation is in extensive detail.  Surprisingly, there is a lot of overlap between Psychology and Statistics; we’ve talked about calculating standard deviation and correlation coefficients in both and (amusingly) both lecturers have used the OJ Simpson case to explain types of bias.

My assignments themselves were similar to what I probably would have done at Amherst in equivalent classes.  My psychology report was about an experiment all of the students participated in at the beginning of the semester.  It studied test-potentiated new learning, a phenomenon in which testing on certain material can enhance subsequent learning of different but similar material later on.  The Cell Biology paper was about root elongation and morphology in Arabidopsis thaliana.  We treated seedlings with compounds that disrupted aspects of the microtubule organization pathway and observed that the treated cells lost the ability to elongate grow in a specific direction.  In Data Science, I worked with a group to collect and present data (our presentation will happen the day I get back to Uni).  We wrote a survey asking students how likely they were to attend their first classes of the week and how far they lived from campus and hoped to compare trends in different countries.  We received 100 responses, mostly from France, the United States, and Australia.  There was a small negative correlation between distance to class and likelihood of attendance.

My last class on Thursday, after I had handed in all of my assignments, was my Cell Biology lab.  It was quite long and my lab partner and I messed up a cell lysis experiment, but a real highlight was getting to see these yabbies (a native Australian crustacean), which some students took home as pets, charmed by the Biology department’s own pet yabby, Peanut.

Yabbies, a native Australian crustacean, in water on table, green and reddish in color, look like mini lobsters

I am very much enjoying my much-needed vacation.  I chose to take difficult classes this semester in order to keep up with my major, so I’ve been working hard and know the hardest work is yet to come in the weeks leading up to my final exams.  I saw the Great Barrier Reef two days ago and the Daintree Rainforest yesterday.  Both were spectacular. I didn’t realize how close I would be to the coral and fish or how much intact rainforest there is here in Australia.  It made me want to explore Amherst’s natural surroundings more in the fall.

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