5 Approaches to Studying Science

science majorsLet’s talk about science today, everyone! Science is where I got my first couple degrees, so I love it as much as engineering, which we talked about last week. Much like engineering, the sciences are incredibly diverse, and you can choose to study topics as big as the universe, solar system, and planets, or topics as little as proteins, molecules, atoms, or individual electrons. In fact, that’s how we’ll talk about science majors today – based on the size of what’s being studied.

In honor of Cinco-de-Mayo, we’ll break things up into 5 types of systems, or approaches to studying science:

  1. LARGE-scale: The study of universe, solar systems, and the Earth is known as astronomy. Meteorology, geology, and oceanography are also studied at this large-scale level, where patterns can be studied across large areas.
  2. Organism-scale: Functional biology studies the systems in place in humans, animals, and plants and how they interact with each other through botany, zoology, medicine, physiology, and ecology . We can also study how groups of humans interact (sociology), and how they behave as individuals (psychology/psychiatry).
  3. Cellular-scale: Microbiology looks at living things at a cellular or sub-cellular scale, including humans, plants and animals – but also including bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc. It looks at the components inside the cell, and also how cells interact with each other.
  4. Chemical-scale: Chemistry is the study of matter. What is it? What makes it? Chemists study the composition of different substances, the properties of the substance, and how it interacts with other materials. They also develop new ways to isolate, change or create chemicals for specific purposes.
  5. Energy-scale: There are so many types of way energy can be transferred – through electricity, mechanical, or heat energy, or light or sound waves. Physics is the study of all these different types of energies, and how they interact with matter. Looping back around to where we started, physics can also be applied to understand the energies and forces at place in large-scale Earth and space systems.

Cool how it all connects, huh? I wish someone sat me down and explained all this to me about 20 years ago (maybe they did and I missed class that day, or it didn’t sink in?) so I could have better understood the way the different high school classes link together to provide a unified look at the world.

Does this make sense to you too? This system resonates with me, but it’s just one way to categorize science. If you google “science majors”, there are a million different choices, but in general, they can fall into one of the 5 approaches listed above. You’ll find, as in all areas of STEM (and pretty much everything, everywhere), there is a lot of overlap between the different fields. Therefore, it’s important to understand how making a change at one level, could change things at all the other levels.

You may be thinking, “Wow STEMinista, you’ve outdone yourself there –changes cause other changes, huh?” Don’t worry – I have an example. A specific, living, breathing example. He’s yellow, with a brown nose and 4 legs. His name is Leroy, and you just can’t help but love him.

Look at this adorable guy!

Look at this adorable guy!

Well, a couple of months ago, the SciGuy and I kept coming home to a kitchen floor covered in dog pee. That’s really out of the ordinary for our dog – he’s the best ever. We took him to the vet thinking he had a urinary tract infection, but it turns out he had dog diabetes. Can I just say – for the record – I didn’t even know dogs could GET diabetes! So my first instinct was to laugh. The vet wasn’t amused. Once I regained my composure, we talked about treatment options, and it turns out dogs can get insulin treatment for diabetes just like people.

Where does the science come in? Good question – I was getting to that point – I just had to get the socially awkward part of the story out of the way first (even STEMinistas have terribly awkward moments!)

So if we look at treating dog (or human) diabetes on a scientific spectrum, there is a lot going on. First at the animal scale, a veterinarian or biologist had to monitor symptoms across a wide cross-section of the dog population to identify key symptoms, and then develop diagnostic tests to confirm diabetes – that part required help from the people studying at the cellular/system scale. They had to figure out exactly what in the body changes to trigger diabetes, and what biomarkers change from normal (and what is ‘normal’ anyway?). In dogs, blood and urine sugar are important, just like in people, and I believe fructosamine is tracked similarly to A1c in humans to monitor long-term average blood sugar. The systems/and cellular team also had to collaborate with the chemists to identify ways to package insulin that is purified, stable, and effective in the dog. Drug development requires methods developed by physicists characterize different versions of drugs and what happens to them over time. Once the treatment and delivery methods (injections) are selected, things get passed back up the science chain as the dog goes through its diabetes treatment.

Want to learn more about diabetes in people? I subscribe to the Sawbones podcast – it’s a combination of medical history and humor, and it’s fantastic. They recently did a show on the history of diabetes – it’s actually one of the first diseases ever recorded. (warning: sometimes both the medical discussions and the humor contain content for adult audiences)

Well – that was a pretty long-winded example which was meant to show how many branches of science are used to address single problems at many levels. Math and logic systems could be a sixth way of studying science, but that would ruin our count – it is Cinco de Mayo after all. Instead, math will get its own dedicated post next week. Keep an eye out for it!

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Also, if you’re eligible to vote in the U.S., and there’s an election in your area, make sure to get out and vote!  That’s the easiest way to share your opinion with your elected representatives!


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