By Prof. Felix Ramos, Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, Department Head of Math and Natural Sciences. Florida National University
The COVID-19 global pandemic has impacted society at all levels. The deaths of more than one million people around the world have been an unprecedented, devastating, stressful, and painful result of this pandemic. Furthermore, COVID-19 has changed the way science is perceived worldwide, especially those who do not belong to the scientific community.
There is a “new normal” and people’s thirst for knowledge has created an increased interest in Natural Sciences and its importance.
There has been an exponential growth of the media coverage of this subject, and COVID-19 is constantly in the news, social media, and most people are talking about it in one way or another. The constant presence of COVID-19 in the news has brought a great awareness and people paying close attention to the experts, including medical doctors, biologists, chemists, and pharmacists.
Internationally recognized scientists, and organizations including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), that are usually unnoticed by most people, are the new heroes. Their names have become household names in every corner of the world. The clearest example is Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, in the U.S. The presence, and role, of Dr. Fauci, is of such magnitude, that Google Scholar in 2020 has ranked Dr. Fauci as the 41st most highly cited researcher of all times, and number seven among more than 1.8 million authors, in the field of Immunology, from 1980 to 2020 (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, 2020)
A new topic being discussed by scientists in a COVID-19 world is the misconception of how the scientific process is developed. People expect immediate, exact straight answers to all the questions related to the pandemic, and when contradictory results are published, a feeling of confusion and disappointment spreads across communities. Saul Perlmutter, a Nobel Laureate in Physics, said: “You have to take in that science is an iterative process, that it’s a group process, that it gets some things wrong, and then it tries to correct. And that’s where all of our strength comes from.” (Kim, 2020).
Another battlefront opened by the COVID-19 health crisis is in the area of the social sciences. Professor Sandro Galea mentioned that while in the short term, the biggest concern is to understand the biology of the virus and to find a vaccine, the medium and long term key questions are how to be prepared for the unavoidable next pandemic, how human behavior adapts in times of high uncertainty, how to evaluate the risks and costs of the different approaches taken, and how to deal with the mental issues due to the fear of getting infected and the necessary physical isolation (Galea, 2020).
Selecting a Natural Sciences career in a COVID-19 world
The mediatic exposure of renowned scientists has increased the curiosity of young people around the world regarding the study of Natural Sciences and their role in the preservation of the human species. According to studies of the British Science Association, there is a noticeable increase in the number of young students (14 to 18 years old) that consider starting a career in the field of Natural Sciences and scientific research (British Science Association, 2020).
Data obtained from LinkedIn shows that in the United Kingdom, 41% of children and young people (11 to 18 years old) think that the understanding of science is important for their daily life, and 56% of students (14 to 18 years old) think that science is important in modern society (Krishnamurthi, 2020). Today, after several months of living under the stress of the COVID-19, these percentages could have increased significantly and the trends in the United States must be commensurable to the United Kingdom.
Historically, in the United States, many people redirect their careers according to the necessities of the labor market, while living in hard economic times (Hughes, 2020).
If this trend behaves as expected, during COVID-19 times more young people are going to show interest in pursuing a career in the fields of science and engineering.
A valid question: Is considering a career in the Natural Sciences economically viable in the United States?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020), the median annual salaries of careers related to the Natural Science field in 2018, were: Biochemist and Biophysicist: $93,289; Chemist: $76,890; Environmental scientists: $71,130; Geoscientists: $91,130. These salaries are an incentive to pursue a career in the field of the Natural Sciences, given that the median wage for workers in the United States in the first quarter of 2020 was $957 per week or $49,764 per year
Skills that make the graduates of Natural Sciences more attractive to potential employers.
All Natural Science programs are designed to provide students with a solid foundation and understanding of the fundamentals of the Physical, Chemical, and Biological Sciences; to be able to explain the natural world; to solve complex problems with their mathematical skills; to apply the tools of the scientific method, and to plan and manage research projects.
In many jobs, the soft skills acquired are more important than the content studied during the career. Examples of other important skills that students must develop during their Natural Sciences’ studies include the following (Durjan University, 2020):
- Ability to collect, evaluate, analyze, and interpret data from different sources.
- Communication skills: written, verbal, and presentation skills
- Ability to work methodically and accurately.
- Decision-making skills while facing unexpected scenarios.
- Work in multidisciplinary project groups.
- Detail-oriented and self-control
These skills, along with the knowledge acquired during the student’s career, make a Natural Science graduate a highly desired prospective employee.
Natural Sciences at universities in Florida: an unbeatable opportunity.
South Florida has many educational institutions that offer Natural Science majors. Dozens of those highly recognized institutions are listed in Universities.com (Universities.com, 2020). However, there are other options for students who are interested in Natural Sciences; institutions with young programs, breaking into this market, that are trying to make a difference based on a more person-to-person approach.
What do all the universities offering careers in Natural Sciences have in common?
- Accredited programs
- Highly qualified faculty, holding Master’s and Doctors’ degrees, and with a long experience in the research area.
- Laboratories that are properly equipped, and able to support the development of experimental skills.
- The possibility to enroll in Distance Learning classes.
- The opportunity to pursue a degree in Pharmacy, Medicine, Dentistry, etc., either at the same university or in other universities based on a curricular agreement.
Why are the universities with relatively young programs different, and attractive in a highly competitive market?
- Small classes, where each student receives a more personalized, and continuous follow up of their Academic Progress.
- Well defined strategies to support those students with academic difficulties.
- Scholarship opportunities
- Flexible schedules, day/evening or online, such that students can work and at the same time pursue their career
The new interest in the Natural Sciences careers is a great opportunity for the relatively smaller universities to boost their programs and raise their recognition.
In a COVID-19 world, where the risk of new pandemics is a latent reality, selecting a career in the Natural Sciences is a smart and humanistic decision. It is the opportunity to pass from a simple observer to be a protagonist in the fight for the survival of the human species. It is also an opportunity to guarantee the necessary economic stability of our families and a contribution to its safety.
The scientific community is a fraternity, that we can decide to be part of it at any time. A fraternity where the goal to preserve the future of humanity prevails over the selfishness inherent to human beings, and the geographic, political, and demographic barriers. We are all invited to be part of this fraternity, and perhaps one of us is going to be the next Dr. Anthony S. Fauci.
British Science Association. (2020). Young people are more interested in a scientific career as a result of COVID-19. Retrieved from https://www.britishscienceassociation.org/blog/young-people-are-more-interested-in-a-scientific-career-as-a-result-of-covid-19#:~:text=Findings%20from%20the%20BSA’s%20recent,to%20consider%20a%20scientific%20career
Durjan University. (2020, August). So what can I do with a Natural Sciences Degree? Retrieved from https://www.dur.ac.uk/natural.sciences/current/careers/
Galea, S. (2020, May 7). The World University Rankings. Retrieved from Social scientists can play a key role in stopping the coronavirus: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/opinion/social-scientists-can-play-key-role-stopping-coronavirus#
Hughes, J. (2020, June). What Does the Future of Work Look Like for Graduates Post-Coronavirus? Retrieved from MASTERSTUDIES: https://www.masterstudies.com/article/what-does-the-future-of-work-look-like-for-graduates-post-coronavirus/
Kim, M. (2020, June 30). COVID-19: The Role of Science in a Crisis. Retrieved from Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting: https://www.lindau-nobel.org/blog-covid-19-the-role-of-science-in-a-crisis/
Krishnamurthi, A. (2020, March). What do young people in England think about science? Retrieved from LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-do-young-people-england-think-science-anita-krishnamurthi/
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. (2020, August). Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. Retrieved from https://www.niaid.nih.gov/about/anthony-s-fauci-md-bio
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020, April). Occupational Outlook Handbook. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/
We thank Ms. Silvia Borges (Florida National University) for the assistant with correction and edition of the article.
Prof. Felix Ramos
Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering.
Department Head of Math and Natural Sciences
Florida National University.
Hialeah, Florida, USA.