My Mom and I: BScs 36 Years Apart

A girl standing in a greenhouse with plantsBy Emily Mercer, BSC '20 

Photo Credits: Emily Mercer

This year — 2020 — mid-pandemic, I am graduating with an Honours Bachelor of Science with an Honours Specialization in Biology. My mom graduated in 1984, also with a Bachelor of Science and a Major in Biology. We have often laughed about the vast differences between our experiences 36 years apart, and we can’t imagine what the experience of studying science will be like at Western this upcoming year.

After I applied to Western, I checked my Student Center almost every day. I found out I got accepted in 2016, when I saw that little green circle finally appear on my Student Center. My mom found out in 1980, when she got her letter of acceptance in the mail. She lived across town, so to pay her fees she went to school and paid them at Somerville House. She told me she can still vividly remember the sound of the stamp banging on the oak counter to signify she had paid her tuition. She picked her courses by mail, and went to Alumni Hall to get her schedule. In the Alumni Hall gym there were tables all across the room with thousands of papers in alphabetical order by name. She got her timetable, and if she wanted to change something or add a different course she had to go to the relevant building. She chose to take Anthropology as an elective once and had to go to the Social Science building. There they had tables with papers , where they checked how many spots they had left in the course, and told her what time the course was offered. There was no Draft My Schedule and no OWL. After an exam, she would go to a glass-front cabinet near the classroom and squeeze through a group of students to view her grades pinned up on a bulletin board. I am very familiar with scantrons, but apparently back then they were high-tech.

My mom and I visited campus for my Summer Academic Orientation in 2016. She took me to the Taylor Library Stacks, and as the metal floor creaked under our feet, I was shocked; I imagined us standing on scaffolding. I looked in wide-eyed astonishment at the depths of the library shelves retreating through six floors. In her undergrad, she knew it as the Natural Science Library and it was just the stacks. It wouldn’t become the Allyn and Betty Taylor Library until 1991 when lower ground, ground, and main floors were added. I was shocked to learn in a random conversation at home one night in my third year that my Grandpa was actually Allyn Taylor’s plumber! Who knew decades later I would study in a library named after him!

When my mom studied at the library, she studied in the built-in metal desks of the periodicals section. When she needed journal articles for a lab report, she searched through the bound periodicals. I actually did this twice to find two articles published in the ‘60s for my thesis. For her, there was no Web of Science or JSTOR to search for keywords and sort by relevance. Instead, she looked through the reference list of relevant papers she found, and went to those papers and so on. Since then, the silence of handwriting and pages turning has morphed into the clattering of laptop keyboards. But, I’m sure the whispered conversations are still the same.

After writing a midterm in my first semester of first year, we went to the mall and I bought my first laptop. Throughout her entire undergrad, my mom wrote essays on her typewriter, and wrote lab reports by hand with graph and logarithmic paper as needed. They did statistical tests by hand, no R or Excel. We both had lab workbooks though, with pre-lab sheets to hand in as you entered the lab. In her labs, she isolated caffeine from tea leaves and received a picture of her chromosomes. She still has the picture, I found it once when I was younger. It was a small black and white picture of chromosomes tucked as a bookmark in an old biology textbook. In my labs, I got to make aspirin and put moths on treadmills (seriously!). I got to work with crayfish, mice, and birds, while she counted red-eyed Drosophila (fruit flies) and dissected sharks and frogs. She once asked me if we used paper weigh boats, which we did, but we also often used plastic ones, which she never had. Tiny glass droppers were also replaced in my labs with plastic ones. For my labs we used pipette bulbs, whereas for hers they used their mouths.

When we went to the March Break Open House, we sat for the science presentation in Natural Science 145. She talked about the many lectures she had in there. Most of my science classes, especially in first year, were at North Campus Building (NCB), which didn’t exist during her undergrad. I ended up at Nat Sci 145 often too. She recalled having chemistry there where they used what my mom called “Transparencies” on an over-head projector. Remember those clear pages elementary and high school teachers would use on over-heads? Those are Transparencies. For chemistry, they would draw out compounds and reactions, and for other classes the prof would work through a stack of them slide by slide or click through pictures on a slide carousel. There was no Powerpoint, so she had few presentations and they were mostly verbal. In Nat Sci 145, I had physics, organic chemistry, organismal physiology, genetics, and most recently law. Law was, in fact, the last lecture I had on campus. At the end, our prof told us she wasn’t sure if she would see us the following week, because there was an emergency meeting for faculty happening and things might be changing. I returned to my friends in Einstein’s, where we were discussing that an upcoming undergrad thesis conference hadn’t been canceled yet. One of my friends was grappling with having to cancel the STEMposium conference that Women in Science was going to be hosting that weekend, and at which I was going to be volunteering. The upcoming March Break Open House had been canceled that day and she had to follow suit. My mom picked me up on her way home from work that day. I said bye to my friends and when I got in the car, my mom told me COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. She joked that that might be the last time I saw my friends all together in-person. I brushed it off and said I didn’t think so. Within hours, all classes had been canceled for the next week, and would move to a fully online format for the remainder of the year. I wrote my last midterm fully online, submitted my thesis virtually, and had no finals.

First-years and students returning in September will have a very different experience than my mom or I ever had. Thus far, students are signing up for fully online or blended courses. I wonder what social distancing or “pod-style” lectures and labs will look like. Around the world, we have already seen football fields and stadiums with socially distant testing. For now at least, gone are the days of 800 students packing into NCB 101 for their first biology class.

Four months ago I would have said 36 years would likely bring lots of changes to how we attend lectures, conduct labs, or study in a library. In a 36 years post-pandemic world however, I can only imagine what studying science will be like for students at Western.

In the words of my mom, on we go.

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