The Breadth Class That Took My Breath Away

February 28, 2024

Berkeley’s College of Letters and Science has a unique requirement called the Seven-Course Breadth. Essentially, L&S students must take at least one course in several distinct subject areas, regardless of their major. The hope is that through taking a diverse course load, students will be exposed to more perspectives and areas of intellectual curiosity. As a humanities student to my core, I can’t say I was thrilled about fulfilling the Biological Science requirement. Taking a semester-long class completely irrelevant to my major seemed like nothing but a waste of time and energy that could jeopardize my GPA. My disgruntled plan of action was to get it out of the way as soon as possible and never think about the mitochondria being the powerhouse of the cell ever again.

My pessimism took a beat after I actually cracked open Berkeley’s course catalog. It turns out that the offerings for Biological Sciences are vast, ranging from human nutrition to the evolution of insects. Scrolling through all the offerings for the fall semester, I came across “Plagues and Pandemics,” a class name I challenge you not to be intrigued by. Once I skimmed through the course summary and was hooked; particularly, by the encouragement of non-STEM majors to register. This was enough confirmation for me, and I gave Plagues and Pandemics the honor of a coveted spot on my fall schedule. Despite my initial frustration with the bio breadth, this became the class I most looked forward to. While I was nervous about taking a college-level science course in my first semester, my intuition insisted I chose well.

Our first lecture happened to be the first class on my first day, so my nerves were pretty high; so much so that I thought it was necessary to show up an hour early (note to incoming freshmen: it was not). Walking into the lecture hall, which was smaller than I anticipated, I was surprised to see not one, but two professors, at the front of the room. It turns out the course was divided into three sections, each being taught by a different professor (with one ironically being absent the first day for having Covid). Each professor taught the content that was within their areas of specialty, beginning with Professor Beatty’s section on bacteria and parasites. Professor Beatty recognized that much of the class was in the same scienceless boat as me, so we first studied the innate and adaptive immune system before progressing to individual diseases. Typically we would learn one ailment per lecture, with the exceptions being the ones our Professors studied and Covid, which earned an entire course week.

I found myself really enjoying the class, and would even go as far as to say it was worth waking up at 8 AM for (and very few things are). The lectures were endlessly interesting, covering topics like the disease course of Rabies and how it can induce hydrophobia, and how scientists determine what strains the yearly flu virus should target. They were also incredibly pertinent, like the COVID-19 lectures, which explored the multitude of reasons why its vaccine could be developed quicker than other immunizations. It’s been months now, and I still remember a great volume of Professor Ohainle’s lecture series on HIV and AIDS. I can’t say that I can recall every single characteristic of the virus genomes we studied, but I took away something valuable from every single class. The only downside is I doubt I’ll ever be able to eat a bowl of pasta and not think about a particularly jarring image of a 10-meter intestinal tapeworm we were shown.

Now, this isn’t to say that the class wasn’t difficult for me; it certainly was the toughest out of my course load. However, it was a challenge I welcomed. Putting in the extra work hardly felt like a burden because of how much I enjoyed engaging with the material and took pride in my mastery of the content.

I wasn’t really sure what to make out of this newfound interest and worried that I may have presumptively pigeonholed myself into the humanities. This sparked a brief consideration of studying immunology because I didn’t feel ready to say goodbye to learning this topic. However, I still felt passionate about humanities (in particular, media studies) which left me unsure of what to pursue. I luckily found my footing once I was able to identify what it was about the course that excited me the most: public health.

In hindsight, I’ve had this passion for years. In high school, I co-created the Sexual Education Reform and Awareness Club, which advocated for highly informative and inclusive sex and health education in my hometown. I also volunteered with INSAN for Humanity, a nonprofit group dedicated to providing essential resources, like health services, to the houseless community. However, it was not until this semester that I gained the education necessary to fully comprehend and express my care for public health.

Before telling myself I should change my major, I first wanted to determine if I could envision myself in a public health-related career. It is through this process that I was introduced to health law, and subsequently seriously considered studying law. Being a lawyer with an emphasis on health and healthcare would allow me to explore in-depth our endlessly fascinating system of health and its social implications. Health law would allow me to take on a variety of roles, like being an in-house hospital lawyer or overseeing biomedical innovation projects. For me, the most rewarding option would be crafting meaningful healthcare policies that can make health services accessible to all.

In a nutshell, this was a long-winded way of discovering my interest in law. As of now, my intention is to double major in legal studies and media studies, but public health is still on the table. I don’t think L&S intends for every breath class to send you down the same whirlwind path as me, but I do think my experience attests to the value of the requirement. I am only one full semester into college, but already I have become so much more attuned with what I want to do, and more importantly, what is important to me. Plus, now I sometimes guess what disease patients on medical dramas have before the TV doctors can figure it out.