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Aslan Brown’s UC Berkeley Journey for a Molecular and Environmental Biology Degree

June 29, 2015
Aslan Brown

Aslan Brown

Our Life After College Series continues with Dublin High School Class of 2011 alum Aslan Brown who recently earned a degree in molecular and environmental biology at the University of California, Berkeley. Aslan’s story, like others in this series, highlights the importance of reaching out early to ask for help when faced with the inevitable challenges of a college-level curriculum. Aslan has previously been profiled as part of OneDublin’s Life in College Series and as a Dublin High School student when he was named the City of Dublin’s Young Citizen of the Year in 2010. Let’s start with your graduation, what degree did you earn and was that your plan when you entered UC Berkeley?

Aslan Brown: “I earned my degree in molecular and environmental biology (MEB), with a minor in conservation and resource studies. I started at UC Berkeley with that major declared. MEB is part of the College of Natural Resources, which is a small college with only nine or ten majors and 100-150 students per major. Being part of a small college meant I was able to combine a large university experience with the advantages of a small school, such as being close to your advisor.

“MEB is a survey of the environment from a macroscopic scale, looking at climate change, humans and ecosystems, and the environment working together and from a molecular level, looking at what happens under the surface.” What did it feel like to hear your name and walk up on stage to get your UC Berkeley diploma?

Aslan Brown Receiving Berkeley DiplomaBrown: “It was surreal. Even when I was sitting in the audience, hearing the names of my friends called and waiting for my turn, it still felt like I wasn’t a participant, I was just observing. But as soon as my group was called up, we approached the stage and started up the stairs I thought ‘this is actually happening’. My parents, family and friends were in the audience supporting me and even though you can’t see any of them, it’s bright lights in your face, just knowing that they are there brought warmth and joy to my heart. When my name was finally called it was silent for a moment and then as I took the first few steps there was an eruption of noise, cheers of ‘Aslan!’. It was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had.” Is your likely next step pursuing graduate studies or entering industry?

Brown: “I’m definitely planning to pursue graduate education and am currently deciding between a masters / PhD route or another route. I may go into environmental law, and as a result go to law school. I’m going to take a year off to get some work experience and am interviewing for research positions. I’m also going to volunteer on a research project with one of my Berkeley professors.” You successfully graduated in four years; did you ever hit “the wall” that many students talk about and if so how did you work through that challenge?

Aslan with his parents

Aslan with his parents

Brown: “I definitely hit that point in my junior year. I struggled a bit in the first semester of my freshman year but had a phenomenal sophomore year, with straight A’s, and felt great. I took summer classes after my sophomore year and got straight A’s again. I entered my junior year confident, convinced I had college figured out, and that’s when the upper division classes hit. I wasn’t expecting the intensity of the course material and the exams, how out-of-the-box they made you think in terms of tackling problems. It went from ‘here’s information to learn’ to ‘here’s information, now what happens if somethings changes, how will you deal with?’. Up to that point the material was methodical and straight forward whereas the first semester of upper division courses kicked my butt! I was surprised at how difficult of a time I had and the resulting grades, I went from cruising to scraping by!

“While the second semester of my junior year went better it still wasn’t great. Going into my senior year I took a step back and reminded myself that I’d had success in the past, and that despite my struggles I wanted my senior year to show what I was made of, to go big or go home. I couldn’t think of going through all the years to get where I was and just stop, so I started my senior year by approaching professors who I had been working with and explained that I’d been having a tough time and wanted help. Up to that point I hadn’t reached out, despite all the advice to ask for help, because I believed I’d be fine.

“A key learning from this experience is to reach out early as possible, it will really get you going. I had worked with professors previously but not on a personal level, and taking that extra step showed me that professors have life experience, that they went through the same thing and had struggles, in undergrad studies, in their PhDs and beyond. They told me to look at the struggles I was going through now as experiences that would get me to the next level. When I stopped and thought about it in that way it helped me understand what it takes, and that I could accomplish more than I thought was possible.” Were there any particular courses that helped reinforce that you had chosen the right major?

Brown: “I loved all the classes in my last semester, and one in particular. While I’d enjoyed my classes prior to that point, there wasn’t a moment where I thought ‘this is the greatest thing ever!’ The course I loved the most was one I didn’t need to take to graduate, Behavioral Ecology; I took the course out of interest. I had taken animal behavior classes prior to that point but they were focused on individual community structure. Behavioral Ecology looked at large scale systems, starting with animals and then applying the concepts to humans, how human behavior can be tracked through evolution. The class provided an excellent opportunity for students to speak up and debate, which is not typical in the science classes I had taken to that point.

“I liked that this course looked at the societal and political values behind decisions, not just the facts and memorization. It helped connect the facts and figures I’d learned in other courses to bigger issue topics.” Did you have time for any clubs or extracurricular activities?

Berkeley Class of 2015 GraduationBrown: “I was involved two clubs. Going into college I wasn’t religious so during my first two years I tried out Christian Fellowship club, which brought perspective into my education, and provided a community of caring people which helped me through my freshman year. During high school I was very involved in community service which I stepped away from for the first couple of years in college. I was restless to give back to the community and ended up joining Cal Rotaract, which is the college version of the Rotary Club. I thoroughly enjoyed being out in the community and doing things as simple as helping renovate a park, or helping out in senior homes or even rebuilding houses in impoverished communities.

“That experience made me realize what I was missing in my college experience. I looked for another club to join and because of my interest in animals I joined Paw and Claws which provided volunteers for local animal shelters. One shelter I worked at accepted exotic animals from lizards to squirrels, even a baby alligator. Seeing people bring in injured animals demonstrated to me that people do care and are willing to lend a helping hand to animals that could have easily been left to the side of the road and ignored.” If you could go back in time to your senior year in high school, what advice would you give to yourself?

Brown: “Don’t be tentative, don’t be scared, step out of your comfort zone. You only have four years so take advantage of it. Everybody says the time flies by and they’re right – it really does. It’s easy to find yourself stuck in a place where you are comfortable, where you don’t want to step out, but stepping out is the only way to get the full college experience. Make that first awkward handshake with someone completely random, say that first hello, make eye contact and you’ll have one hell of a ride!”