Life

Studying the brain has made me value life more than I had previously. Death and brain damage were always things I thought about (maybe too much when u was younger), but learning the details of how the brain works – and what it means – made me realize how fragile it all is. Not just life. The brain holds our concepts of ourselves. My image of me is the product of my brain processes. It’s truly wild to think about. It isn’t just that the lights get shut off, it’s my entire personality, my memories, my “self” is destroyed. That’s impossible to fully appreciate.
What’s making my hands work right now are shots of electricity and chemicals flowing in and out of cells. All lining up in just the right way for me to touch the “a” key when I want. Thinking about the steps one by one forces me to slow down. Move my wrist, extend my index finger, hit the key, locate the next letter, move my arm, turn my wrist, extend my finger. But it’s so much more complicated than that. All the stuff we don’t see happening. Signals flying around my body, up and down the spinal cord, and through my brain. A small lesion to a nerve or in my brain and that function might be shut down. Not the end of the world, it’s just my fingers. I would certainly miss them but I’d live. The true insanity comes from the fact that that’s how everything works. That’s how you are you. Electricity and chemicals moving when they’re supposed to. A lesion now might not just stop your leg from moving, it could change who you are. Are you still even you anymore? The person you thought you were at your core, how you identify yourself, even through circumstances and life changes, is altered or completely gone. Yeah, the various problems that could lead to something like losing the ability to see motion (one of the most difficult injuries to imagine) are scary and would doubtlessly screw up your life in some way. But way more tragic, to me, is losing your sense of who you are. And it’s also a moment away. The electricity is trying to travel down the axon, but fails. The threshold to trigger an action potential is never reached. You can witness it when you see something die. Hopefully you never have to see a person die or suffer through Alzheimer’s, but the principles hold for other animals as well. If you’ve ever seen an insect die, then you know what it looks like for the brain and cells try to keep it going and fail. The last commands from the brain moving a leg. Struggling beyond hope to stay alive.

Life

Change My Mind

It’s so beautiful.

I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things…I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things.”
Richard Feynman

This was hard for me to learn and be comfortable with. So many things, so often throughout childhood, school and parents, want answers. Those answers will be right or wrong and you will be judged on how many you miss. I wanted to be right. I wanted to know. Not knowing was a defect in my ability. It was missing intelligence. It was idiocy. In the desire to avoid not knowing, imaging answers becomes an option.

It feels better to think you know than to know you don’t.

These videos are amazingly beautiful. They bring tears to my eyes every time. Feynman changed my mind. There’s no higher compliment.

Below is the first one I ever saw. The wonderful Carl Sagan. I grew up with his Cosmos and probably owe him a lot (and owe my parents a lot for caring what I watched as a child).

“The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for a parent to care for us, forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable. If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”
Carl Sagan

 

I’m not sure how much more inspirational you can get.

 

Change My Mind

Your Major

Thought it would be fun to look at and talk about the requirements for different majors since I had to think about mine a lot recently. I was fairly limited to interactions with science-y people. I was surprised when I’d talk to kids who only had to take one or two labs their entire college careers. Labs aren’t necessarily harder than any other class, but time-wise, they really muck things up. You might need to study an hour every day for a class, but having 9-12 hours of lab a week is rough no matter how simple the work is (and it’s usually not simple).

I hear engineers have it bad. I never took any engineering classes but I did take math and physics with a lot of them and they always seemed swamped.

Anyway, I was interested in hearing about your major requirements and what you think about them.

 

Here were my requirements for a geophysics B.S. (minus the breadth stuff/GE or whatever it’s called):

CHEM 2A, 2B, 2C (all with labs)
MAT 21A, 21B, 21C, 21D, 22A(lab)*
PHY 9A, 9B, 9C (all with labs)

GEL3/3L
GEL 50/50L
GEL 60 (has a lab)
GEL 62 (has a lab)
GEL 100/100L
GEL 101/101L* (took the lecture but not the lab)
GEL 103 (lecture and field work)*
GEL 105 (has a lab)
GEL 106 (has a lab)
GEL 107/107L
GEL 108
GEL 109/109L
GEL 110 (6 weeks living in the field 6 days/week)*

Plus 12 more units of upper division geology (or select other) electives

 

I thought that was normal until I started my neurobiology B.S.
Here are those requirements:

BIS 2A, 2B(lab), 2C(lab)
CHEM 2A, 2B, 2C (all with labs)
CHEM 8A, 8B(lab)
MAT 17A, 17B, 17C (or 21 series)
PHY 7A, 7B, 7C (or 9 series and all with labs)
BIS 101, 105, 104

NPB 100
NPB 101/101L
NPB 102
Plus one more lab of your choice from NPB
STA 100
GEL 107 (Without the lab)

Plus 12 more units of upper division NPB (or select other) electives

 

Comparison:

So, math and physics would be easier in neuro. I have two more chemistry classes and a lot more biology (makes sense). The depth subject matter is HUGELY different though.

I only had TWO neuro labs. I had TWELVE geology labs. That’s absolutely insane. Many of those labs were 3 hours long, twice a week, on top of a lecture. The labs always took longer than 3 hours to complete, so we got our own keys to the microscopes and were given key-codes to get into the classrooms/hand samples/slides whenever we wanted. That part was sort of neat because I’d almost completely alone in the building some nights (still time consuming though).

Assessment:

In my opinion, geology is terrible. It’s set up so no matter what your interest is you HAVE to take all those classes I listed. GEL 107 is paleobiology. A really neat class about the history of life on Earth. If you like that, then you’ll love GEL 105: Igneous Rocks. Why is it required that I learn about optical mineralogy if my interest is paleobiology!? Both of those are considered geology, which is cool, but why not split it up so people interested in the history of vertebrates, natural hazards, and historical ecology (all geology classes) aren’t forced to take 4 or 5 classes that are solely about identifying rocks/minerals?

Neurobiology was better. There was a lot of chem and bio, which was tough, but the neuro stuff was almost completely left up to you. 100 was basic neurobiology and 102 was animal behavior. 101 was physiology, which was a bit tedious, but hey, 1 class compared to 6-7 in geology. After that one, I got to take mammalian vision, neural mechanisms of behavior, and primate evolution. Fun stuff all around. I would say the same about the geology electives I took if only the required classes weren’t frequently terrible.

Geology was really hard. The material wasn’t any more difficult than any chem, neuro, or bio class I had to take but squeezing in that many labs on subjects that were frequently outside of my interest made the hours feel longer. I was spending around 7-8 hours in the lab room every week. A few kids spent the entire night in the building finishing a lab last quarter. In addition, there was homework and projects and midterms and finals and lab practicals. Those weren’t easy either.

those were my majors. How were yours?

 

 

 

* those are the only classes I didn’t complete. I was that close to a geophysics degree and my university wouldn’t let me get it.

Your Major

College Advice II

I transferred over to a 4-year.

I had almost no science classes completed. I’d be taking physics (all 3 quarters) and intro biology (all 3 quarters) with sophomores and freshmen. Plus, I was only able to take intro geology at my community college since it was all that was on offer. But, surprise, geology is such a small major that most classes are only offered during specific quarters and if you miss one (if it’s full or it conflicts with another class, etc) you have to wait until the next year to have a chance at it again. AND almost all geology classes are part of a sequence (take 60 then 62 then 105 then 106 etc). I couldn’t take the next class in the sequence for a year, putting me back on track with freshman. (Here’s what happened. I should have been taking geology 60 my first quarter, but I couldn’t because it requires geology 50/50L, but I didn’t have the lab completed. So instead of taking 60 my first quarter I had to take 50L and wait an entire year before I could move on.)

That part of geology was a little annoying for me, especially because I didn’t realize how the schedules worked at first. But I wasn’t too bothered because I was signing up for some awesome classes. I took Evolution: Science and World View (a class about how evolution applies to everything) and the Human Brain and Disease my first quarter. The evolution class introduced me to the greatest professor I’ve ever had and smartest person I’ve ever met. I found out he wrote a book, bought and read it immediately. It’s a fantastic book called The Evolutionary World. I recommend it to anyone interested in anything.

I also fell in love with neuroscience that quarter. Right away I knew I wanted to take more classes in evolution and neuroscience. You, being a good student, might see how foolish that is. I was in the geophysics track, meaning I wasn’t taking the math and physics classes for biological sciences majors, which aren’t easy themselves. I was taking the classes math and engineer majors take. Plus, I was catching up in gen chem (with labs), bio (sometimes a lab), and geology (always two 3 hour labs a week). Taking an interest in a neuro major meant I had to continue chem and bio, and take ochem (labs), biochem, upper div bio (with a damn lab), and physiology (lab). Plus, I was still in upper div geology classes (crazy labs) and fulfilling the upper div unit requirements in geology and neuroscience.

Looking at all that I can see I was an idiot. Especially because my passion for geology was dwindling with almost every class I was forced to take. The mandatory classes were terrible. Earth materials (w/lab), mineralogy (w/ lab), igneous rocks (w/lab), metamorphic rocks (w/lab), etc. But then my interest would be momentarily rekindled by an awesome paleobiology class (w/ lab full of fossils) or natural hazards.

I all but knew for certain I wanted to go into neuroscience after college, but found it hard to let geology/evolution go. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I didn’t want all those units to go to waste.

Oh, important note. You might have guessed it, but I never claimed a second major. You have to complete a few upper div classes in the new major before you can petition to add it. I was about ready to start that process when I got an email from my school. I was going over the unit limit.

I had no idea a cap existed.

After receiving the email, I figured out a few things.
There was no possible way for me to complete both majors under the limit.
There was no possible way for me to complete a single major under the limit.
The school kicks you out unless you petition to continue.
AND the school is not flexible when dealing with going over units.

When I talked to a counselor I was told that my petition to continue was more likely to be accepted if I declared the major I was closer to completing. The ONLY reason it was neuroscience was because the geology classes are spaced out so you can only take them at specific times, as I mentioned earlier, and GEL 110 is only during the summer (it’s summer field). I could finish neuro in the winter. I started the process to switch last fall and after hitting a few hiccups, finished it last week.

It was a hell of a ride and maybe more trouble than it’s worth for some people. I wouldn’t recommend planning it this way, I certainly didn’t. I made a mistake. I should have been aware of the unit cap. Not being aware caused a series of shitty events to pile up. Having a hold put on my account. Really difficult classes being shoved into two quarters instead of three plus a summer session. Paper work in two different colleges (letters and science and biological sciences) with appointments in both to communicate the situation while my account was on hold. My IGETC from my JC needing to be sent but requiring I come in for an appointment when that college is 8 hours away. That resulted in numerous emails and phone calls to finally allow me to have an appointment over the phone to get the transcript sent to me.

That paperwork is about done, now… finally. So, if you want to graduate 6 odd months after finishing school, you now know how to go about making that happen.

I’m not angry, maybe a little at myself for slipping up. I think I got a lot out of college. I think I got more than most people do. Not just because I took so many classes but because I went in with a different attitude. I wasn’t there to get through and get a job. I was there because I wanted to be and I knew what it was like to be out there trying to get a job. Sometimes that desire waned and I hated school, but it would come back. I would just need a quick reminder, which a good lecture always provided.

College is weird. It’s weird for a million reasons. The people we meet. The almost tangible transition from child to (nearly) adult. The liberation. The new ideas. Challenging who you thought you were. The experiences, whether through parties or life crushing relationships and mistakes. Being an individual for the first time (not metaphorically, I mean moving out and maybe living alone or with complete strangers). And on and on.

Being older than the normal college student, I do think I appreciated it in a different way. I don’t know if it was better or worse, just different. I was fully aware of how rare and strange college is compared to the rest of life. I wanted to take advantage of it. I wanted to satisfy my interest in The Human Brain even though my major was geophysics, at the time. I wanted to learn about ecology even though it wouldn’t count towards anything. I wanted to know about animal behavior. I wanted to write. I wanted to learn about the history of vertebrates. I knew I would likely never have these opportunities again. I got to sit and listen to people who know more than almost everyone else on the planet about specific topics. And not being nailed down to anything yet, I got to explore everything I wanted. I’m not sure a geophysics grad school advisor would want me taking a class on nonhuman primate behavior.

I took advantage of the freedom while I had it. Doing so caused a few problems that I would rather have avoided, but maybe it was worth it.

College Advice II

College Advice

From one of the worst college students in history.

Months and months ago I graduated… sort of. If I care about accuracy, I have to say; months and months and months ago I finished all the requirements necessary for graduating. If things work out, I will file for graduation by Friday. Weird, huh?

I was a terrible student in high school. I was into music and nothing else was interesting to me. After high school, I thought community college was a waste of time seeing how I had no plans and played music instead. A few years later, I had no money, was still living at home when my band was dormant, and had no idea what I was going to do. Over the next few months my band started to fall apart. Our lead guitarist went to UC Berkeley and our singer/rhythm guitarist moved to LA to give acting a go. The other band I could have joined had moved, then broke up and reformed without a drummer (which is what I do).

I was basically forced to give up on life or try something else. After experimenting with the former for a few months, I landed on the latter (and alliteration). I moved out, and started going to a community college. I had no plan so I was taking random classes just to check things out and get some units to transfer. I had a general idea of what I was interested in doing (science) thanks to a book I read that really excited me, but took some time exploring everything. I even took numerous music classes that didn’t count for much of anything (music theory counted as an art credit but I only needed one and the other music classes were basically pointless and drove up my unit count which comes into play later). Not terrible advice so far, I think everyone should take a bit of time to find out what they like before decided to do that for the rest of their lives. But with all my music detours I was 4 years behind and this amount of exploration was a luxury that I should have maybe cut back on. I could have. I knew I was interested in science. The art and philosophy classes, not to mention way too many behavioral science classes, weren’t necessary if my goal was to get through college quickly. The problem is, I feel they were helpful. And this is why this is terrible college/life advice. It applies to a tiny segment of the population. The people who care more about being interested in something than checking classes off a list and becoming a productive member of society. If there was a “how to” guide for transferring in geology (and there is, it’s called the academic counselor I ignored), I did almost everything wrong up to this point, but even still, I think I did okay.

I’m happy I took Music Appreciation and Music Theory. I’m happy I took a couple intro philosophy classes. Taking Physical Geology sparked my initial interest in geology and made me certain I would pursue a science degree. Even Art Appreciation (which was a lot of memorization and not a great class) was fun. I was introduced to a hundred paintings I had never seen before and learned that I get more joy out of visual art than I realized at the time. True, I didn’t need or enjoy Health and Wellness and Intro Anthropology convinced me all social sciences are a joke. But I couldn’t have known how those classes would turn out and I was happy to sacrifice a few terrible experiences for all the good ones I had. (Oh and if anyone is in the social sciences, I have since revised my opinion. I enjoy them to a degree, but it’s very easy to lose all semblance of science which makes me a little weary. Sort of like psychology.)

To summarize:
I took a lot of unnecessary classes, putting me even further behind than I was. But after two years of messing about, I knew I wanted to study science and was accepted to a 4-year as a geology major.

At this point you might think I turned on the focus, found my passion and pursued it. Nope.

 

This is getting a little long so I’ll write a Part II later.

College Advice

How I Read. I’m Science?

image

I wasn’t this thorough in most of my classes. For no reason, besides my interest, I’m writing about decision making, free will, biases, and other related topics as explored by psychology and neuroscience studies. I don’t think it’ll turn into anything, but I’m okay with that. I’m doing it because I find it interesting which is something I can’t say about many of my classes, even though more than a few were about these very subjects.

The fact of the matter is, our education system is fucking stupid. I know I probably sound bitter when I say that, but I never cared about my grades. I liked learning and felt most classes failed in teaching anything. I had professors say the same thing. My favorite professor (and the smartest person I’ve ever met) thought tests of any kind were a waste of time but had to give them anyway. So he made them super simple and instead focused on teaching us how to think. He had us a read a few scientific articles every week, write briefly about them, and every other week do a short presentation on the ideas in the papers. Plus we had a discussion about the papers and he encouraged us to add our own comments on competing theories.

Other professors wiped out exams and focused on term papers. Term papers forced us to take an intense interest on a single topic and research the fuck out of it. I loved writing 10-20 page papers. You got the chance to become an expert on something. And you got to learn how to research, defend a position with facts and studies, and how to write. However much I end up remembering about the multiple theories surrounding the mass extinction of North American megafauna in the Pleistocene, I definitely got more out of the exercise than I did out of any class in which the goal was to memorize information long enough to bubble in a letter on a scantron.

Another one of my favorite professors said “Regurgitating material bores me and that’s all most classes do.” His exams were brutal because he presented novel situations that required us to utilize multiple ideas discussed in the class to solve. I ended up with a B- in that class, but loved it. I’m happier with that grade than I am of A’s I got in other classes.

Every grade I got in college, I deserved. Good or bad, poor professor or amazing, I knew what I had to do and if I failed to, I’m the one to blame. I’m happy to accept that. All I want is for the professor’s to take an interest in teaching. So many came in with power point presentations and scripts that are updated but seemingly never rewritten with much care. There’s little desire to spread passion to the students and the feeling is quickly adopted by everyone in the room. I know professors are busy. Teaching isn’t the most important part of their work. That seems wrong, but I can offer no solution. Professors have to publish to get money and schools want professors who will attract the most attention by publishing the most. I understand all that but it’s sad when it’s difficult to think of professors who inspired you. In all my time in college, I had three professors who truly made me want to continue to do things on my own in the future. A handful more were okay and the rest were nothing more than an automated computer mouse that clicked to display the next slide.

 

 

*note: this is primarily about science teachers. bio, chem, o-chem, biochem, psych, neuro, geology, etc. I don’t know if it’s similar in other majors.

Also, I didn’t start this post with any intentions to write about education. For this reason, and plenty of others, it might be a shitty post. I apologize for any poorly thought out sections and ranting.

Have a lovely day (or night).

How I Read. I’m Science?