Dry lab – why I suck at it, but don’t regret taking the classes

Hi everyone, and welcome to my first post of 2021! I hope you had a nice time over the holidays and that your year started well, both personally and professionally. For my first post of the year, I decided to write about my personal experience; how it helped me, and what I learned from it.

If you follow me on social media, then you probably know most of my path in education, but for the new readers, I’m going to write a short recap: I have a Bachelor of Science in Biology and I’m currently finishing Master of Science in Molecular Biology. In my country, a Master’s degree is needed for almost any kind of employment and is a condition for applying for a Ph.D. However, only some classes are obligatory once you reach the Master’s, and in the second year, you only need to hit a certain number of ECTS; you can choose any of the classes as you please. You can choose classes that are completely unrelated to each other or a complete “module” or a couple of classes that are dedicated to a certain topic; I chose Computational Biology.

I was always interested in coding, and coding in Biology sounded like such a good idea at the time. I already took another course, titled “Bioinformatics”, where I initially fell in love with this type of work. It was a very different class, as there wasn’t that much factual studying, but rather we had a problem that we had to solve using various online tools. This class was something new and challenging. Choosing that module seemed like a normal continuation of my interests; another very important reason was also that classes weren’t held every day and also weren’t compulsory. Now, I naturally tried to attend as much as possible, but with my illness and doctor’s appointments, not worrying about doctor’s notes and attendance quotas was a bonus.

My violin plots bring all the people to the yard

There are five classes in the Computational Biology module and I chose four of them: Algorithms and Programming, Computational Genomics, Machine Learning and Statistics, and Mathematical Foundations of Computational Biology. Structural Computational Biophysics, the fifth one, honestly didn’t sound as appealing. Most of those classes were held in blocks (only Algorithms for a couple of weeks, then Statistics, then Genomics), with Mathematics being the only one we had every week for the duration of the whole semester.
Very quickly, I realised this may not be it for me; my colleagues got a hang of things quicker than me, and I felt that I’m lacking quite a lot of the prior knowledge, things I should have learned in high school, but my high school course back then didn’t focus on that. There were also memory issues, probably due to rapid changes in the medication I was taking, which was taking a priority above everything else.

The whole module is not perfect (for example, I learned quite a lot of Statistics, but not much about Machine Learning), however, I think it’s quite rewarding, especially since it’s the only opportunity we have to even check out a dry lab. It requires a lot of dedication and a lot of free time; at least now I have a reasonable (beginner’s) understanding of how to use R. What I also had, was the knowledge that sometimes, your first choices may not be the best for you and that it’s quite normal not to be exhilarated about the classes you’re taking. See, if I chose anything else, I would be plagued by the “what if-s” and now, after passing all the classes, I can confidently say I’m happy with the decision I made, but Computational Biology is just not right for me.

I’ve learned a lot and my professors were very understanding, although I honestly believe they also figured out this field isn’t my strength, but they helped me navigate all the tasks anyway. I gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of this type of research and re-discovered my love for the wet lab. I don’t know how much this knowledge will help me in the actual research, but even if I won’t do profound coding, statistical analysis is always an incredibly important skill to have.
If you had a similar experience, don’t be too hard on yourself – sometimes, we have to try out different things, even academically, to realize what kind of research interests us. Of course, at times that can be rather difficult and not everyone has the same options and opportunities. Academia can bring about a lot of stress and pressure, even without us doing the same to ourselves.

Studying | My top 5 tips & tricks

This week, I would like to write about studying. My studying to be precise, and since I’m at the near of earning my Master’s degree, you would probably guess I know how to study. Well, wrong. Well, maybe a bit wrong. My studying, of literally anything, is greatly affected by my health – without getting into more detail, I have problems with concentration and sometimes memory, which is directly mirrored in my grades and ability to study. However, despite often feeling isolated and defeated, I try my hardest.

I was on my first year of Bachelor’s, when I realized things are not quite right. At first, I thought that it’s just stress and the fact I would rather study neuroscience then General Chemistry, so I casually started couple of courses on Coursera. To my shock and frustration, I soon realized that things are just not working out. Since then, I switched up and changed up my study styles numerous times; places where I study, times when I study, and how I study. One of the first things I did was try the famous pomodoro technique, but I modified it for longer intervals – I found that studying 45 -60 minutes with a break works better for me. This, of course, depends on the subject I’m studying. Have you tried this technique? What did you think about it?

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Another thing that I always do, is having my headphones on – I simply focus better than when I have music blasting through normal speakers. Now, many people don’t recommend listening to music, or having a TV working in the background when studying, but to me, it has been proven to be most helpful. I usually like to put some Dick Wolf produced series in the background, no matter how many times I’ve already watched it, and start reading literature or writing notes. However, when I actively learn the material, I only like random noise, for which I use Noisli, a web site where you can make your own mixes of sounds (like fire, wind, thunder, train, rain…). This site saved me many times from my lack of attention. So, here are my top 5 tips for studying:

  1. Writing things down
    One of my high school teachers was a big fan of this method, claiming that if  we write things down, we tend to remember them better. Whether is simply writing down main phrases & keywords, or making a mental maps, this type of studying and revising proved to be really helpful. Another thing I sometimes do is, instead of writing things down physically, is writing them on the PC, as shorten versions of book chapters, or upgraded versions of PowerPoint lectures (my professors love their PowerPoints). However, sometimes I don’t feel comfortable doing this when I have a large amount of material to study.
  2. Mementos, short notes, and studying out loud
    Instead of lengthily texts, I also like to write down phrases or draw illustrations on post-it notes; I use this as a revision method, where I shuffle them and explain the word or process out loud. I prefer this type of studying when I don’t have enough time, or have a lot of things to study. My trick is to use different colored papers for different subjects 🙂
  3. Writing reminders or spelling out first letters for longer definitions and lists
    I think this is an old trick, but I wanted to include it nevertheless. Instead of definitions and long lists, it’s a good idea to write down first letters or syllables, in order to remember them easier.
  4. Watching videos
    Watching YouTube videos has helped me more than once when struggling with the study materials. Sometimes I just don’t quite comprehend the wording (strictly technically speaking, English is my 3rd language) or I need a reminder of basics, without going through my dusty books from the first year. Videos are here to help and they often include very useful graphics that can help to visualize the material. My go-to channels are JJ Medicine, Crash Course, and Neuroscientifically Challenged. What are your favourite channels? 🙂
  5. Explaining things to a friend/sibling/partner
    This is very similar to the second point, studying out loud, but sometimes I require more practice. Studying groups are a good idea but sometimes, I just can’t make myself to get out of the apartment. In those cases, I try to explain the material to someone in my household (and who usually doesn’t listen to me, but that’s okay :)) – I try to do this by myself as well, when I’m preparing for an oral exam.

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With time I realized that, before I even start studying, I always have a feeling like everything has to be perfect – I have to clean the room first, finish other assignments, eat lunch… My partner doesn’t. And that’s fine. We all study at different paces & places, and sometimes unforeseen circumstances can affect are studying and also grades. Many people struggle with illness, visible or otherwise, which can affect our performance – anxiety, headaches, insomnia… But the most important thing is to just keep going, give yourself enough breaks, and take care of your health. And since I’m publishing this in the midst of the pandemic, know that it’s perfectly okay if you don’t have any motivation or means to study right now! I know it’s easier said than done, but try not to stress too much and relax, if it’s possible.

I would also very much loved to hear about your studying tips & tricks – share them in the comments below! 🙂

*UPDATE: I was notified by a friend that, recently, Noisli put a daily limit for streaming. Also, I forgot to mention another useful app I use for studying, Forest – it functions in a way that you set a timer, and “grow” your virtual trees. I find it useful because the only way to leave the app is to stop the timer (and stop your tree from growing). It might sound trivial, but it helps me stay focused and not check my social media pages every other second.