Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Beauty is in the Details

During last evening’s mega-lecture to my Anatomy and Physiology night class, I presented my favorite topics; DNA, RNA and proteins. To be fair to my students, I did warn them in advance of my fondness for these topics by saying they are near and dear to my heart, that most of my life has been invested into molecular biology research. Nevertheless, after lecture was over, they gathered around me like wet sheep asking plaintively, “Do we have to know all these details for the exam, like, you know, what the signal peptide does?” and “Do we have to memorize the codons and their amino acids for the exam?” Indeed, last night’s lecture was, for most of them, a very small drink from a very large hose. I am certain this will not be the last time this occurs.

“No,” I responded, feeling annoyed with myself for wasting their precious and limited lecture time on details, annoyed to realize that I was not strictly ‘teaching to the test’ as the other Adjuncts always advise me to do. “No, you don’t have to remember all the details. I told you about some of the details because I think they’re beautiful.”

Realizing that my admission made me sound like an eccentric, I then followed up by describing how learning about the intricacies of molecular biology could help them in their future medical careers, that knowing about DNA could help them explain paternity tests and heritable diseases to their patients, that appreciating the subtleties of protein folding and modifications would give them an understanding for illnesses such as Mad Cow Disease.

This lecture and their reactions to it were a trip back through time for me: I clearly remember hearing my first lecture about DNA, RNA and proteins. In that lecture, I recall that the basement classroom was poorly lit. The teacher paced back and forth in front of us, hands open and moving, fingers grasping at .. what? I sat stiffly in an uncomfortable wood chair in the middle of the second row from the front as if attending the opening night for an epic play. As the mystery was carefully unveiled before me, I forgot to breathe. Every molecule in my being was transfixed: I was unable to move my body, not even to dutifully take notes, but my mind raced across these open vistas with the sudden joy of discovery combined with a peculiar sense of familiarity as my life changed forever.


I told you those details because I am a scientist who is deeply awed and in love with my subject and I wish you to be awed and to love it, too.

I wish my students to see that molecular biology is a bold masterpiece upon which rests the larger masterpiece of life. I wish my students to realize that every gene represents a brushstroke within this masterpiece, each one unique and special. I wish my students to understand that individual genes contain, within their sequences, the record of their passage through time and that deciphering the story contained within our DNA is to learn about our history. I wish my students to recognize that even as our genes disclose our distant past, they also reveal how our lives are intimately intertwined with all life on earth. I wish my students to learn that even though they are defined and described by their genes, their individual fates are not dictated by their genes any more than by the stars. And last but not least, I wish my students to understand that nature is the great scientist and we all are her pupils, that we are trying to decipher her grand and multi-faceted experiments as they unfold before our eyes, each one possessing an itinerant beauty and completeness that defy mere words.

Perhaps one of my students will be changed by the grandeur of all as I was.

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Included with the Best of Me Symphony
Issue 105


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

18 Peer Reviews:

Blogger waxwing said...

Wonderful! I hope your enthusiasm catches in them. Nothing inspires as well. They'll fret over the tests for now but the excitement will remain for those who listen.

6:11 PM  
Blogger Miranda said...

That was beautiful. I must file that away for the students I tutor since that is the topic of their next exam.

7:08 PM  
Blogger gollux said...

There'll be one. Even if it's not the day they listen that it reaches them with beauty and magic, there'll be one who'll remember and fall in love because of it.

Also, eccentric is what's best about people. It's frequently what we love most about people.

3:33 AM  
Blogger markw53 said...

just happened across your page and was transfixed immediatly.i wish i was one of your students.i'll be back.thank you

7:45 AM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone. I was not happy with my "performance" for that lecture because I thought my professional passions were getting in the way of "being a professional instructor". Except I momentarily forgot that evening that I am not a professional teacher (nor do I ever want to be), that instead, I am a professional scientist who teaches, and therein lies all the difference. And that makes me happy. I am glad to know that this makes you happy too. And perhaps my students, as well?

8:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with what the others said, especially the gollux.

(The only Gollux in the world, and not a mere Device?)

When I look back on what really set apart the good teachers I've had from the mediocre ones, it was that enthusiasm and passion for what they were teaching. If you've got it, it shows. You've changed the life of at least one person and probably more.


9:24 AM  
Blogger Dani said...

What Werewolf32 said is true for me, as well. The teachers I had with passion and a love of their subject pulled me into the matter far better than those teachers who didn't. Not only did I come to appreciate the subject more, but I retained a great deal more knowledge from them, too.

7:03 PM  
Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Wow, that made me cry.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm in the wrong field. I enjoyed learning about DNA, but I wasn't transfixed by it in class. Purifying it for the first time and spooling it out on a glass rod, that was pretty darn cool. But I never thought it changed my life forever. I still wanted to be a musician even after I had purified DNA for the first time.

I think it's great that you want to give them an appreciation for the beauty and complexity, and have a profound respect for biology and how little we know.

I also think you'll find that they understand more if you can teach them the underlying concepts - the general concepts, the ones that we find repeating over and over again throughout biology- before they get overwhelmed by the details.

Then, whatever details you throw at them, either because they're beautiful or because they're on the test, they'll have a better framework to put them in, and they'll retain more, and ask better questions. Personally, I think this framework should have chemistry as its foundation, but I don't know what your school has on its prerequisite list.

Good luck, you are a brave and good soul.

7:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If it's worth anything...

My favorite classes in college and grad school were taught by professors who were passionate about the subject. Their love and excitement for it made ME love it and be excited for it.

Having a professor who isn't passionate makes the class extremely boring.

8:04 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Thanks everyone. After I started this teaching gig, I decided that the quality of teaching doesn't matter at all, that students will either pass or fail on their own regardless of what the professor does. I guess I'll have to rethink this since your comments lead me to believe that my conclusions might not reflect reality.

11:51 AM  
Blogger Miranda said...

I think you are right in the sense that students who want to pass will pass regardless of the quality of instruction. However, an instructor who is passionate about her topic is likely encourage and influence students to think of the topic in a new light.

The anatomy teacher at my school (another community college) really loves microbiology and cell anatomy and while those topics aren't crucial to the teaching of anatomy and physiology, many of his students consider that their favorite part of the course looking back.

12:15 PM  
Blogger Cactus Prick said...

If you want to dumb it up a little (which you shouldn't), just throw in this tidbit:
Q: What do diarrhea and eye color have in common?
A: They both run in your genes.
Keep up the inspiring work!

9:31 AM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Wow, and comments still are being added to the queue! Should I list this as one of my most popular blog essays? Based on the numbers of comments alone, I should!

miranda, I often wonder how favoritism affects a student's grades or knowledge of a particular subject .. is there any correlation? I think there is little, if any, correlation, although people do tend to like what they are good at doing. But looking at my own life, I see that being really good at something and loving it too play almost no role at all in getting a job doing it (if it does, well, where's my job in the molecular evolution of birds, then?). In fact, I wonder if there is a weird bias against hiring people who actually like what they do, perhaps because many people have a perverse idea of what wages are for .. for example, I have been told more than once that, if I love what I do, then I should do it for free!)

(by the way, cute joke, thwacksplat)

10:27 AM  
Blogger Miranda said...

When you say favoritism, do you mean a student's perception of a subject? In my case, I tend to put in the work required for an "A" regardless of my feelings toward a subject, hello Intro Stats class. However, subjects I actually enjoy do get preferential treatment from me. I will spend extra time learning the complexities instead of just what I need for the test. Case in point? The history and trigonometry classes I am enrolled in this semester. I will earn A's in them, but I exert a lot more effort in my lit and algebra classes.

Maybe because I am "old" (31), I don't feel the need to segregate my performance only into classes that I like.

I dream of academic research, but my age and parental status keep me from thinking of research as anything other than a dream. Reading about your experiences thus far trying to secure meaningful employment break my heart. If you can't do it, and I presume you are younger and have fewer complications, then what right do I have to think I can break in?

I know someone IRL in the same boat. Its depressing.

6:50 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Yes, Miranda, that's what I meant when I wrote "favoritism" but my brain-dictionary wasn't working properly when I wrote my reply yesterday.

I am actually a little older than you are but I do not have any social obligations that prevent me from, say, picking up and moving across the country (or the world) to pursue my career. (It's interesting to realize that all my sacrifices for my education and career have resulted in .. absolutely nothing, not even a minimum wage job!). Even though I have not been offered anything at all, the job situation in the UK looks promising. Until something worthwhile happens, I will remain where I am happiest, surviving (sorta) by cat sitting, tutoring, on the good will of my friends and (now, suddenly), teaching as a part-time temporary professor of science.

5:33 PM  
Blogger Mr. N said...

Oh wow, I automatically get a "blogger display name", vice having to be anonymous.

First, I'm so glad to see Waxwing here. I miss her from my previous haunt.

"Realizing that my admission made me sound like an eccentric, I then followed up by describing how learning about the intricacies of molecular biology could help them in their future medical careers, that knowing about DNA could help them explain paternity tests and heritable diseases to their patients, that appreciating the subtleties of protein folding and modifications would give them an understanding for illnesses such as Mad Cow Disease."

Wow, so much there, and yet the details and particulars of it all are only in your mind, which has been trained to understand these things. I find myself grappling with the same difficulties in the classroom, to wit, I know so much more than the textbook actually expects me to share, or the course curriculum expects of me, so why not sprinkle this other stuff there?

We have similar fixations. Coming to appreciate and understand the beauty of translation, transcription, codons, anti-codons, ribosomes, ribosomal RNA, and on, and on. I love the idea of Maltase --- it breaks down 1,000 substrates a second, splitting maltose into its consitutent glucose molecules. The only thing I know that works that fast is inside my computer, and yet here's this protein floating around in my body doing something that I couldn't possibly watch given that it's doing it at the rate of 1 per .001 seconds --- infriggin'credible. And I know someone who died of Mad Cow, actually CJD (it was genetic, her father subsequently died of it two years later at the age of 67, she was 43), and I'm still amazed, and on some level find difficult to understand, how a corrupted protein geometry can wreak the havoc that it apparently does. But of course that same geometry in a different guise makes maltase the engine of constructive decomposition that it is, so why shouldn't an aberration create something equally efficient and with amazing speed of a malicious nature.

But alas, we're the initiated, the annointed, we see and somehow feel the beauty of all of this. On the whole the vast majority of humanity doesn't care. Either they don't think it's interesting (until they need it for some reason, and then they only want to know about it to the extent that it takes care of whatever their need is), aren't smart enough to appreciate what it is you're talking about, or simply lump it under the title of "too hard" and skip around it to the best of their ability to do so.

That you can see the beauty and have the wonderment that you do will make you a good teacher. But if you're too promiscuous in how you share this you'll find that you're disappointed often, and your students will begin to grumble about your tangents, which really aren't tangents but if it's not testable, per their thinking, why bother with it?

The path of the teacher is a difficult one to hoe. Occassionally you'll encounter the students who'll actively seek your insights and want to share your enthusiasm, and they will be as manna from heaven to the traveler in the desert. But prepare yourself for the mediocre, those focused on what's on the test, whose interest in life isn't what you have to say, or what science is all about, but what ticket needs to be punched to get them from here to wherever it is they see themselves going, for they, by and large, populate our classrooms. Thinking is not for them, insight and wallowing in the wonderment isn't their cup of tea, they just want to get that score that gets them to the next station, and thank you to you, maybe, along the way.

8:51 AM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Hello Mr. N! I am happy to see you after your blog rebirth and relocation.

I still struggle with teaching but my students are (I like to believe) coming to appreciate me more and more. In Thursday night's A&P lab, for example, four of my students began to quiz me about the possibility that I'd return this summer. Overhearing the conversation, more and more of them gathered around me, wanting to hear my answer until more than half the class had left their microscopes to cluster around me, waiting expectantly.

I was somewhat taken aback and could only say; "I don't know, they haven't asked me to come back this summer." But my students decided that I must return, that they would petition the dean to rehire me and they all would register for MY CLASS and no one else's.

I was quite surprised by this outpuring of loyalty (I generally feel so inadequate in front of a classroom). Later, after I got a chance to think for awhile, I felt oddly touched and complimented.

9:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I’ve found that if a teacher has a passion for a topic, it tends to enthuse their students. I ‘am currently studying nursing in Australia and science is quite an intense part of the course, to me this is the most enjoyable because of one of our lecturers enthusiasm especially in microbiology, (and its also hilarious when she decides to demonstrate topics using her body it usually turns out to be quite an awkward dance.) I have never been one to study and it gives me that little bit of incentive to do so. Unfortunately her tutor class was so popular she couldn’t let anyone who wasn’t on the roll join. Anyway there was a point to this, keep your zest, its awesome and initiates learning.

6:20 AM  

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