I’ve been thinking a lot about learning and thinking about thinking about learning lately and how amazing of a privilege it is that I hope I never take for granted. This is just a rambley post of some thoughts I’m having as I wait for this data to download… 

In grad school, you learn a lot. Some of it through books, lectures, papers, Google, and Twitter (seriously – scientists on there are often eager to answer questions and/or point you to help). But a lot of it is through practice, practice, practice. And that might take a long time. And you might feel like you’re going ridiculously slow. Like – did I just spend 3 hours trying to process a single peptide in this mass spec data. Yes – yes I did… On the intellectual level I know that I shouldn’t feel guilty about this and I know that I’m not really wasting time, but on the irrational, always-feeling-I’m-not-doing-enough level I feel like I’m letting my PI (lab head) down and worry that she’ll think I’m not working hard (note: this is just a my brain thing, I have no idea what she’s actually thinking but I’m constantly concerned about it). 

But, the great thing about being in “school” or in some sort of training program is that it’s your job to learn, not just to do. It takes “learning” to correctly do the “doing” But sometimes my brain can make me feel guilty about taking some time to do the learning instead of just doing the “doing.” For instance, the other day, while I waited on some data, I spent pretty much the whole day reading up on mass spectrometry. 

For some context, I may be in the final stretch of my PhD, but I’m learning a whole new skill, HDX-MS (hydrogen-deuterium exchange mass spectrometry). More on it here, http://bit.ly/hdxmassspec but basically it’s a technique you can use to investigate the loosey-goosey-ness and stuff of proteins under different conditions. You bathe the protein in heavy (deuterated) water which labels the floppy, exposed parts by making them heavier, then you chop up the protein and use mass spectrometry the weight of the pieces to see which pieces got heavier.

This is the second time I’m using this technique, but the first time, the facility that ran the machine did most of the processing and then I did the analysis. This time, I get to do the processing myself! Which is hard because it requires learning how to use some kinda clunky software which doesn’t provide a user’s manual. And the person teaching me is located across the country so we’ve been chatting via Zoom and email. The plan was originally for me to go out and learn in person, but, COVID…

If you hadn’t noticed yet, I’m one of those people who really likes to know why I’m doing what I’m doing. I like to really understand the techniques I’m using. And I knew pretty much nothing about mass spectrometry. So I spent the day focused on reading and learning. And it was so exhilarating – because I really love learning. And I especially love that feeling I kept getting when I “relearned” something I had encountered early on when I was looking into this sort of thing and I remembered how confused I felt then and now it makes so much more sense and I feel accomplished. But every once and a while I got this nagging worry that I should be “doing” more. I don’t know if this is just a me thing or if others have this same problem, but if you do, I feel ya! 

Now that my data’s here (well, kinda here – having some data transfer glitches so only some of it’s here and I’ve spent way too much time today trying to figure it out) I’m in the “learning by doing” stage. And it’s super super cool to get to learn by working on my own data! (don’t worry – the expert is going to check it over when I’m done!) But I’m soooooo slow (although part of the problem is that data glitch so hopefully when the re-transferred set comes through it will be easier, and part of the problem is the software is pretty slow). I’m already starting to feel more comfortable with it, though, and it is getting easier – but there’s a lot of data so I know it will take me quite some time to get through.

No one else in my lab has used this technique before, which is kinda cool that I’ll be “the expert” here – but also terrifying because I’m definitely not an expert! And I can’t ask colleagues for help. Thank goodness my teacher is really patient and helpful! And hopefully even though my lab mates don’t know how to do what I’m learning they at least will understand that it’s a lot of work… Yup, there’s that productivity guilt creeping in again. And then I feel guilty about feeling guilty about getting to learn!

All too often, learning is portrayed as a chore. You “have” to go to school. The whole premise of some books and movies is people trying to get out of having to go. But, no matter how boring it might seem, no matter how useless you might think the information is, never ever take it for granted. Getting to learn is amazing gift and I try to cherish every moment.

Learning, in all its forms, is an immense privilege. A privilege which not all people have. In some parts of the world, kids don’t even *get* to go to primary school and, here, people play hooky on college classes. I’m not saying this to try to shame anyone. Just to try to get everyone who dreads going to class to try to see how much of a privilege it is to get to learn. Especially when you get to do it without having to worry about earning money to support yourself and/or your family, without having to worry about childcare. 

I feel so incredibly privileged to have been able to go to a great college and now to be in a great grad program. I feel incredibly privileged I don’t have to support my family financially. And I’m sincerely saddened knowing that most people don’t have these privileges, so I want to do everything I can to pay it forward. 

My life goal, and the goal with my blog and everything, is to try to make learning biochemistry more accessible – to everyone. And to make people really appreciate how great *getting* to learn is. If you approach learning a gift, if you try to really let yourself dive into it and actually let yourself enjoy it, you just might be surprised that you find yourself actually enjoying it. And if you enjoy it, you’ll have that motivation you’ll need to keep you going through the tough parts and the failed experiments. So you’ll learn much more. And that knowledge will stay with you (hopefully) and – if nothing else – you’ll have lots of practice “learning” so you can learn new things throughout life (even outside of school).

I don’t know if this post resonates with anyone, I just wanted to share what’s been on my mind because it’s kinda been weighing me down a bit, especially since my dad left from his awesome visit where I was actually able to let my mind relax a bit. Thanks for letting me ramble.


the bumbling biochemist

lifelong learner and proud geek

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