STUDY TIPS straight from the bumbling biochemist’s fingertips! I get asked sometimes for advice, so hopefully today’s posts shall suffice! One of the common (and certainly understandable!) misconceptions about grad school is that we’re in class most of the time – that’s what “school” is, right? But actually, after the beginning, we’re rarely in class (though in order to get where I am today there were lots of classes I had to pass). I want as many people as possible to have the opportunity to continue their education as far as they’d like, so today I want to help make this less of a steep hike!
One of my favorite parts about grad school is that I get to learn without having to worry about grades and exams (even in grad school our courses were pass/fail which took out a lot of the stress). In my program we had almost all of our courses condensed into the first few months, then we did lab rotations to try out a few labs, then (after passing our qualifying exams) we start doing research full-time. Most biomedical science programs spread out the coursework more, but you still, especially after the first couple years, spend almost all your time working on your thesis project research.
I absolutely LOVE LEARNING – but I was so concerned about grades in undergrad that I didn’t have a chance to enjoy it as much as I’d have like to – I even didn’t take advanced o-chem and advanced biochem because I worried about harming my GPA. Unfortunately, to get where I am today, good grades helped pave the way – so I want to help people do well in school – “well” in the traditional sense of passing classes, etc. but more importantly “well” in the sense of enjoying the journey (learning is an amazing privilege I’m so grateful for) and actually learning!
So here are some things that have helped me through school – and major disclaimer – as you might have noticed, I have a weird brain so I don’t know if these tips will help you but it’s all about what works for you personally – so experiment! Some of this advice is applicable to any subject, and some of it is specifically for biochemistry/molecular biology.
READ THE TEXT BEFORE CLASS: Textbooks are expensive (speaking of which, see if you can use past editions of the textbook which you can get much cheaper – just make sure to compare page numbers) – but the thing you’re really paying for is the lecture – so take advantage of it.
Usually professors will give you an outline of what topics will be covered when and what textbook chapters or pages they correspond to. I would always, when possible, read those chapters before class – it’s ok if everything doesn’t make sense – jot down notes about what doesn’t make sense (and ask about them if they still don’t make sense after class). Also jot down key terms & definitions – this way, when the prof brings it up, the terms will be at least vaguely familiar – and instead of focusing on trying to wrap your brain around a new term and scribbling down the definition you can pay attention to why that thing’s important. The text usually has a lot more info than the teacher covers, and the teacher will often emphasize the things that are most important (at least in their mind)
During class, I liked to take hand-written notes so that I could easily draw diagrams and arrows and stuff. Then I would take pictures of or scan my hand-written notes as well as type them up later. I found this to be a great way to review.
After class, take a few minutes to SUMMARIZE in your notes what you learned – it’s best to do this when things are still freshest but this can be hard if you’re rushing to your next class – try to at least get it done the same day. Also jot down notes on things that you still don’t understand.
ASK QUESTIONS! Don’t be embarrassed to ask questions. Questioning is the foundation of learning and exploring. And the longer you go thinking the wrong thing the harder it will be to learn the right thing.
When you have to memorize, use MNEMONICS (like pure as gold to remember that the purines are A & G) – but try to memorize as little as possible! It’s like the educational version of the “teach a man to fish” adage – if you memorize something like 1+3 = 4, you can see 1+3 anywhere and be able to know it’s 4. But if you see 1+5 you’ll be stuck.
Similarly, if you memorize that water can form hydrogen-bonds you can know that water’s sticky – but if you actually understand what parts of the water molecules are interacting & why (the O pulls electrons away from the H’s and, since electrons are negatively-charged, this makes the H’s partly + & the O partly – & opposites attract) you can see that similar bonds can form in all kinds of molecules – like between the alternating amide & carbonyl groups of the backbone of proteins – and you can start to predict how those molecules will interact too – like to form protein secondary structure (things like alpha helixes & beta strands)
There are some things you will want to memorize – you need a firm grasp on the fundamentals – where biochemistry’s concerned – LEARN YOUR AMINO ACIDS! Ideally, memorize the structures (or at least be able to recognize them if you see them even if you can’t draw them all from scratch). But, at a minimum, learn the abbreviations (3 letter & 1 letter) and, most importantly, be able to categorize them (e.g. charged, neutral, polar, non polar, phosphorylatable?, disulfide potential?)
Speaking of chemical structures, practice recognizing molecules drawn in different ways (for example, glucose (blood sugar) can be drawn in linear or ring forms, amino acid side chains can be sticking up or down, DNA bases left or right – if you’re making flashcards make multiple flashcards with the different forms so you can recognize them all.
And speaking of FLASHCARDS – I made A LOT of flashcards – in addition to “traditional” flashcards with things like a word on one side and the definition on the back (good for self-testing), I’d make more detailed flashcards that were more like mini outlines with lots of key points about the term and I’d use these with friends & family’s help – seeing if I could cover all the main points – they could give me a hint if I got stuck without me having to sneak a glance and see too much!
MAKE DETAILED OUTLINES! Here’s a link to an actual outline on Transcription & Splicing that I came across on my computer, which I made for an undergrad molecular biology course so you can get an idea of the type of thing I’m talking about. https://adobe.ly/2J5dW9h In them you’ll see a lot of figures – I’m actually a terrible drawer, but I used tracing paper to copy figures from my textbook – this let me adapt them to focus on key features and annotate them at will.
Don’t worry about “going in order” of lectures or textbook sections – the important thing is to draw connections between topics in whatever ways make the most sense to you. To help you make these connections, try out mental mapping (basically making a giant flowchart with limitless arrows). A free tool for this is draw.io. It’s pretty great (not a paid endorsement just a happy user)
USE HIGHLIGHTERS SPARINGLY – I have a bad habit of going highlighter happy and highlighting everything so that the non-highlighted stuff ends up sticking out :P.
GET CREATIVE – you can recycle random “trash” (and maybe a few items from a craft store) into models – when I was probably 8 or so I made a model of the water cycle out of an old piece of cardboard, some clay and nail polish for paint – I wasn’t even taking a class on weather, I was just going through a phase where I found weather fascinating (and made my mom watch the Weather Channel frequently…).
And speaking of random interests – take courses outside of your major. I was fortunate enough to go to a small liberal arts school (huge shoutout to my alma mater St. Mary’s College of California!) where we had to take courses from a wide variety of subjects. One of the most valuable was Seminar where we read influential pieces of literature from throughout history and discussed them with colleagues from all majors – it can be easy to get stuck in a science silo & lose site of the big picture but engaging in deep conversations with people with different expertises & experiences can be invaluable for helping you with outside-the-box thinking that can help make science concepts click.
This post is part of my weekly “broadcasts from the bench” for The International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Be sure to follow the IUBMB if you’re interested in biochemistry! They’re a really great international organization for biochemistry.