Back to school and school’s still cool (even if it is virtual)! Whether your classes are online, in person, or some hybrid mix, it’s important that you don’t ditch! This back to school season, more than ever, is making clear just how immense a privilege getting a quality education is. School has too often been viewed by students as a necessary evil, but school is basically like the biggest gift you will ever be given. 

You know those game show prize things where they stick a person in a box with a fan blowing money, and the person tries to grab as much as they can before time’s up? School’s kinda like that. For a set period of time you have a bunch of information blown at you and how much you “win” and take with you for the rest of your life depends in part on how much you grab for it. 

Too often, people just sit in that prize box and doze off. And if your classes are online, this dozing off is probably a lot easier. To make things worse, because of the difficulties in any modified schooling setup, teachers are going to be overstrained and, although they’ll be doing their best, there might be “less money blowing around in the box” (less content and/or avenues to reinforce the content like hands-on projects). 

Bottom line, you’re gonna have to make more of an active effort to grab for and hold tight to whatever you can. And think outside of that box when possible. Traditional modes of content reinforcement, like lab experiments and field trips might be out of the picture for a while, but you can find a lot of great content on the web. I am not counting myself among the great, but I do have a website with the posts that I create. These include all sorts of chemistry, biochemistry, and molecular biology topics. And I hope it’s a tool people find useful! 

I also have some slideshows posted on SlideShare – you’ll find ones on proteins, structural biology, etc there  

Some of the “great”-er resources include Kahn academy, which has tons of videos and lessons on a LOT of topics

If you’re interested in biochemistry, here’s a link to a lot of links: a compilation of resources put together by the the NNLM (Network of the National Library of Medicine which I just learned is a thing) 

For chemistry, one of my favorite websites is chemguide, which has clearly explained posts on the chemistry topics covered in undergrad courses 

If videos are your thing, there are a lot of great lessons on YouTube. A couple of my favorites for biochemistry topics are AK Lectures and Bozeman Science

If you’re looking for some extra classes at college-level or maybe you just want to hear the topic you’re taking from a different professor to reinforce and/or clarify concepts, MIT open courseware has a lot of great lectures you can watch for free as do some other schools. Harvard, for example, has this thing called HarvardX where they have free online courses. 

Those are great for helping you with specific topics, but there are also “resources” you can use to help you with *any* topic. So I thought I’d reshare with you some bumbling biochemist study tips at the end, but first, a few important points. 

A problem with the prize box analogy I introduced earlier is that not all prize boxes are created equally. Unfortunately, the schooling systems (at least in the US) are largely unequal, in part because public school funding is usually tied to local income taxes so the richer people tend to get better schools with more resources. This puts students from less affluent neighborhoods at a disadvantage, with Black and brown kids often getting the worst deal. This is a major injustice and is unacceptable. And I know that grabbing harder isn’t a solution. But I don’t have solutions for systemic injustices but I do have some resources which I hope can help you grab. 

Also, some people might grab better with their toes. Or might grab coins better than bills. Everyone learns differently and one-size-fits-all schooling really doesn’t fit all. And I know that this is going to make online or hybrid learning even more difficult for some people. But I don’t want you to give up! Don’t stop grabbing – and reach out for help. 

School this year is going to be different. It *needs* to be different or else this virus will get more out of control. But there are also important needs that are met by schools and I really hope that schools can get the funding they need to make sure that, whatever their back to school plans are, they are safe and meet these needs.

I also just wanted to give tremendous thanks to all teachers and I hope your schools are doing everything they need to to protect you! 

And, to everyone going back in person, please please please wear a mask. Even if you don’t think it’s cool. It is. Even if you think you’re invincible. You aren’t. And neither are your teachers. Or the janitors. Or the bus drivers. Or the family you’re going home to. So we need to make masks cool just like we need to make geekiness cool!

No matter what your schooling situation is this year, I hope that you try to make the most of it. And I really hope that you are able to enjoy the learning. I hope that I can help show that learning can (and should) be fun. School introduces you to a vast world of information, almost like completely new worlds – so even if you’re stuck at home, try to escape to these awesome destinations! Let yourself swim with the molecules in a test tube! 

Here are those study tips, as promised…l – 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.  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 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 

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.

more on topics mentioned (& others) #365DaysOfScience All (with topics listed) 👉⠀

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