Saturday, October 3, 2009

Dixie Cup and a Sand Truck

My first class at Harvard Medical School is over. This Friday my class took a three-hour final exam in Molecular and Cellular Basis of Medicine (MCM), results pending until next week… It was one of the best classes I’ve ever had, well-organized and well-narrated. On the first day of class I discovered a six-inch-thick stack of printed PowerPoint lecture slides in my mail box – “Welcome to MCM!” read the first page. I flipped through the slides. Double-sided, of course. Was there any possibility I would be able to learn all this in five short weeks? I had my doubts.

My biochemistry day started at 8:30am, usually with a small group study or “tutorial”. Eight of us spent 1.5hrs working on assigned problems and discussing questions, guided by a tutor. It took a little while to get used to the format, but by the end of the course our group was very efficient and collaborative. After tutorial sessions we had 3hrs of lecture, interrupted by 15 minute break. All lectures were recorded and posted online that afternoon. For twenty bucks you could purchase a nifty RealPlayer plugin to watch those lectures in 2x speed. A few times we had a “Clinic” – a special 2-hr lecture that awarded us an opportunity to get clinical insights about diseases we studied. By early afternoon I was done with biochemistry classes and had to find a way to cram everything I learned that day into my head.

My college studying strategy was immediately out of the window: no time to make color-coded study notes, too little time to read full chapters, no time for office hours. “Efficiency” became my one and only study slogan. I used any study tool I could, from book to YouTube, whichever gave me a clear picture of what was going on in the shortest amount of time. Two weeks into the course I had the weirdest biochemistry dream: I was rocking myself to sleep on a ribosome, peacefully sliding along a convoluted mRNA molecule. I woke up feeling really weird.

Three weeks went by and I started wondering if my childhood memories are being forced out of my brain by the invading squall of cell biology. The best phrase to characterize this experience was offered by one of my lecturers, Dr. Chien. He compared his experience taking biochemistry at HMS to “Standing underneath a dump truck full of sand with a Dixie cup and trying to catch it. Over the years the amount of sand has gone up, but the Dixie cup is no bigger than it was when we first started.” Over the past three weeks my appreciation for Dr. Chien’s words has grown exponentially as the pace of the course picked up towards the end. But at the end it all came together: I earned a new appreciation for the elegance of biochemistry, especially metabolism!

Metabolism was covered in the last two weeks of lectures and it was the perfect culmination for the MCM course. Our class was working together to overcome the challenges of last week: notes, schemes, summaries and helpful links circulated the class mailing list. I charted pathways over and again to remember the fates of metabolites and the names of the key enzymes. Everything I could learn about carbs, fats and proteins my memory crafted into series of lines and arrows that combined at odd angles and trajectories to produce “Metabolism”. I was as amazed to see it all work as was Jodie Foster’s character in the movie Contact when the bald guy on the plane shows her how to crack the Alien code.

And so it is done. On Monday I’m starting a new course block “The Human Body”, which combines anatomy, embryology, and histology. I’m very excited, but I will surely miss biochemistry! It left its mark on me. Maybe it was like driving through a bunch of flies with a Lincoln, trying to hit as many of them as possible.


  1. Hi HMS girl! Your blog is great and very informative...but can you help me..what time does HMS interview day really end? They told us "no flights before 8 pm". Some schools really have been ending late so I am worried that rule may be true.
    Any chance I could make a 6 30 pm flight and avoid staying a extra hotel day?
    thanks for all you advice, - hopeful HMS'er

  2. I just stumbled upon your blog and loved it! I was wondering, you said you mcat and gpa were average, would you be willing to give me an idea as to what that is?

  3. Hi there, awesome blog, wish you can post more often about your life at Harvard.

    I actually have two interviews with Harvard coming up in the middle of Janurary and February (HST and NP). Do you mind if I email you?


  4. Please do! Happy holidays to you and congratulations on getting those interviews!

  5. Hi!
    I really need to know when the interview ends, also. Can I make a 7:19 flight?

  6. Just to clarify, I know it says no flights before 8 pm, but there are no flights after 8! I really don't want to have to pay for a hotel room a second night if I don't have to. So, when does the day actually end? Is there anyway I can make a 7:19 flight? Thanks so much!

  7. Hm, that's really tough to know - basically, if everything goes without a problem you should be done before 5. I might be wrong about this, but I think I remember being told not to plan any flights before 8pm. I would recommend against 7:18 flight unless you can come to some arrangement with the admin office to have an early interview. In general, you should plan to be stuck in traffic and to be at the airport 1hr before boarding begins (at least). So you should leave HMS by 5pm that night at the latest.

  8. Nice post. Thanks for sharing.
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