“The real man smiles in trouble, gathers strength from distress, and grows brave by reflection.” –Thomas Paine
After the day’s lesson on biochemistry concludes, I bid my classmate farewell and make my way over to the adjacent building for the bus ride back home. In the term leading into the MCAT, I only had one class on Mondays, and so, after biochemistry, I would head home so I could review the day’s lessons without worrying about any other classes. Upon arriving home, I would prepare a Swanson ready-made meal and watch television, before setting about going over the most recent topic. At the beginning of term, I spent my lunch breaks watching Angel Beats!. By the time term was reaching its end, I’d wrapped up Angel Beats! and coincidentally, Discovery Channel was available as a part of the cable provider’s free preview. As it so happened, Mighty Ships aired during my lunch breaks, and I remember sitting down to their North Star episode in early April. Halfway into the episode, one of the chief engineers describes the importance of morale during difficult situations, and the narrator transitions over to how good, homecooked food is a game-changer on the high seas: a solid meal gives people something to look forward to, and this in turn compels people to work harder. North Star’s journey from Tacoma to Anchorage is to deliver vital supplies, and this particular ship is a vital link between Alaska and the remainder of the United States. Throughout the episode, the ship’s crew are shown in dealing with remarkably challenging scenarios that are, to them, another day at the office. Despite raging winds, harsh Alaskan ice and an engine problem, the crews handle every problem with remarkable professionalism and focus. A week later, shortly before exams began, I watched an episode about the Cristobal Colon. This ship is resonspible for dredging, and in the episode, was involved in reclaiming land for a windfarm at the mouth of the Elbe . This uniquely equipped vessel deals with a different set of problems than the North Star: during its operation, a valve ruptures, forcing the crew to repair it before the Cristobal Colon can continue on with its work. The nature of their work similarly demands facilities for unwinding, and like the North Star, the Cristobal Colon’s head chef is shown frying up chicken steaks. He explains that cooking well means keeping the crew healthy, happy and ready to take on whatever adversity appears. It’s now been a decade since those days, and while I cannot say I did particularly well in biochemistry (I ended up with a B grade in the course), nor do I remember what the difference between L and D sugars, memories of the resilience and professionalism in Mighty Ships linger, alongside with yet another important lesson I gained from my cell and molecular biology lecture.
Unlike biochemistry, which had been a generic course the Faculty of Science mandates as a requirement for students, Cell and molecular biology was offered by my home faculty (Health Sciences), and as such, was tailored for the multidisciplinary, inquiry-based learning approaches we were intended to pick up. Besides a group term project and individual term paper, the course also had a conventional exam. However, despite being significantly more work than biochemistry, cell and molecular biology was a considerably more engaging experience, providing context behind the biochemical reactions seen in biochemistry. Context and application is why biology has always been so fascinating for me, and why to this day, I continue to care greatly about what something can be used for. Theoretical knowledge on its own is a curiosity, but it becomes valuable when one can turn that knowledge towards helping others out. A major part of the cell and molecular biology course was designated as “reflection”: every week, we would submit a short paragraph summarising our learnings, and these made up ten percent of our final grade. The professor had suggested that prompting students to look back on why the material was helpful would help with retention, and so, while I similarly fail to recall the exact steps in the cyclic-AMP pathway, I still remember that cAMP is a second messenger involved in a large number of signalling pathways, regulating phosphorylation and in turn, affecting sugar and lipid metabolism. Reflections became a way to help reinforce learning, and it was this that ultimately led me to adopt a similar approach for this blog: keen-eyed readers will have noticed that a lot of my posts are titled “Review and Reflection”. This is the origin of that particular nomenclature – I do not do conventional reviews here, and instead, prefer to look introspectively on my own background, and how they impact my thoughts about a given work. This approach has worked for the past decade, and it allows me to approach anime in a different approach than those of my peers (and competitors); while readers are unlikely to be worried about why a large number of my posts are counted as reflections, I would hope that this clarifies the naming convention I’ve adopted for any curious reader.
Screenshots and Commentary
- Ten years earlier to this day, I had my first real day off after a term’s worth of courses, and I spent it unwinding at home, writing my first-ever reflections post. Although I didn’t know at the time, this term would turn out to be slightly better than my term from the year earlier. I ended up committing yet another gaffe, having misread the examination schedule for my Cold War course, and arrived after the exam ended. Under academic policy, I should have taken a zero on that component, but the professor had been kind enough to allow me another chance. I thus wrote the exam a few days later than scheduled and took a small penalty to my grade, but still ended up with a B+ in the course overall.
- Conversely, the course I found the roughest was biochemistry, which was based purely on rote memorisation. I’ve never really done well in courses that demand I commit a bunch of properties and reactions to memory and then regurgitate them for an exam. Biochemistry was one of those courses, and the year before, organic chemistry had similarly been my bane. While the University of Calgary claims their organic chemistry program is especially effective in terms of student outcomes, I found that the department’s vaunted computer-assisted learning (CAL) component was completely ineffective, being merely a computerised version of more traditional methods.
- The department had actually published papers suggesting that CAL resulted in improved student performance, but automation of organic chemistry assessment only makes it easier for grading things like quizzes. I would suggest that in order to effectively teach organic chemistry, the changes required to the mode of instruction aren’t particularly groundbreaking or demanding; it is sufficient to teach essential reactions and properties of different functional groups, and then provide students with data sheets on exams and quizzes. This way, student’s aren’t made to memorise reactions, but rather, apply basic principles to solve more complex problems.
- Under such a setup, exams would need to be entirely short answer: a few, multi-staged problems involving a broad range of principles would be a satisfactory test of knowledge retention and information synthesis. It would be more effort for grading, but students would end up with much larger gains from the course. The approach I suggest is inspired by precisely how my health sciences courses were structured. Adjacent to my biochemistry course, my cell and molecular biology course also had an exam component, but in addition, assessment was made based on a term paper and group project. Unsurprisingly, I fared very poorly in biochemistry (a sixty-five on the final meant I wrapped up with a B grade) because it had depended entirely on brute force memorisation of reactions and processes.
- Cell and molecular biology encouraged me to apply knowledge at a much broader level, I did very well on the final, but also excelled on the term paper and group project (A in the course overall, and a 90 on the final). That term proved to be an interesting one, being a return to form where I began performing as I had hoped in order to stay in satisfactory standing. A major part of this shift was the fact that I began managing my breaks better, and using breaks to regroup strategically. Watching Mighty Ships ended up being one of my methods, and here, while the show is interviewing the North Star’s chief engineer, two of his staff appear with fire suits, leading to a remark on how during tough situations, keeping one’s spirits high is how one gets through those rough spots. This become especially important as the chief engineer deals with a leaking engine during their run from Tacoma to Anchorage.
- In some Mighty Ships episodes, the programme emphasises that what keeps the crew going after a rough day is a good, solid meal. For me, having three square meals to look forwards to helped me to stay focused: mealtimes become a break of sorts in the day, allowing me to structure out a period where I am going to take it easy and not worry about my goals. This approach has persisted to this day, and I continue to organise my time in this way.
- North Star’s journey from Tacoma to Anchorage is a routine one: while the ship itself is suffering from a leak in the engines and ends up going down to three of four engines for its run, the captain and crew run things very smoothly to deliver their cargo on time. Mighty Ships does tend to dramatise problems that are common at sea, and even the more severe problems are those the crew have the mental capacity to address, no matter how unexpected. The series’ portrayal of issues showing up would be akin to announcing that running into a “Fatal error: Unexpectedly found nil while unwrapping an Optional value” in Swift could cost customers millions. While it is true that forced-unwrapping of variables that could be null will cause an app to crash and result in angry users, the solution is as simple as it is mundane: providing a default value or doing if let checks eliminates the issue for the most part.
- Knowing that the people portrayed in Mighty Ships are professional, I always derived enjoyment from watching them work out their problems, and this sort of spirit stuck with me as I went into my finals after a term I’d been a little uncertain about. I still remember enjoying a lunch out with my parents when they’d had a day off, and in my mind, I thought to myself, while I might’ve accidentally missed an exam, I was lucky enough to get it rescheduled, and moreover, the remainder of the term had gone much better than it had the previous year.
- Once I’d finished writing my history exam, I returned to my lab space to pick up my belongings and prepared to head off to unwind: one of the things that had made that particular term a little melancholy was the knowledge that even though I’d finished, I still had a physics course and the MCAT ahead of me. I utilised that time to write for my blog, enjoy time with friends and otherwise, unwind knowing that at least for the present, I wouldn’t need to deal with biochemistry anymore. The open time also led me to take a closer look at Team Fortress 2: at around this time, the Halo 2 servers were slated to shut down, and I’d been looking for a replacement.
- Mighty Ships‘ North Star episode ends with the captain making a perfect season of being on time, and he’s excited to get back home. Another captain will helm North Star for the next several weeks, and here, I note that North Star was built in 2003. The episode aired in 2011, eight years later, and that means today, North Star will have been in service for almost two decades. Given it’s been ten years since I watched this episode for the first time, I wonder how many of the crew featured are still active.
- Besides the North Star, the other Mighty Ships episode that stood out to me was the Cristobal Colon. Mighty Ships features ships of all types, from cargo ships like the Emma Maersk, to the USS Nimitz, and everything in between. The Cristobal Colon is named after explorer Christopher Columbus and is a hopper dredger. In the Mighty Ships episode it was featured in, the Cristobal Colon is working on a wind farm project near the Elbe River delta. Built in 2009, it would’ve been in service for three years by the time I watched the episode of Mighty Ships it was in.
- Cristobal Colon faces a different set of challenges than the North Star, and it was after this episode I really got into Mighty Ships: at the time, I was a health science student and dealt primarily with things like the determinants of health and SDS PAGE, so watching shows like these acted as a reminder of how vast the world is, and how there are professionals in all fields. I’ve found that as people become more competent and specialised in their respective fields, they also begin to forget that when they need something done, they’re likely also dealing with someone who’s at least as competent and specialised.
- This is one thing that I continue to remind myself to be mindful of: the people moving my furniture and setting my plumbing straight are just as vital as the people who engineer out the bridges I drive across, keep me up to speed on my finances and offer information whenever I have queries about health. This is why it’s so important to treat all people with politeness and courtesy: allowing them to do their jobs means I can get on with my own day more quickly, and with a smile on my face. Things like these aren’t taught in the classroom, but remain as important as the technical knowledge one acquires.
- While one of the Cristobal Colon’s engineers look after the massive dredging unit, I remark here that, as unpleasant as I found organic chemistry and biochemistry, having the requisite knowledge did mean that studying for the MCAT’s biological sciences and organic chemistry section more straightforward: the MCAT of 2012’s biology and organic chemistry segments were basically watered down versions of the course work I’d taken, and back then, I still retained enough knowledge to pick things up fairly quickly again. However, at this point in time, my mind wasn’t on the MCAT just yet.
- Because we’re now approaching the decade mark to when I’d written the MCAT, readers will have to bear with me over the next few months as I reminisce, perhaps needlessly, about an exam that ultimately ended up being what I consider to be a poor use of funds and time, but also provided an experience of melancholy and exam-taking that led me to perform significantly better, both in my final undergraduate year and throughout graduate school.. Back then, I had aspirations for medical school, but when my application results came back, to no one’s surprise, I was completely lacking in medical volunteer experience and activities that exemplified my commitment to ethics. Almost immediately after those results came back, my undergraduate supervisor scooped me up for graduate school.
- I ended up bypassing the entire application process (I was offered admissions within an hour of submitting my application, which I was told would be a formality in my case). Mighty Ships had demonstrated that a vital part of finding one’s path is knowing when to take a step back and seek out alternate solutions when one method doesn’t work, as well as when to be unyielding. On board the Cristobal Colon, the narrator explains that good food isn’t something that can be compromised: the cook here is shown frying up chicken and comments that food keeps the crews happy. I smile at this moment: when I first watched this episode, I was hastily eating a ready-made meal so I could hit the books, and thought to myself, I’d love to have a chicken steak at some point.
- I acknowledge that this post is quite unusual one, even for this blog: normally, I write about anime and games, but owing to the fact that this year marks several milestones, I would like to take some time and look back at some of the things going on in life when I’d just begun my blogging journey. Readers can reasonably expect a few more reflection-style posts about the MCAT and the summer of ten years previously interspersed with things in the coming months. My world is dramatically different now than it had been back then, and while I recall those simpler times with fondness, I wouldn’t trade the world to go back to those times. With this post in the books, my blog turns ten-and-a-half years old now, and although I have no idea how long I’ll keep this party running for, readers do have my world that 1) I’ll still be around for the foreseeable future and 2) if I do call it quits, there will be plenty of notice.
According to the blog’s archives, a decade earlier, I had just wrapped up my term, having finished all of my exams. It’d been a rainy, grey day, and while I was waiting for my exam results, I also took advantage of the time to write for this blog, as well as relax in the knowledge that a few weeks later, I’d be facing a physics course to make up for the course I’d withdrawn from a year earlier. At the time, this blog had just turned half a year old, and I wasn’t too sure on what I would do with it. As the summer progressed, I utilised it as a space for sharing very short thoughts on things. However, as the summer progressed, and I traded physics for the MCAT preparation course, even though my studies ended up consuming the whole of my summer, I did end up with a distinct set of memories of that time. Much as how I’ve forgotten the specifics of biochemistry, and even cell and molecular biology, I’ve long lost recollection of the exact materials I covered for the MCAT. However, what has endured after all this time were the soft skills. The MCAT taught me to be strategic on exams and take on problems by prioritising them based on a value-difficulty matrix (e.g. “always take on the high-value low-difficulty items first), cell and molecular biology had imparted on me the importance of looking back at what I got out of something, and Mighty Ships actually ended up leaving me with something that was much more valuable than anything I picked up in biochemistry: while I am unlikely to be able to explain β-Galactosidase activity now, I carry with me a profound respect for the sort of professionalism and resilience I’d seen in Mighty Ships, to solve problems to the best of my ability where possible, and to both identify and implement alternative solutions where necessary. In the decade since I wrote about my initial plans for this blog, things have become considerably different. This blog is now my preferred venue for sharing my thoughts, and I’ve since gone from being a medical student hopeful to being an iOS developer. However, I hold that my experiences from this time period, especially with respect to soft skills, have shaped the path I would end up taking, and it is no joke when I remark that Mighty Ships was probably a shade more helpful to my career than biochemistry was.