Lessons from a lousy scientist

Off the Beat

ShannonOhara_online

Now that school has begun, the first item on my agenda is to declare my major in molecular environmental biology. It’s a bittersweet moment — sweet, because maybe now I can finally nab some of those reserved seats during class enrollment; bitter, because sometimes I’m not sure why I’m even studying science in the first place.

My whole life, I’ve wanted to be a writer. From the day I first started school until now, I’ve loved every minute I’ve spent putting words to a page. But I’ve stuck it out studying science, and maybe it’s for the employment opportunities, or maybe it’s because I gravitate toward studying something that’s immensely difficult for me.

But for all my conviction to stick with biology, I always return to writing. It’s my escape from the path I’ve committed to, a path that’s fraught with frustration. That being said, my problem isn’t with science as a body of knowledge. My problem with science stems (pun intended) from beefs I have with the systems and institutions designed for learning it.

To give you an idea — I recently received a passing grade in my organic chemistry class even though my grade came out to a 35 percent. Not that I’m complaining, but I’ve never less deserved to pass a class in my entire life. It’s frankly problematic to be dealing with curves this generous, but there’s two reasons why they might exist.

First, that classes are taught in such a way that only coming away with a third of the information is expected. But difficult material shouldn’t be the excuse — my first dog was a difficult puppy, but that didn’t mean I stopped house-training once he peed outside a third of the time. It’s unfair to the students if instructors aren’t putting in the necessary effort to create a class designed to maximize understanding.

Alternatively, there’s a second reason. Maybe I really do understand more than 35 percent of organic chemistry. The problem is, when there’s 800 exams to grade, instructors are forced to streamline the process and offer absolutely nothing in terms of partial credit.

The difference between 2-methoxy-1,4-cyclooctadiene and 2-methoxy-1,5-cyclooctadiene could mean the loss of 10 points, and it would have nothing to do with whether or not I actually understand chemical nomenclature — but only that I’m bad at counting to eight. And professors know this, so they slap a curve on it and call it kosher, depriving students of any understanding they might gain of their own progress.

In a chemistry lab, you could spill your compound across the table halfway through the procedure, and, given that you understand the basic calculations behind the lab, there’s absolutely nothing that stops you from simply fabricating the data you need to turn in at the end of the day — rather than starting the lab over and reproducing your compound. It makes you wonder how often real scientists might do the same exact thing. Not only is it essentially cheating, but it’s disillusioning.

Really, I shouldn’t gripe. These are systems that are useful for students like me, ones who aren’t necessarily good at their major but are still determined to pursue it. Though maybe, I haven’t yet fully articulated why, if I’m filled with so much disdain, I am determined to pursue science in the first place.

You don’t have to be good at science to be good at science. You don’t need to be able to remember what chromatography does if you’re good at problem solving, research or taking initiative. And at the end of the day, that skill set — the thing that actually determines one’s ability to excel at science — isn’t all that different from that of a writer.

When I write, I thrive off the trial and error of it; there are no specific rules that guide the endless process of writing and rewriting, yet each individual word or punctuation mark completely changes the course of your thoughts. You can write for hours before you even understand exactly what you want to say. And then, in the process of adding and building and deleting and changing, you discover something.

Scientists do the same thing every day. They’re constantly experimenting, tinkering with traditions and inventing new ways to think about the world. And if they do it enough times, they find out about really cool stuff. A scientist may not even know what they’re looking for, or they might stumble upon something they hadn’t even thought about.

And I love that type of work — whether I’ve got a pen and paper in my hand or I’m looking through a microscope.

While I have plenty of bones to pick with the classes I’m taking, they do accomplish one thing: they get me excited about the direction science is heading in and the unlimited possibilities hiding behind millions of unanswered questions. There’s new discoveries to be made every day, and as a biology major, I’m invited to help make them.

And then, when it’s all said and done, I also get to write about it.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.