Sunday, November 17, 2013

Flaky Science

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos

One of the things I talked about in my MD/PhD interview was my sense of awe with science - those moments where you realize, as Carl Sagan points out in the above quotation for example, that we are indeed made of starstuff. It started right when I began working in Prof. Richard Minshall's lab at UIC, and hasn't let up (thankfully). That feeling of wonder doesn't only apply to medicine, though. And it gives me great joy to see other people - other scientists - getting down and nerdy.

My most recent foray into other realms of science: snowflakes. That's right, those six-sided crystals that fall from the sky and make our commutes hell on earth. It all started when I was looking for a different type of wintry image for my desktop background. Search "winter" on Google Images and you'll come up with a lot of images of fields and trees covered in snow. While these are fine images, I wanted something out of the ordinary. So I scrolled, and searched (other winter keywords), until I came up with this image:

Playdough? Claymation? Nope. Snowflakes under an electron microscope.
At first glance, it looks like playdough, or a frame from a claymation movie. Wikimedia (where I found the image) directed me to the photo's source, the Electron Microscopy Unit Snow Page of the USDA. EM images of snowflakes? What a concept. Exploring the site further, I found an incredible, yet easy to understand, amount of information, including how these images were recorded (through Low Temperature Scanning Electron Microscopy). Another discovery was that scientists classify snowflakes into dozens of categories through a nomenclature system called the Magono and Lee Classification of Snow Crystals (Part 1 and Part 2). Examples (with images of course!) include the following:

Classification: P2f Plate with Sectorlike Extensions

Classification: C2a Combination of Bullets

Classification: P7B Radiating Assemblage of Dendrites
After seeing all of these photos, reading all of the accompanying information, the thought that comes to my mind is: Snowflakes are made of starstuff, too.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Dr. Menhennett

With or without accommodation, do you have sufficient coordination to perform quickly and effectively such emergency procedures as delivering a baby or cardiopulmonary resuscitation?

- UIC College of Medicine Safety and Technical Standards form

When I got my acceptance letter from the UIC College of Medicine, it didn't feel real. It was only when I read the part about delivering a baby that it truly hit me - I'm going to be a doctor. And I have to be ready to do doctor-like things. Like deliver babies. Whoa. That's ... amazing. And a bit terrifying at the same time.

Where I go to medical school (I still have yet to hear from several schools) and which program I pursue (my acceptance is for the MD program, although I also had an MD/PhD interview at UIC and am waiting to hear on that as well) matters less than the fact that I am IN. Whatever happens the rest of the application season, I am going somewhere, guaranteed. That takes a huge weight off my chest, shoulders, and really my whole self come to think of it. I know medical school will be unlike anything I have ever experienced and will challenge me to my upper limits. But I fully believe I will come out the other side as a physician.

Dr. Lorien Menhennett. Has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Long-Overdue Update

Wow, I can't believe how long it's been since I posted here. So very much has happened. I'm almost not sure where to start. So if this becomes Faulkner-esque stream of consciousness writing, please pardon me; you'll understand, I hope.

1. MCAT. My score (33 total: 10/PS, 12/BS, 11/VR) was not quite what I'd hoped it to be. My goal had been a 35. But it's a decent score, more than a decent score, and with my GPA, ECs, LORs, etc. it makes me a very attractive candidate.

2. Applications.
- 25 schools in the primary round
- 23 secondaries (2 only give you secondaries if you get an interview, and I didn't/haven't)
- 4 outright rejections (but that leaves 21 still considering me)
- 3 interviews, 1 down, 2 to go (and the next is this coming Wednesday, 10/16, so wish me luck)

3. Money. This has been a sore spot, and a struggle, for me for the last couple of years, as I have written about here frequently. Paycheck to paycheck, sometimes not quite making it and having to ask for money (not something I like to do). Not because I'm a slacker, but because I took a very low-paying lab job for the experience, and my Joint Commission Resources freelance work (which is great pay) just couldn't make up the difference. I had no idea how I was going to pay for applications (which, thus far, have cost about $3,500, and this is without any long distance interviews). Thankfully, I have some great people in my court, who have helped me make this happen. And then, I got a ...

4. New job. Yep. Not that I was dissatisfied, work-wise, with my old one. Although it was only part time, and I didn't have benefits (and my current benefits were to run out August 31, 2013). I interviewed for several positions, and finally landed one in Peds/Neonatology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Full time, higher pay, and benefits (which kicked in September 1 - talk about good timing). It's been a great learning experience thus far. I do a lot of mice work as I did before, but LOTS more surgeries. And this time on itsy bitsy mice (hence neonatology). Cannulating the trachea of a 5 gram mouse is definitely a challenge in dexterity, but one I am mastering. We're researching bronchopulmonary dysplasia and BPD-associated pulmonary hypertension, so it's again lung-related which is interesting. One of my PIs is an MD/PhD, the other is an MD. It's been good to talk to them both about academic medicine (they also do clinical work at the NU NICU), given that they took different medical degree paths to get to a combined practice/research situation.

Well, that's a good summary for now. I'll try to be better about updating ...

Saturday, May 18, 2013

My MCAT Rules

"Take a breath" is my #1 MCAT rule.

Five days and counting ...

I'm taking AAMC #11 (aka "yet another MCAT practice test") today. But before I do, I wanted to share some MCAT "rules" that I've developed for myself. This was at the suggestion of my dear friend (and my MCAT coach). Before every practice test, I read them over, and rewrite them as well to drill them into my head. They have nothing to do with content - 5 minutes before an exam, you either know it or you don't in terms of material. These rules have to do with mindset, which for me has been a huge battle.

If anyone else has rules or positive thoughts that they think before an exam, please share!


1. Take a breath.

2. Trust your gut.

3. Take this seriously.

4. Focus.

5. Maintain tempo:
  • Presto (PS)
  • Largo (VR)
  • Adagio (BS)

6. Think NOW - not ahead, and not behind.

7. Read every word carefully:
  • Passages
  • Questions
  • Answer choices

8. Eliminate wrong answers.

9. Estimate.

10. Guess and move on after a minute.

11. Keep calm and carry on.

12. Think positive, not negative thoughts.

13. Channel confidence, not fear or doubt.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Battle of the (MCAT) Books

Which MCAT review books are the best? Ask 10 people and you will probably get 10 different answers. In this post, I will share my own experiences with two MCAT review series, The Princeton Review and Examkrackers.

Let the battle of the books begin!


So, back to my question: Which MCAT review books are best? My answer: It depends. This is not a cop-out. I would not be writing this review if I didn't have an opinion on this issue. Allow me to explain my perspective. My hope, by the way, is that this will help some of my fellow pre-meds make a more educated decision about which books to use (or not use). 

A caveat: I have not tried all the available MCAT review books. In addition to Examkrackers and The Princeton Review, there are also books from Kaplan and The Berkely Review (among others). I am going to limit my words here to personal experience, though. If you want to know about Kaplan or TBR, I am certain there are other online reviews.

In the beginning, I had a definite bias toward Examkrackers (EK). Perhaps in part because I am always a fan of the underdog, and compared to The Princeton Review (TPR), EK is an underdog company. It certainly helped that a dear friend, now an OMS-3 (yay!), gave me the entire EK set, so there was no financial investment on my part. Free = good, especially when you're a broke pre-med. However, I did wind up buying some of TPR's books to supplement my EK material. And I wish I had done so sooner. To explain why, I am going to present what I see as the pros and cons of each series:

  1. Brevity. The EK subject books are short and to the point. This is a definite plus if you are already strong on content and need only a brief review of concepts, equations, etc. 
  2. Passage-based selections. For every chapter, there is a 30-minute, passage-based "in-class exam" at the back of the book. The plus here is that the exams are passage based. This is how the majority of the MCAT is structured, so practicing with passages is the best way to improve your test-taking (which is honestly one of my biggest issues right now).
  3. Location of answers. This may sound silly, but I saw this as a definite positive - all of the answers to the chapter questions (and there are several sets within each chapter, although these are NOT passage based, FYI) are at the back of the book. Some may find this a pain, flipping back and forth, but I liked it because then you're not having to cover up the answer (and you're not tempted to LOOK at the answer before finishing the problem!). 
  4. MORE practice questions. In addition to the content books, EK offers "1,001 Questions" books for each content area. These books are arranged by subject (i.e., for the gen chem book, there is a set of questions on gases, another on thermodynamics, etc.). This lets you hone your weakest content areas. There is also a "101 passages" in verbal reasoning, which I own but haven't used yet. What I've heard that this is perhaps the most helpful of EK's question books, but I can't verify that personally.
  1. Brevity. I know I said this was a plus. But remember? I said it all depends. In this instance, the brevity is good if your content mastery is strong. I was pretty rusty, especially on physics, given that my pre-reqs are from a couple of years ago. I needed more content help than EK had to offer. So for me, this was a con.
  2. Spotty answer explanations. There ARE answer explanations, which is good (obviously). But they really vary in their completeness. Some are a paragraph long, while others are a word or two. There were some questions I missed that I really wanted some more help in understanding the "why."
The Princeton Review
  1. Thorough content coverage. TPR does a great job, in my opinion, of reviewing content - better than EK. I found TPR's explanations more clear, understandable, and complete for someone who really needed a boost on the actual material. 
  2. Online content. This is an awesome feature of TPR, and really makes it worth getting the books, in my opinion. Each book comes with online access to 2 complete practice exams, bunches of discrete practice questions, and many passage-based questions as well. It's all done online, and simulates the MCAT in many ways (such as allowing you to strike through answer choices you have decided to eliminate). TPR's Web site keeps track of your scores and lets you monitor your progress, which is a neat feature.
  3. Detailed answer explanations. I found TPR's answer explanations much more like the AAMC's. TPR goes into both the correct answer, and why it is correct, as well as why the other choices are incorrect. EK sometimes does this, but not consistently.
  4. Passage-based selections. Like EK, TPR has both discrete and passage-based questions. A plus for the same reason listed in my EK evaluation.
  1. Location of answers. While I like how EK had the answers in the back, TPR did it differently, putting the answers right below the questions. I had to constantly cover up the answer with a half-sheet of paper, and found this incredibly annoying. Silly? Maybe, but it's a functionality issue, and I found the answers distracting when they were within the text.
  2. Format consistency. I found this strange - the content area books had different formatting, some of which I found very distracting. In the biology book, there are smatterings of questions within the text, and these are footnoted. The answer to each question is in a footnote at the bottom of the page. I absolutely hated that. And the bio book is the only one that does this. As a former textbook editor, I think someone dropped the ball here. 

I must, of course, also address price. The EK content set (about $115 on Amazon) is a bit less expensive than TPR ($30-$40 per content book; they don't seem to be sold as a set, at least not on Amazon). BUT - what this doesn't take into account is that included with TPR's content books is all that online practice, while for EK, you have to purchase the 1,001 questions books separately (about $20 apiece). So it seems to be just about a wash in terms of money. A tip: If you have access to a good public library system, you may even be able to get some of these books (to borrow) for free. Just be aware that come MCAT time, those books will be in high demand. 

The bottom line: both EK and TPR have pros and cons. Neither is perfect. What matters is that you know what you need. And that may be different from what I need, or from what your best buddy in ochem needs. It's all about personalizing your review process so that you can do your own best on the MCAT. 

And speaking of the MCAT, I really have to get back to studying ... 26 days and counting!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Choose a Focal Point: Now

When you are spinning around, or when the world is spinning around you, it's important to have a focal point that brings you stability in the midst of the maelstrom. My mom reminded me of that a couple days ago as I related some of my MCAT struggles and anxieties to her. As a former figure skater, it makes total sense to me. During those crazy spins you see figure skaters perform for the Olympics, their trick to not passing out from dizziness is choosing a distinct and discrete place upon which to focus their vision every single time they whirl around. It's hard to spot when they're going around that fast, but they all do it. Their movements are graceful, beautiful, and also very intentional.

My mom's focal point is God. I'm not a religious person, so we differ there. After she and I talked, I thought for a moment - what's my focal point? The first thought that came to my mind is "my dream." I quickly realized, though, that in many ways it's my dream that is causing me so much anxiety right now, putting so much pressure on me. So, no. Then it hit me. Now. Now is my focal point - this moment in time, the present. Being present. For my life in general, and also for the MCAT. Focusing on each question as it comes, for example, not thinking about the one behind or the one ahead. Now.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Setting My Testing Tempo

I took my first MCAT practice test yesterday. I knew I wasn't going to make my ultimate goal on the first try, but I did have a score in mind that I wanted to hit. I didn't make it. I had a moment (maybe two, or perhaps even a few) of panic: If I couldn't hit that lower target, how in the world was I going to get to my much higher goal? A dear friend, my MCAT "counselor," set me straight. He reminded me that this was my first try. That you don't achieve a lofty goal on your first try. Life doesn't work that way - it takes practice. And more practice.

As I was a classical pianist for 10 years, he gave me a musical analogy. He asked how many times I would practice a composition while readying it for a performance or competition. "More times than I like to think about," I told him. "This is the same," he responded.

I know my friend is right. But it's hard to overcome the fear that besets me when I even think about the exam, much less attempt it, given its high stakes. I feel like my whole future rides on it. So during my practice exam, even though I didn't feel panicky, clearly I was - I finished two sections (verbal and biological sciences) with significant time remaining, indicating that I was rushing.

What I need, my MCAT counselor told me, is a tempo for each section. Again, thinking like a musician. Play every section with precision, but each at its own necessary pace. For physical sciences, I need a faster tempo, because it takes me a little longer to process the questions and I need to come up with my answers more quickly so that I finish the section. For biological sciences - and even more so for verbal - I need a consciously slower pace, so that I don't rush. Because on those, I process the questions much more quickly, but I have a tendency to feel the need to speed through things and then make silly mistakes. Hence, here are my MCAT "tempos":

Physical Sciences: Presto ("very fast," 168-177 BPM)
Biological Sciences: Adagio ("slow and stately," 55-65 BPM)
Verbal Reasoning: Largo ("broadly," 45-50 BPM)

Next time around, I will more consciously put these tempos into practice. That, and hone my focus. Focus on the question in front of me. Not think about the previous question nor the next question. Just THAT question. Tempo and focus - those are my goals for my next practice exam, rather than a particular score. The score will come. With practice.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

This Day We Fight!

I will be the first to admit that this road - the road to medical school - is not easy. This morning, just opening my MCAT book felt like a major battle. For me, it is important to find encouragement from outside of myself. Often, this encouragement comes from my friends and family. Today, LOTR helped a bit too. I have always found Aragorn's battle speech at the Black Gate inspiring. Even more so on days like today, when everything - even the smallest thing - seems to be a battle.

Sons of Gondor! Of Rohan! My brothers. I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of Men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields when the Age of Men comes crashing down, but it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Michelangelo Meets Biochemistry

Note: I know this is not the ACTUAL Sistine Chapel. I took a bit of artistic license with the joke. 

Choices, Choices

As I study for the MCAT, it's difficult not to get bummed out sometimes. (A lot of times, actually.) I am a very good standardized test taker, and I did very well in all of my pre-requisites. So while I was aware that the MCAT isn't like other standardized tests, and isn't like a regular classroom test either, I expected I would adjust to it quickly. But it's a lot more challenging than I expected. I am working on practice questions now, and after one especially brutal set of physics questions, the phrase "emotional bludgeoning" came to mind. That's how I felt. I know the concepts and the equations backwards and forwards, upside down and rightside up. But when it comes to those questions, even I, who normally don't have major test anxiety, feel panic well up inside me. Then I waste precious seconds and energy worrying, seconds and energy that I should be applying to the question at hand.

My very wise mother and I were talking about my struggles yesterday. And about her own struggles with her job, and its frustrations. She reminded me: "We always have a choice." By that, she meant that we can choose to panic, to worry, to be negative, to let what is going on bring us down. Or we can choose another path. The path of living in the moment, of doing what we can with the time that is given us, of focusing on what we can control. This is not some naive attitude that everything will be wonderful. This is changing your attitude so that whatever situation you are dealing with - a situation which may or may not change - doesn't rule your life. 

We always have a choice. I always have a choice. You always have a choice.

Another phrase that my mom and I frequently quote to each other is the famous British saying "Keep calm and carry on." It's a quotation that has become quite popular of late, with many iterations available on T-shirts, mugs, notebooks, stickers, you name it. I found one on the Internet that is quite fitting for me today. 

Again, it's making a choice - to maintain your calm, to be sure and steady, to do what you need to do. Unfortunately, unlike when choosing between steak and lobster at a restaurant, it doesn't all end with making one choice. You have to choose again. And again. And again. But I believe it's a choice well worth making.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Avogadro's ... Donkey?

In all this mad MCAT studying, I have come up with some absolutely terrible jokes (some of which I have shared here). Apparently, I have rubbed off on one of my dear friends, who is studying for the chemistry GRE right now. She told me this one today, and I couldn't help but share it.

Hee-haw, hee-haw ...

Beware the (MCAT) Apocalypse

In the little free time I have lately, some of my "therapy" has been playing with my photo editing app on my iPad, and just having a little artistic fun. OK, maybe not so artistic, but definitely fun. I found this roadside sign image and just had to make an MCAT "collage" from it with my test date, May 23.

Cheers and best wishes to all of you who are taking the MCAT in the coming weeks and months!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

T-Minus 6 Weeks

I take the MCAT exactly 6 weeks from today. The photo below IS my life right now. Thankfully, my lab supervisor gave me some time off (completely of her own volition - thank you SO much, Mari!) so I will have lots of quality time to spend with these books. Um ... hooray?!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Organic Demons

This is what happens when you study organic chemistry for too long. You think of (and create) things like THIS:

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A Hamburger, and a Lesson About Medicine

Last Friday I learned an important lesson about being a doctor - at Five Guys Burgers and Fries.

I was waiting at the counter for my order. Standing next to me was a woman, probably in her 60s, with a walker, also waiting for her food. There must be something about me that looks friendly, because this woman started a rather personal conversation with me. I'd had a rough day, wasn't really in the mood for chatting, but I could tell she needed someone to talk to. So I listened. The woman told me she'd had heel fusion surgery around Thanksgiving, and was very unhappy with the result. As I listened, I realized it wasn't the actual result of the surgery that frustrated her, but it was the disconnect between the surgeon's optimistic attitude and her realistic outcome.

I know there are two sides to every story, and obviously I haven't heard the surgeon's side. So it's quite possible that back in November, when she and her surgeon were discussing the surgery, she heard what she wanted to hear. Her take-home message from those conversations, though, was that by June she would be wearing summer sandals and walking normally. "Instead," she told me, "I will be wearing a brace that goes halfway up my leg."

I don't know for sure, but I think the woman would have been less angry if she felt she had gotten a more realistic prognosis from her doctor. True, it is important for physicians to give their patients hope. But it has to be an honest hope. As a doctor, I think you have to present the various scenarios that could  happen. Not to frighten your patients, but to prepare them.

It's a fine line to walk, clearly. Optimism and hope can motivate a patient to work harder, to believe he or she can get better. But if you only present the best case scenario, you run the risk of angering your patients, of losing their trust. This woman didn't say so directly, but I could imagine her considering a lawsuit against her surgeon. Not because he botched the surgery, but because she felt lied to, misled.

As I said, I don't know the whole story here, so I am certainly not passing any judgment on this surgeon. It could very well be that this woman completely misunderstood what he told her. And as a doctor, you can't control what patients decide to believe, or what they choose to hear. Even so, I think it does fall on the physician to do all he or she can to present the situation honestly to the patient. With optimism, yes. But also with realism. Because once that trust between a physician and patient is broken, I think it is very difficult, if not impossible, to repair.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Physics for Barnyard Animals

Another absolutely terrible science joke, courtesy of yours truly ...

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Locutus of Borg on Physics

Yes, I took another MCAT break. And yes, I made another terrible physics joke. This time, incorporating one of my favorite shows of all time, Star Trek: The Next Generation, which I watched religiously as a kid. I fully believe Gene Roddenberry would approve.

Laugh at the MCAT? You Bet!

In the midst of studying for the MCAT, I need breaks. I also need to laugh. To accomplish both of these tasks simultaneously, I have had some photo editing fun the last couple of days. Here are my brilliant pieces of art ... I hope they bring a smile to your face, or at least make you groan.

The angry dinosaur in this image is a velociraptor. If you remember from
the movie Jurassic Park, these guys are cunning, smart, and nasty.
Yep. That's me. At least when it comes to attacking the MCAT!

Recently I have been working on MCAT physics - fluids in particular.
I found myself scribbling these lyrics in the margin of my scrap paper
as I was working with Bernoulli's equation ...

Friday, March 22, 2013

I'm Not The Only One

The nontraditional student's journey to medical school can be a lonely one at times. It has been for me, at least, especially after graduating from my post-bac program and delaying my application for a year. This song reminds me that I am "not the only one" going through this journey, not the only one who has faced struggles and dark times. And I will come out on the other side.

I am so thankful for the people around me who remind me of this on a constant basis. You know who you are. Thank you.

"You're Not The Only One" 
(by Joseph Arthur, off the album "Redemption City")

Darkness descends
On everyone

And still you keep past the hyenas
Wearing idiot suits
Past the reformers with holy pursuits

You're not the only one trying to hold on
To a kiss from yesterday
To a moment surrendered
When you were sure there was something more to say

And you're not the only one
With clothes so tattered
The eyes look sideways and then beyond
To thoughts of where you once came from

You're not the only one
Dead still from the beginning
Spinning a tribute to what could be
But you can't get happy through misery
And you're not the only one

You're not the only one
Down streets no shadows ever go
And still you keep moving
Past the shady cameras and artillery whores

You're not the only one
Against breaking skies and fall away floors
You're not the only one
Warped and wasted
With poison bought from yesterday

And you're not the only one
Drunk and holy
Aware of all that's come before
And what would come to stay

You're not the only one
In a slumber of booze and dreams
And even high ideals

But who are you
Still a no one
Still a mark
Still a seed
And who are you
You're not the only one

And who are you
You know you're not the only one
Who are you
You're not the only one

Sunday, March 17, 2013

It's All About the Balls

Female mouse pup -
completely smooth underneath.
I survived Week 1 of my supervisor being on vacation. My excitement for the week: learning how to definitively tell mouse pup females from males. I know what you're probably thinking: boys have a penis, girls don't. How hard could it be? Well, these little pups are so tiny (much smaller than a kiwi, as a point of reference), and probably weigh 10 - 15 grams. Itsy bitsy. The outward anatomy is sometimes hard to distinguish. (And I'm not the only one who has difficulty with this - I was looking at a sick mouse with the animal facility veterinarian on Friday morning, and she thought a male pup was a female at first! So I don't feel so bad.)

Male pup - visible testicles.

I was splitting cages Friday afternoon (separating pups from their parents, males pups in one cage and females in another cage). From the outward genitalia, some were easy to tell, some not so much. Then I realized: the females are completely flat underneath, while if you hold the males long enough and let them squirm a bit, their testicles bulge out. Bingo! Definitive sexing. And my supervisor will be quite happy that I got the right mice in the right cages, because if you don't, the males quickly impregnate the females.

It's the little things, right?!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Library Access: A Lab Job Perk

PubMed is a great resource. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, PubMed is an online resource hosted by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the NIH. It has more than 22 million citations to biomedical literature. Some of those citations have links to full text articles. But unfortunately, many of the more prestigious journals charge for their articles (often as much as $30 or $40 per article). Given my current broke status, I can't exactly afford to buy article access. 

So I recently e-mailed my PI at the UIC lab where I work asking whether I could get journal access through UIC (major universities usually provide this type of access to their students and some employees). He told me that all I needed to do was plug my laptop into the UIC network (via a network cable at the lab) and I would automatically get access to everything. 

A few weeks ago, I spent a little downtime getting some of the articles I wanted. When you download an article from some of these publishers' sites, a little window will pop up with "recommended readings" based on what you just looked up. I noticed at some point that not a journal article, but a book chapter, popped up as one of those recommended readings. I hadn't thought about book chapters. But as I did think about it, the idea appealed to me. A book chapter would provide a great deal of background, which is what I am looking for right now. So I wondered, "Could I get the whole book?" The answer: "Yes!" Then my follow-up question: "Are there more available books on my subject?" The answer, again: "Yes!" 

From home, I used the UIC library's Web site to find available eBooks. Then while a gel was running at lab, I downloaded them, chapter by chapter (you can't download the whole book directly). Back at home, I put them on my iPad. 

Granted, I'm not going to read every single page of every single book I downloaded any time soon. But I want to be able to skim them, to decide what I want to read and not read. So getting entire books made sense. 

After I had finished getting my books, I was curious - how much would all of these books have cost had I purchased them? Being the absolutely nerdy person I am, I made an Excel spreadsheet to calculate the cost of buying the hardback book directly from the publisher, the eBook from the publisher, the hardback from, and the eBook from (yes, I actually did this). I was amazed - the hardback books from the publishers would have cost more than $2,000 (eBooks and hardback prices were somewhat less). One more reason to be affiliated with a major research institution, and to be grateful for my lab job!

Here is my lovely spreadsheet:

Saturday, March 2, 2013

MCAT Prep: Let Your Fingers Do the Walking

A couple of days ago, I finished my MCAT biology review book. (I'm using Examkrackers.) Yay! I was so excited. Not that I know everything, but I'm done with my first run-through, have a bazillion online flashcards made (feel free to access any of my sets here) that I can study on the train to and from lab, and was consistently getting most (if not all) the review questions correct. I felt encourged. Energized.

Then I hit a brick wall: physics.

I would read a section in my Examkrackers book, think I understood it, then get half the review questions wrong. And I wasn't even to the tough stuff. I'm talking F=ma, projectile motion, that sort of thing. I was very frustrated, and demoralized. I won't even go into how my Lesson 1 practice exam went. Let's just say it wasn't pretty.

Part of my frustration was that I had done so well in my physics class -- an A both semesters. An A on every exam, for that matter. I worked my a** off for those grades, and I know it wasn't some fluke. I also know I'm not stupid (although I certainly felt that way yesterday).

I also felt frustrated because I didn't know what step to take next. Obviously, reading the Examkrackers lessons over and over wasn't working. So ... what?

This afternoon, I knew I needed to take action. Change tactics. More specifically, see if another review book would be a better fit for me, at least for physics (I found the Examkrackers bio book to be a great resource). Seeing as how I'm flat broke, though, I don't have the cash to go out and buy every MCAT physics book. Then it came to me - I don't have to. I live just outside Chicago, and a whole bunch of suburbs in my area are members of a giant library network. I looked up "MCAT" on the online catalog (my mom always says, "let your fingers do the walking"), and found a ton of resources, including practice tests. I submitted several requests, so we'll see what happens when the books arrive at my local library.

I'll try to post comments here regarding my thoughts about the different books (I've got Princton, Kaplan, and Gold Standard books coming).

In the meantime, I'm putting physics to the side for now. No use in continuing to bash my head against that brick wall. I've got better things to do.

Beautiful Day

In the midst of this MCAT madness, and everything else that has gone on in my life in the last couple of years, it's easy to lose perspective. To get lost in frustration, sometimes even pitch black darkness. But the song "Beautiful Day," by U2, helps remind me that today IS a beautiful day, regardless of what is happening, and that I shouldn't let it get away. I don't see it as a Pollyanna thing, but as a change in mindset. Deciding that I will make the most of the day, of any day. That doesn't mean it will be a perfect day, or even a great day. But it can still be beautiful.

Lyrics to "Beautiful Day," by U2:

The heart is a bloom, shoots up through stony ground
But there's no room, no space to rent in this town
You're out of luck and the reason that you had to care,
The traffic is stuck and you're not moving anywhere.
You thought you'd found a friend to take you out of this place
Someone you could lend a hand in return for grace

It's a beautiful day, the sky falls
And you feel like it's a beautiful day
It's a beautiful day
Don't let it get away

You're on the road but you've got no destination
You're in the mud, in the maze of her imagination
You love this town even if it doesn't ring true
You've been all over and it's been all over you

It's a beautiful day
Don't let it get away
It's a beautiful day
Don't let it get away

Touch me, take me to that other place
Teach me, I know I'm not a hopeless case

See the world in green and blue
See China right in front of you
See the canyons broken by cloud
See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out
See the bedouin fires at night
See the oil fields at first light
See the bird with a leaf in her mouth
After the flood all the colours came out
It was a beautiful day
A beautiful day
Don't let it get away

Touch me, take me to that other place
Reach me, I know I'm not a hopeless case

What you don't have you don't need it now
What you don't know you can feel it somehow
What you don't have you don't need it now
You don't need it now, you don't need it now
Beautiful day

Friday, March 1, 2013

Let It Burn

One thing I learned from my ex-husband was how to make a good music mix. So when "Ticket To Ride" popped into my head (see my previous post), I decided to make an MCAT inspirational mix. I would like to share those songs on my blog, in the hopes that they might inspire others.

The next song on my playlist, after "Ticket To Ride," is "The Fire," by The Roots:

The music is catchy as heck, and the lyrics are phenomenal. The chorus alone makes this song an amazing inspiration:

There's something in your heart
and it's in your eyes
It's the fire, inside you
Let it burn
You don't say good luck
You say don't give up
It's the fire, inside you
Let it burn

It's all about keeping that fire burning, not giving up, achieving your goals, even in the face of hardship. That's a good perspective to keep in mind when facing something as daunting as the MCAT, or anything else for that matter.

Here are the rest of the lyrics, for those who are interested:

"The Fire"
(feat. John Legend)

[John Legend]
Ohhhh, the fire, the fire
Ohhhh, the fire, the fire

[Chorus: John Legend]
There's something in your heart
and it's in your eyes
It's the fire, inside you
Let it burn
You don't say good luck
You say don't give up
It's the fire, inside you
Let it burn

[Black Thought]
Yeah, and if I'm ever at the crossroads
and start feeling mixed signals like Morse code
My soul start to grow colder than the North Pole
I try to focus on the hole of where the torch goes
In the tradition of these legendary sports pros
As far as I can see, I've made it to the threshold
Lord knows I've waited for this a lifetime
And I'm an icon when I let my light shine
Shine bright as an example of a champion
Taking the advantage, never copping out or cancelling
Burn like a chariot, learn how to carry it
Maverick, always above and beyond average
Fuel to the flame that I train with and travel with
Something in my eyes say I'm so close to having the prize
I realise I'm supposed to reach for the skies
Never let somebody try to tell you otherwise


[Black Thought]
One love, one game, one desire
One flame, one bonfire, let it burn higher
I never show signs of fatigue or turn tired
cause I'm the definition of tragedy turned triumph
It's David and Goliath, I made it to the eye of
the storm, feeling torn like they fed me to the lions
Before my time start to wind down like the Mayans
I show 'em how I got the grind down like a science
It sounds like a riot on hush, it's so quiet
The only thing I hear is my heart, I'm inspired
by the challenge that I find myself standing eye to eye with
Then move like a wise warrior and not a coward
You can't escape the history that you was meant to make
That's why the highest victory is what I'm meant to take
You came to celebrate, I came to cerebrate
I hate losing, I refuse to make the same mistake

[John Legend]
Ohhhh, the fire, the fire
Ohhhh, the fire, the fire


[John Legend]
Ohhhh, the fire inside you
The fire inside you
The fire inside you
The fire inside you

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The MCAT: My Ticket

Exactly three months from tomorrow, on May 23, I take the MCAT. It's the equivalent of D-Day, a potential turning point in my long pre-med journey. Hopefully a positive turning point, with a "victory" (a good score). Given that I want to do an MD/PhD, a victory for me means scoring at least a 35, out of a possible 45. That might not sound difficult, but the national average in 2011 was about a 28. Most people are happy if they get a 30. So naturally, I've been a bit nervous about the whole thing.

But about two weeks ago, I had an epiphany. I realized that I could look at the MCAT in one of two ways: either as standing in the way of my getting into medical school, or as my ticket to getting into medical school. Regardless of which way I view this exam, I need to study my butt off. But having a more positive outlook, I think, will help me be more confident. And confidence, when it comes to standardized test taking (or to anything for that matter), can make a huge difference. Self-doubt, on the other hand, is most certainly not a recipe for success.

Being a musical person, as I pondered the word "ticket," a song popped into my head: The Beatles' "Ticket To Ride." Granted, the majority of the song's lyrics have nothing to do with my situation (thank goodness). But one memorable chorus line definitely does:

She's got a ticket to ride
But she don't care

The MCAT is my ticket. And I don't care what else is going on, what distractions may come my way. I will focus on my ticket. Because one way or another, I am going to ride.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Health Care: A Risky Business

There are, clearly, risks associated with becoming any health care practitioner, including a physician. One potential risk that comes to mind is an accidental needle stick. This can transmit bloodborne pathogens such as HIV or hepatitis. Obviously not good. Thankfully, I have never experienced that. However, this weekend I did experience the dangers of the health care profession firsthand.
A classic scabies rash.

I likely have scabies.

My mom is a hospice nurse, and one of her patients was recently diagnosed with this skin condition, which causes extreme itching and skin lesions. I have been itchy the last couple of days but attributed it to the cold Chicago winters and dry skin. But this morning, I was literally scratching head to toe - not normal. My mom put two and two together (and she has a couple of the classic scabies lesions on her arm) so we both went to urgent care. The physician there said she couldn't make a definitive diagnosis, but she said we needed to be treated regardless. This involves literally putting a cream on your entire body, leaving it for 8 to 14 hours, and then washing it off. Like with a lice infestation, you also have to wash all your sheets, clothing, etc. A big hassle.
An image of the mite the burrows
into your skin (and lays eggs
there), causing scabies

My mom was at first so embarrassed and upset. But I just laughed. What else could we do? It happened, there was nothing to do about it now. It was nobody's fault. It's an adventure, a learning experience. And I will definitely now know the signs of scabies should I ever treat someone with it!

When you go into health care, you have to be prepared for such risks. It's easy to say you are. But less easy to deal with the consequences if it actually happens. I'm very glad this wasn't a serious issue, and it's one that is relatively easy to treat. At the same time, my reaction to it makes me aware that I seem prepared for health care-associated risks, not daunted by them. That is a good sign, I think.

New [Mouse] Surgeon on the Block

Until a couple of weeks ago, I had mainly been doing genotyping at my lab job. I've got it down to a "science" (pun intended). I've been getting great results, which is wonderful. But I was itching to learn some new techniques. Well, I've gotten my wish.

My supervisor is teaching me animal surgeries. She has dozens of these to perform in the coming weeks and months, and wants someone to help reduce her load. And of course, I'm thrilled to learn something so practical for my future career as a physician-scientist, especially given that the mouse is the most frequently used animal model for diabetes research, which is what I want to do.

The first technique I learned (and am now pretty good at) is called an ELW (Excess Lung Water) procedure. It involves nebulizing mice with LPS, which basically gives the mice a septic lung infection, and then measuring various aspects of their lungs and blood. The most difficult part is taking a blood sample from the inferior vena cava, which you can imagine is pretty tiny in a mouse. And given that I've never really handled a syringe before, getting that needle in and then pulling the plunger back (with the same hand) was at first a challenge. But Thursday I performed my first ELWs on experimental, as opposed to practice, mice, and all went relatively well. (Except for one thing, which I will talk about in another post.)

The other procedure I'm learning is much tricker, and I've only mastered the first half. The purpose of it is to clear the mouse's lungs of blood so they can be used for other experiments, such as histology, sectioning, etc. Cutting out the lungs is the easy part. The more difficult parts are putting the mouse on a ventilator (yep) and catheterizing the heart. Getting the mouse ventilated involves cutting part way through the trachea (again, quite small in a mouse), inserting a trach tube, and then hooking that up to a ventilator machine. The hard part is all the manipulations you have to do with your forceps prior to getting the trach tube in - for example, getting the 90-degree forceps under the trachea without causing the mouse to go into tracheal spasms (so you can pull through silk thread to eventually secure the trach tube). At first, I really struggled with getting that trach tube in. But I am quite good at it now, which is very exciting progress for me. 

After getting the mouse on the ventilator, I heparinize the mouse to prevent blood clots, again through the IVC. Not that bad, considering I now am pretty decent with the ELWs. Another challenge after heparinization is catheterizing the heart. A mouse's heart is literally the size of my pinky fingernail (and I have small hands). You have to get silk thread under the pulmonary artery, cut off half of the atrium, cut the aorta/IVC, and then slice slightly into the left ventricle to insert a small catheter. You then feed the catheter up the heart, into the pulmonary artery, so the fluid (PBS) going through the catheter will clear the lungs. This part of the procedure I am not so good with yet, but I am making progress. "Paso a paso," one step at a time.

It's slightly amusing to me that I am doing these procedures, and really enjoying learning them, given my past history with animal dissections. When I was a kid in homeschool, my mom would go to the butcher and get meat remnants (eyeballs, a pig head, various organs) for us to dissect. My sister would totally go to town with them, using a surgical kit that my dad, a physician, lent us. I wasn't afraid of the dissections, but neither was I interested in them, so I hung back, watching. Now I'm totally into it, and thrilled to be expanding my skill set, as well as becoming more useful in the lab.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Anatomically Correct HEELS?!

Google search terms: 
"inferior vena cava."
One result: 
See these photos of high-heeled shoes. 
Flickr caption: 
"Can you spot the inferior vena cava?"
My reaction: 
"Can I wear these when I take the MCAT?"