Oh Those Naughty Diagrams

Do diagrams and biochemical pathways make you shrivel up like cold McDonald’s fries underneath your driver’s seat? Allow me to offer some friendly advice.

Ah sweet clarity, good to the last drop…

Classic animal cell model from your youth. Note the intricate jelly bean design

Classic animal cell model from your youth. Note the intricate jelly bean design

Today we’re going to dig deep…haha no no way deep, into the pscyhe, into your most primitive, raw memories of how you first learned about the human cell. Now close your eyes and imagine (only imagine yourself closing your eyes. Please keep reading). There you are, adorable, innocent little you ready to dive in, converse first, into a brand-spankin new science textbook, all shiny and full of promise. Your teacher instructs all of you to turn to the 1st chapter and there it is….the cell. The ribosomes are red and round. The mitochondria are not unlike yellow jelly bellies, and have you ever seen a smoother endoplasmic reticulum? I doubt it. So you’re staring intently at this artist’s rendition of the cell, and it’s huge…like really huge. Now keep in mind that kids are sponges right, you show them a powerful representative image of a cell and explain to them that it’s the most basic unit of all living things and they will remember it. There’s just one thing…cells aren’t huge they’re teeny tiny, and cells don’t just have two or three ribosomes. They have thousands. No, I’m not picking on teachers or textbooks because honestly, biology is intensly complex at times and it’s good to get a firm grasp of the basics. Besides, any decent teacher or text will go on to explain that cells are tiny and that you have a couple trillion in your body. Most kids get that. What I’m suggesting is that when it comes time to add more dimensions to our learning we have a hard time letting go and don’t realize it. A REALLY really hard time. I can’t tell you how many times some one will mention the state of Maine and a giant lobster pops inside my head.

Let’s fast forward to highschool biology class. I’ll never forget it. It was 8am – the caustic waft of chalk dust twirling in the cold, fluorescent light and through the smoke my drowsy, adolescent eyes make out an old, familiar sight traced on the chalk board, the human cell. For a time, all is well. Suddenly, the two dimensional world of my childhood takes a nasty turn down a sketchy alley called “Cellular Metabolism.” The teacher directs our attention to the humble mitochondria “the power house of the cell.” She begins to speak of biochemical pathways, of co-factors, glucose, and enzymes…oh my! It is a complex world indeed, but try as I might to wrap my head around these new concepts all I see are the same two-dimensional jelly beans from my youth.

There are those of us who can compartmentalize, who can simply take that new information and memorize it…learn all the sequences and reactions, and simply spit them back out when test time comes. I call this kind of learning “renting.” That knowledge has no depth or dimensions  It doesn’t really belong to you. Understanding where reactions take place in the cell, how often they occur, and the alternatives to those reactions is an experience that belongs to you. Yes, if you have the ability to just absorb pure facts and recall them my hat goes off to you, but we as students should always always always make an effort to incorporate a sense of scale into our learning or it WILL come back to haunt us. Allow me to demonstrate.

the tune goes like this…

Let’s say I just received new information: “Chickpeas are an excellent source of protein, but they do not provide a complete source of protein.”

I will now trace back through the steps of what I already know. WARNING this may seem tedious and possibly annoying to many of you, but it really does help.

Chickpeas are an excellent source of amino acids, which form chains that make up protein. There are 9 essential amino acids that our body’s need to function. Amino acid chains are produced by ribosomes in our cells from information contained within messenger RNA which is transcribed from a gene which is a specific sequence of DNA, which is tightly bound and coiled around histone proteins. Many tightly packaged bundles of DNA and protein make up chromosomes contained within the nucleus of our cells. The ENd.

No, I don’t do this for every morsel of new information I learn, but it is a great way to ground yourself when you begin to feel overwhelmed.

Now when it comes to biochemical pathways don’t let those intimidate you either. Allow me to quote myself from another lesson;

When approaching any biochemical pathway for the first time you should always ask yourself what factors (enzymes, organic molecules, catalytic elements) are already present within the system. Next, you should ask yourself what factors will be introduced into that system. That is the rhythm of a pathway; what’s already there, what gets introduced, and what gets made when we put them together.”

I just thought that I would take this time to throw out a friendly reminder that when things start to get a little hot and heavy in the classroom (or the boardroom) seek out that sense of scale. That is all for now my friends. As always, stay classy and never stop learning.

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