"First Week of Classes" Samantha Frost

Saturday, August 28, 2010

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism

[This week Kritik is pleased to publish the first in a series of posts by Samantha Frost, associate professor in Political Science and Gender and Women’s Studies. As the recipient of a Mellon New Directions Fellowship, Sam is now enrolled in undergraduate coursework in biology and neuroscience with the aim of enhancing her research on materialist accounts of perception, judgment, and subjectivity. Last spring and over the summer, she took the pre-requisite courses in organic chemistry, basic physiology, and molecular biology. This semester, she is taking a further 12 credits of courses in biochemistry, cell biology, and neuroscience. Professor Frost’s ruminations on her return to undergraduate-level education in the sciences will also be published in hard copy in future issues of the IPRH Newsletter]


Written by Samantha Frost (Political Science, GWS)

Well, I am almost done negotiating the registration process and have almost finished my first week of classes: a blither of finding classrooms in unfamiliar buildings and cramming myself into these terribly old desk/chair combos in massive lecture halls with hundreds upon hundreds of variously attentive and computing/texting undergraduates. It is going to be a busy semester but possibly not as hard as Spring semester was.

My first freakout: Biochemistry is going to be a killer. It is like organic chemistry, but more so: bigger molecules, more complex interactions. I am using my "Amino Buddy" app on my iphone to try to memorize the amino acids in all their various notations: the match game seems to work the best for me. So I sit on the floor while my kids are at Tae Kwon Do and work through flashcard games in order to be able to recognize by sight the chemical structure and symbols of the amino acids that make up proteins that make up our bodies....

But memorizing the amino acids is not what is striking fear in my heart. More, it is the casual mention in passing by the prof as he worked through his introductory lecture that he will proceed with the presumption that we know the amino acids already, i.e., I am behind and backward already and so this is going to be a class where I feel continually out of my depth.

Plus, the kind of work we are likely to have to do is the kind of work I am simply not good at. Perusing the book, no, no, reading my biochemistry chapters 1-3 with my yellow highlighter and orange comment pen, I realize that because this course is about the chemical processes that make the body work, we are going to be doing calculations involving plugging numbers into equations. I am just not good at that: Even though I am a fairly logical person in my theoretical work, there is something very difficult for me about taking an equation and solving for a particular thing (which means, for those for whom this is gibberish, rearranging all the terms so that the piece of information you want is on one side of the = sign and all the other bits are in their corresponding places on the other side).

This kind of switching around pushes at the limits of my brain's capacity to function, which is to say that, quite literally, I can feel my mind pushing against a barrier of darkness, which pushes inflexibly back at me as I struggle to discern how to switch the elements of the equation around and how to substitute a a numerical quantity for a symbol. It really does feel like a physical struggle, and I am exhausted after working on such things.

I spent an afternoon with my TA and instructor in Organic Chemistry Lab last semester working through the basic mechanics of taking an equation, solving for a particular something, and plugging in real numbers. So I am not completely unprepared. But the first few chapters whipped through a series of equations as if I could read and comprehend with ease, and my homework assignment for this week demands (though I've avoided re-examining it again after my first squint) that I do this.

Perhaps practice will make it easier.

Anyway. Big thought for the week. We have been talking about entropy, which is the tendency of an ordered system to disperse or dissipate into a less ordered one. Apparently, this tendency towards entropy plays an important role in making some molecules stick together, but via a concerted absence as opposed to an adherence.

This is what I mean: Water molecules like to move around a lot, and if there is a molecule of a substance in the water than cannot dissolve, then the ability of the water to move freely is hampered or limited by it. The insoluble molecule is an obstacle to entropy. Indeed, the water molecules directly around the insoluble molecule end up getting slightly rigid in their inter-relation and form something akin to a cage around the molecule. The water is figuratively tense in this situation.

But, if you put two of those insoluble molecules into the water together, this amazing thing happens: the two insoluble molecules are pressed and held together. They do so not necessarily because they fit, grip, or grab in some way (like LEGOs), but because the rigid water molecules that are between their two surfaces can be "liberated" or freed from their rigid inter-relation and become freely dispersive water molecules again. As the water molecules are liberated, the surfaces of the two insolubles move together to touch. This is called a hydrophobic interaction.

The amazing part: what this means is that the two insoluble molecules are held together by the absence of water along the surfaces that touch, by the physical fact that water has a tendency to avoid such energetically "tense" situations and is energetically more "restful" when it can avoid them. Such hydrophobic interactions, i.e., the capacity for such insoluble molecules to clump together in a water-like or aqueous solution, are among the key factors that make cell membranes possible. And cell membranes are what make things like skin and bone possible. Think about that as you poke your finger at yourself.


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Mark Sammons said...

A nice description of the struggle of forcing your mind into new, not-exactly-welcomed-by-the-brain channels -- I am familiar with it (alas). Hopefully, the exhaustion arises from the energy expended in growing neuronal links. I really enjoyed learning about the counter-intuitive entropic explanation of the behavior of insoluble molecules in water -- thanks for sharing it!

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