Learning about learning

The struggle over whether to write blog posts/college essays/gov essays is real.

It’s only after 2 months of summer break that I realize a couple of things about my own learning.

I’ve been spending my non-scheduled weekdays at MD Anderson doing bioinformatics research. Read: Sitting in front of a computer trying to make sense of spreadsheets. In the words of my mentor, ” there’s no requirement from my supervisor. He and I both hope that you will enjoy your time here, learn new stuffs, feel accomplished, and find science is awesome” No homework, no grades. I’m just expected to show up and do the work. No one gets mad at me if I don’t show up one day. No one minds if I leave early or take a 3 hour lunch break. (In my defense, that only happened once. Ok fine, twice.)

I didn’t recognize the hardworking culture I was in until someone pointed it out to me. People openly criticize other peoples’ ideas without any criticism of the person. People will eat lunch in front of their computers to get more work done. No one in my department speaks English as their first language. Yet when it comes to explaining their project, they all speak perfect (though accented) English and explain complicated concepts more clearly than some of my teachers. It’s this kind of ease and confidence that I envy in adults (and frankly, that I noticed in the student tour guides when I toured colleges. I didn’t want to go to the school necessarily, but I wanted the confidence and poise that the students had.) Whenever I explain my own work, I constantly stumble on my words and forget whether I’m talking about genes, proteins, or cell lines. Aside from that the biggest difference between me (asides from the fact that they’re all post-docs) is that I can do what someone tells me to do. They know the big picture, the significance, how to move forth. It’s an intellectually active world, and frankly, I’m a bit jealous that I can’t stay.

Learning R

My first assignment was to learn R, the coding language they used. (What is R you ask? It’s like S? What is S? It’s like C. You’re welcome.) The first thing my mentor showed me was how to find the help pages. Rationale being: as long as I knew how to ask for help, I could do anything. Then someone told me there was an edX course on learning R, and I enrolled.

The first unit had 10 video lectures. Borringgggg. But at the bottom, I saw the extra credit opportunity. Swirl,  a program akin to Codeacademy, but on a line by line basis inside the console.

In that instant, I instantly dropped the MOOC to do Swirl. Yup, I dropped the course to do the extra credit. Something about learning to program interactively and working out the kinks myself was much more satisfying and compelling than passively sitting through video lectures. I knew that I was missing valuable gaps of knowledge by not patiently sitting through all the lectures, but I knew I’d learn what I programmed better than what I heard. And besides, the lectures were always there for me the watch if I really needed the information.

Messy learning 

I’ve finished every CodeAcademy course that I’ve started, yet I’ve never finished a MOOC. Even in school, I don’t like doing long reading assignments before I learn something. I’d rather go directly to the questions, only returning back when I’m convinced that I need the material. It’s not that I don’t have the patience to read. I just don’t like reading something without knowing how and why it’s important. I like the back and forth between learning and application. I like my learning to be messy and inefficient, to have a net of knowledge with handcrafted connections instead of merely building upon someone else’s scaffold.

I never write any blog posts with outlines. Even as this post is approaching 1300 words, I always start my posts by idea dumping, writing paragraphs and creating subheadings as I go. New ideas come to me as I write, sometimes random false starts, sometimes epiphanies, mostly stuff i between. One can imagine how this goes when I handwrite essays in class and suddenly get a brilliant idea for paragraph 1 in paragraph 3. Nevermind the fact that I don’t even get a chance to edit. 1 I’m a strong believe in Paul Graham’s ideas about essays that the act of writing itself generates ideas and will shape the direction of a piece.

This creates a weird, weird paradox in my learning. I sincerely appreciate good teachers for their ability for explain difficult concepts and make connections that I wouldn’t have made on my own, but at times, I wish I had more bad teachers so that I could 1) feel the internal satisfaction at having learned something in my own unique way instead of having it spoon fed to me, and 2) still have the external pressure of grades to motivate me. I won’t want to learn something unless I perceive it to be difficult and/or worth learning, aka where I struggle, and if someone short-circuits the process for me, then I feel cheated.

When I listened to the Moth semi-regularly, I remember an episode starting off  “Here at the Moth, we live with the philosophy: Pick the life path that leads to the most interesting stories.” Asides from being an excellent life philosophy, it embodies the struggle involved with learning.

[See: Math with Bad Drawings: America Will Run Out of Good Questions by 2050]

A typical day. 

My mentor usually explains a specific technique used to analyze data and then gives me a script that she had used previously and a set of data. Then I’m off. And even when I know the exact commands and functions to run and the datasets to run them on, there’s a pretty ridiculous amount of debugging. I’ve started measuring assignments in terms of half-days and days.

Yet the one question I never ask is: “Why is my code not working.” I’ll ask which data sets I should use, whether my results look right, but I don’t dare to ask for help on anything syntactical. I don’t ask questions until I can boil them down to a “yes/no” or “which one” answer that I have no idea how to answer. (Usually along the lines of “Am I going in the right direction?”) This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned that I’m reluctant to ask for help, but reality has been that I’ve been able to sole 90% of the problems I encounter on my own (with some generous help from the internet, particularly StackOverflow) I’m hoping that changes as the concepts I learn become more and more complicated, and raw effort isn’t enough to master a concept.

I’m conscious that people like being able to help others, that asking questions isn’t, but some stubborn sense of pride is holding me back. And when I do turn on the faucet of questions though, they never stop. If I ask the first obvious question, I start asking more and more obvious questions that I’d be able to answer had I simply sat down and thought. It’s the same stubbornness that gets me through tough problems, to keep up this blog despite mounting pressures from other places

Side note: I’m trying to associate “New Romantics”  with my time at MDA, aka I try to exclusively play that song while I’m there.

Other songs:

  • Candy, Avril Lavigne (only the instrumental is out)
  • Search Party, Sam Bruno (from the Paper Towns soundtrack)
  • Don’t Let me Get me, P!nk

UPDATE: It’s been a while since I came back to this post. I’ve been playing “We Got the World” by Icona Pop nonstop lately. It’s been a while since I heard this (vague memories of being stressed during sophomore year are popping up as I listen to it again, but that’s gone for the most part now.)


  1.  Typically, I just weave it into whatever I’m writing and pretend like it’s relevant. I have yet to be caught. 
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One thought on “Learning about learning

  1. Pingback: Rejected College Essays: Nerding Out | Educated Opinions

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