Tip #6 — Get to Know Your Professors

So last night was the last lecture of my Ochem Lab. Probably the last lecture with one of the most amazing professors I have taken at UCSD. But it wasn’t always that way.

Dr. Bob Ternansky comes with a bold reputation. Before entering his class all I heard about was the difficulty of his tests, average of about 40%, or how he always has late night lecture, he does a lot of research during the day. It wasn’t until day 1 of my last quarter of Ochem that he opened lecture with “So first off I want to hear the rumors, come on, all of them…” This is when I found out that he dropped some 40 lbs over the past year, is known for test averages more around 30%, and allegedly was stabbed by a student once (false). Needless to say as the next few lectures progressed I learned more: answer wrong and be laughed at, take to long to answer and be cut off, fall asleep and be humiliated, talk in class and be yelled at… etc. It was intimidating. Especially since I force myself to sit front and center in 99% of my classes.

I don’t think I went to office hours before the first test. Or if I did it’s a repressed memory, probably filled with embarrassment and sadness for not phrasing questions correctly, asking stupid questions, etc. Thus my first real experience with Dr. Bob was after the first mid term.

Because I sport high levels of intelligence I decided to go out the night before my mid term, aka. we had an event for the sorority and I felt like I needed to support the team and just show up. Some how this random guy convinced me to drink 4 energy drinks, and then proceeded to try to help me study in the sktech computer engineering basement (another story all in it’s own ha). Bottom line: I didn’t go to bed until 4am. And at that point, that was the latest I had ever stayed up to study.

Come test day, whatever it’s Ochem I had gotten an A last quarter, I sit down. Get yelled at to put my bag up front, only have an ID, etc (Lots of ETCs in this post because you don’t want to know every forcedly important detail of my life). Get the test, turn the first page and bam. I’m sitting there, in Petersen 108, mid section, staring at material I had never seen before. I still remember that feeling. Total panic. Somehow I wrote things, lines, numbers. I turned in the test and it was over.

Next lecture I showed up early to collect my test. (My initial favorite thing about Ternansky was that his turn around grading time was like 7 hours or something ridiculous like that). And I didn’t do well. At all. Like almost worst than my F on my first gen chem test ever (Sorry mom and dad had to omit that one a while back ha). So I sat there and had an epic deliberation about what to do. Drop the class, continue on? Take a W? Could I even still get an A? Could I even get a B? What do I do? Basically all running through my mind as that feeling of panic came back again. He was there in the lecture hall, so I figured why not consult the expert. I asked him, as I know now stupidly, what the curve would be like, and if I had a chance. And like he always answers those questions: “I don’t know.”  I told him I wanted an A, and was thinking about dropping the class. But still no concrete advise on what I should do. So I sat, and thought. And thought. And wanted to cry but didn’t. But finally came up with a decision. If I had made it through 5 quarter of UCSD with pretty good grades, I had to be able to pull this off, it would be work and sacrifice, but it could be done. So I marched up to him and literally said “I will stay in your class. And I will get an A.” (We’re blaming the slightly disrespectful tone on my panic). And so began my relationship with the Natural Sciences Building, the twice a week trek to Revelle to attend Dr. Bobs office hours.

I kind of laugh looking back now, at how I had felt and how I had acted to my professor without even knowing him. As I watch new students come into his office hours now, I laugh. It’s mean, but I forget how I felt the first time I was in Dr. Bob’s office hours. The naivete shows, I can easily tell when a student has never talked to him before, ‘What’s the curve like?’, ‘can I still get an A,’most of all its the phrasing of questions that is a dead give away to new students. It’s like this: you can never ask Dr. Bob why did the rabbit cross the road? Because he’ll first sigh, and give you a look like “are you serious?” and then ask you if you read the book ‘Animal Crossings’. You say no of course. He’ll ask you to read it. But the book doesn’t talk about rabbits and you tell him this. But he then says ‘think.’ Think about the question.’ So you do, but still, who the f knows why rabbits cross the road. And then he’d say ‘ Do you know why the chicken crossed the road.’ ‘To get to the other side (obviously).’ And there is the answer! The point is that he will NEVER answer a straight answer (unless he knows you and is really bored). He makes you think, he makes you look at books, past assignments, internet. He makes you really think about it, and then apply it  to a similar situation you already know. At first, this is the most frustrating thing you will ever encounter. After quarters of rote memorization, jokes of biology classes, and semi-difficult but super-boring gen chem, having to think is something new. But on the first day of each class he teaches, he validate his method with a simple analogy:

The learning stool.

The learning stool, seat being learning, possesses 3 legs. The first leg is knowing the facts (“Worth nothing in the real world” – Dr. Bob himself). The second leg is understanding the concepts (“Worth maybe a little something in the real world”). These two are fundamental to any university class. But the third leg is Applying facts and concepts to new problems. This is the key. The key to analyzing and solving problems. The kind of thinking useful in the real world, useful in Medicine.

It is this which has made my value my time with Dr. Bob so much. Regardless of the fact that he has loosened up over the past year (Some of the examples he uses to explaing chemistry in class such as ‘A swimming pool of ethanol and water, which do you choose’ or ‘Don’t bring me cookies just bring me beer’ . Regardless of how I now know that he plays bass guitar in a local Neil Diamond tribute band (yes), or that he has published some incredibly influential papers in the pharmaceutical field. These things only make me love him more, but the fact that he challenges us to think, to be smarter than the average student, to apply our knowledge and grow as learner, this is what I will miss most about his classes. They are some of the hardest classes around, (my first Ochem test average was a 27%). I don’t care. I care about my future, I care about how his class has pushed me to grow intellectually, something I can carry with me for the rest of my life.

My point is: get to know your professors. They will surprise you, hopefully in a good way. But either way you develop a relationship in which you can learn about both class material, and random interesting things. Furthermore, it is necessary for med school to rack up a few solid letters of rec, and this cannot be down without a student-professor relationship. While you shouldn’t go to office hours just for that reason, that is something to keep in mind when you decide whether or not to trek up that hill, at 8pm at night, or skip a movie with friends. Go to office hours! You won’t regret it!

AS A FOLLOW UP:

Get to know your TA. It will help when you forget to turn in a lab report and you are in jeopardy of failing your course (:

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