Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Big Picture

This past month, I was taking the medical school module on Brain and Behavior. The course is intended to provide medical students an introduction to neurology and neuroanatomy, and the department thought it would be a good idea for the graduate students to take the class. I don't completely disagree with the idea, although there is a large scope for improvement such that Neurobiology students learn skills and information that are useful and relevant, as opposed to facts and trivia that we will forget soon. One thing missing from the course, and consistently missing from a lot of advanced medical/scientific courses is an appreciation for the beauty of the cell/tissue/organ, etc...

I was originally interested in Biology because to me, the human body was an elegant structure, a few trillion cells, acting in concert, were necessary to accomplish most things we would think of as mundane. To accomplish this feat we call life, there need to be feedback loops, feed-forward loops, intracllular signaling cascades, cell-cell communication locally and systemically each of which is regulated and the regulation is regulated. All these processes need to communicate with one another with temporal and spatial specificity. As we discover more about the processes that allow us to perform the functions we can, I believe it is important to continually appreciate the delicateness and the elegance involved in the sustenance of life amid very narrow thermodynamic limits.

I have found that the med school course focused on details, without much appreciation for the bigger picture. For instance, I understand that somatic sensory information is "perceived" by 1st order neurons in the dorsal root ganglion, before proceeding upwards in the spinal cord through the dorsal columns, terminating on dorsal column nuclei, decassating and continuing upward through the medial lemniscal pathway, terminating in the thalamus where neurons send information to the cortex. However, this does not help me appreciate the fact that this entire process takes a few milliseconds, during which information from multiple neurons have been combined to determine the identity of the stimulus and the appropriate response to it.

In contrast, there are classes which elaborate on biological elegance. For instance, in the concepts II lecture we had this morning, Rich Mooney spent quite some time elaborating on the fact that the auditory system has to use action potentials, which are about 1ms in duration, to code for stimuli that are microseconds long, i.e. they are coding stimuli that are 1000 times faster than their theoretical limit. Rich went on to elaborate on the mechanisms and details about how the process might occur, but held the process and the mechanism with a sense of wonder which reminded me why I care so much.

When conveying information about a certain topic, I believe it is just as important to inspire wonder as it is to elaborate on the components and interactions that characterize the system. I feel that is what distinguishes a good lecturer from a bad one. One need to have great oratorical skills or a vast vocabulary, but one must have the child-like wonder, and be able to inspire that in the audience.

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