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I have a new ultimate challenge.

Last semester it was physics. For every hour of study I devoted to biology or organic chemistry, I gave three to physics problems. Every upcoming exam filled me with fear, every passing grade felt like a dodged bullet. When my final grade came in, higher than my wildest expectations, I was giddy with relief. The battle felt epic; the victory was sweet.

Now, though, physics is a known quantity. Sure, the material is new and just as mystifying as it was before, but I’ve become accustomed to the sense of bewilderment that colors most lecture classes. Having survived the final exam last semester, the smaller midterms seem less intimidating and my panic less acute.

Obviously it was time for a new challenge. And so it has appeared in the form of organic lab.

Like physics, organic chemistry lab is considered one of the pre-med weed-out classes. It is notorious for class averages in the 50s, with an epic final exam and lab reports a minimum of thirteen pages single spaced. When the undergraduates talk about the class there is a hint of fear in their voices.

We postbacs, however, get special treatment. Our organic professor is part of the program; he knows us all by name and teaches us separately from the undergraduates. We have no final exam and our lab reports are recommended to be about three pages long. When we pass by the undergraduate lab we see dozens of students frowning over their equipment in utter silence, while our TAs play music and have promised to get a beer with us after class sometime.

Which is the irony of this class being my new source of stress; there is really nothing stressful about it. Everything that makes the class a brutal, terrifying obstacle course for undergraduates has been removed. Friday afternoons should be fun; I already like organic chemistry on paper, it should be great to watch those principles enacted right before my eyes. Potions class, like in Harry Potter, one student called it. And it would be exactly that if it weren’t for the fact that I am completely terrible at doing actual organic chemistry.

We’ve had four labs so far and not a single one has gone off without problems. In the first lab my lab partner and I washed our equipment before we used it and the residual water interfered with our results. In the second, our substances refused to dissolve no matter how much solvent we added. The third gave us great results that we were later told absolutely could not, under any circumstances, be accurate. Our most recent lab yielded  no results at all, aside from a strange reddish sludge that our TA proclaimed, “Very interesting,” in a tone of voice suggesting he instead meant, “How the hell did you mess this one up?”

I’ve come to dread Fridays. No matter how much preparation I do ahead of time, nor how well I think I understand the concepts, the minute I step into the lab I feel I have surrendered all control. The magical organic lab fairies will decide whether or not I end up with a product, and apparently they’ve taken a dislike to me. The TAs and the professor assure me this is normal and how organic chemistry often goes. If that’s the case it’s a wonder more organic chemists haven’t blown up their own labs in frustration.

Don’t worry, I’m not planning on blowing anything up. With my lab luck it wouldn’t work anyway and I’d probably singe my eyebrows off in the process. But I remain disappointed to find that, while theoretical organic chemistry is one of my favorite science subjects, o-chem PhD is not in the cards if my MD falls through.

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This week brought the event I call the “exam double header.” Physics on Thursday, biology on Friday – but wait, there’s more! This time around we have an organic exam the following week. (It was supposed to be on Monday, but our professor took pity on us and is letting us choose a different day of the week to take it.)

As the stress bears down, all of my hidden (or not so) neuroses rise to the surface. My nails are bitten to the quick, my sleeping patterns become erratic, and my humor becomes biting and uncensored.

I also become seriously superstitious.

Most of the time I am an extremely logical person. And as an extremely logical person, I know that my performance on an exam is in no way determined by the clothing I wear or  the desk at which I choose to sit. Yet, like competitors the world over, on the day of a particularly nerve wracking test (read: every physics test I have and ever will take), I find myself locked in to particular pre-test rituals.

If you were to ask me, even in the midst of performing these rituals, if I thought they had any effect on my grades, I could honestly tell you that, no, mostly my performance on exams is a result of a lot of hard work and a few test-taking strategies I’ve picked up along the way. Furthermore, there is no particular custom that I actually attribute any value to; it’s more a need to cover all of my bases than faith any any particular practice.

Psychologically this makes a lot of sense; humans have a habit of relying on ceremony when the outcome is uncertain. “No atheists in a foxhole,” right? Sports figures and fighters are renowned for having good luck charms. My reliance on objects and actions that are supposedly “lucky” are in inverse correlation with how much control I feel over the test I’m facing. Physics tests get the full treatment, but at this point I can face down most biology exams without too much pomp and circumstance.

Lest you think that I’m spending my pre-test mornings praying over an alter to the gods of mathematics, let me assure you that most of my rituals are small things. I listen to certain songs as I’m getting ready, choose a certain spot in the room to take the test. If I did poorly on an exam on a day when I wore a certain article of clothing or jewelry (and remember picking it out) I bypass it the next time around. I discard anything I feel might have jinxed me. A few times I brought along “good luck” charms to chemistry tests over the summer; after a mediocre grade on one final exam I started leaving them at home.

The funny part is that between tests these compulsions lose their power over me. I look back on my successes and failures over the course of the past year and at no point do I think, “Oh well that only happened because I did/didn’t honor my good luck ritual.” Yet the moment that pre-test anxiety hits, I cling to them as the faint assurance that everything will work out somehow.

There are two major tenets to my pre-exam ritual. The first is not to tell anyone the exact make-up of any ritual. (I’m taking a big risk with this blog entry, you should know.) The other is hubris goes before the fall. And thus is my conundrum, for I fear that the moment I leave my superstitions by the wayside I will finally discover their power.

For the first summer session and the first semester I had a non-portable laptop.

How can a laptop be unportable, you might ask? Isn’t the primary purpose of a laptop that it can be taken from place to place? Don’t you mean you had a desktop computer?

To spare you the full tale of my computer woes, the short version is that my computer lacked that essential laptop capability to close, and thus be placed into a backpack and transported anywhere useful besides my desk and my bed. So I never took my laptop to class.

I didn’t miss it, for the most part. Very few assignments required me to type anything and I could log onto the Internet at any number of locations in the various libraries on campus. Not to mention that distracting pastimes, such as talking to friends online or checking my email obsessively were restricted to short(ish) breaks between active studying.

However, my beloved laptop, which I still required for distracting myself from school-related activities when at home, had problems beyond its lack of closure and it was easy to get jealous of the very portable computers the other students in my cohort carried around. Eventually it became clear that I was going to need to obtain a new laptop, so over winter break I shelled out far too much money for a shiny new one.

Which brings me to this week’s topic; the dangers of getting what you want. Because now I have a laptop that I can easily slip into my backpack between lab manuals and textbooks, so it comes to school with me every day. Which means that, mid-physics problem, I can tell a good friend about my day or reply to an email about a shadowing opportunity, or, oh yeah, write a blog entry. Laptop portability may have increased, but my productivity has taken a nosedive.

Easy solution, though; just stop bringing it with me to class in the first place, right? But as anyone who has ever acquired a new piece of technology can tell you, once you begin to rely on something, it’s almost impossible to give it up. I’ve forgotten how to be a non-computered student. How do I take notes in bio without my computer? How do I cram for that lab quiz if I can’t access the power point slides from the lecture the other day? What if I get an important email!? I can no longer function without constant connection to the web!

Thus you, dear reader, get an update, and I get a chapter behind in my physics studying. Ah, technology.


 

I’m terribly behind in updating, and this hardly counts as a legitimate post, but this article about the discrepancy in doctor salaries based on gender was a depressing enough way to start out my Wednesday that I thought I would share.

It’s a good article; the study and the author don’t just accept the numbers and leave us readers to try and sort through the reasons. No, it isn’t just the differences in specialties. No, it’s not just because all these women doctors are off having babies. They even ruled out different income structures or salary negotiating techniques which are causes that didn’t occur to me right away.

As an idle thought, I wonder if the custom of never asking or talking about income might not be hurting our country’s efforts to equality. Are most of these women, who I imagine are by and large intelligent, driven individuals to have made it through medical school and residency, aware that their male counterparts are making more money? It’s one thing to look at statistics in an article, and quite another to know you’re being held to a different standard by an employer.

This is all the more disturbing in light of my last post on women in medicine, in which Canadian schools were having to select moderately qualified male students over extremely qualified female students in order to keep the gender balance from tipping too far off center. Are we paying less qualified doctors more simply because they are male?

By the time you’re making 200K a year, it’s hardly good manners to complain about your income. Still, income equality is important not because of a number in a bank account, but rather because it represents a mindset about what we believe women are worth; right now that seems to be less than men.