BIOL 112: Biology of the Cell

Dr. Karen Smith was easily the most approachable instructor I had all semester. She’s super passionate about her bacteria, absolutely hilarious (I’ll never forget the ‘cell bio’ rap she performed on the last day of class), and is apparently great during her office hours. I did, however, have a problem with her teaching style. Her explanations seemed roundabout and, combined with my 9 a.m. section, had me lost the majority of the time. The second half of the course was a whirlwind of definitions and trippy clicker questions for me and I think many others took issue with the way Dr. Smith introduced certain topics, particularly bacterial transcription. Her lecture slides were by far the most useful resource offered for the course. Her personality is worth showing up to class for alone, but the course is passable even if you nap every lecture (like me. Oops).

How Life Works (UBC custom edition) was a brand new textbook, never used prior to 2014W. Access to the ebook was included with the mandatory Launchpad access, so buying the physical book wasn’t actually necessary if you just bought the code. I found the actual book a lot easier to use than its online counterpart (you can’t read the ebook and complete the quizzes at the same time unless you struggle with Launchpad for a while), though, and I think most of us ended up buying it despite the alternative being made perfectly clear. You’ll also need an iClicker every class.

This course is basically a review of Biology 12 (in British Columbia)Most (but not all) of the material is covered in much greater depth than it was at my high school, however, with an emphasis on eukaryotic versus bacterial functions. Protein synthesis, DNA replication, cellular respiration and photosynthesis were all covered in pretty good detail, though the first two suffered big differences between the lecture material and textbook content — do not skip any of the protein synthesis lectures as exams are based on heavily activities completed in those classes.

There were two midterms and a final exam. The first midterm was worth 15% and the second 30% — had I actually known about this disparity I would’ve studied a lot harder for the second one. You’re allowed to bring in a cheat sheet to both midterms and the final, and I personally recommend putting as many labelled diagrams and flowcharts on it as possible, especially re:cellular respiration, photosynthesis and even transcription. I didn’t find any of the exams much harder than the others, but that’s not saying much, because I found all of the exams pretty darn hard. The multiple choice questions are designed to trick you, with many similar options and confusing combinations of phrases.

  • Do the prereadings — not just because they’ll help you understand lectures (they didn’t help me much, honestly) but because the participation marks are a major grade booster. Same with the in-class activities. They worked really well for some people; not me. Point is, they’re marked on the basis of effort alone and putting in that extra bit of work will make up for that one question on the midterm you really wished you’d picked C for instead of E.
  • Do the practice midterms. They’re long and time-consuming, but this course is known to recycle its exam questions (rumour has it the final never changes, but I wouldn’t bet on that one) and they really help you think critically about the material.
  • Know your terminology. Part of the reason the second half of this course was such a mess for me was because I’d never gotten familiar with the vocabulary in the first place. Explanations went right over my head because I wasn’t sure what a sigma factor was, and I realize now I would’ve learned stuff a lot quicker had I figured out the basics at the start.
  • Watch the videos. Every week, you download a targeted reading document that goes over the pre-lecture work. It often includes links to videos, animations and online activities. Use those. Seriously. At one point I decided I was too lazy to click into them but boy was that a mistake. Visualization is so key here. Bless whoever came up with the lac operon animation that literally saved my life.

Long post, but let me know if you have any questions about the course and I’ll try my best to answer!

004 | The Other Side

Hi, hello. Yes, hi there. How’ve you been? You’ve gotten taller. Some tea? I got this awful mango passionfruit blend the other day in hopes it’d keep me awake through my first day of second semester and I feel like I owe this poor blog at least that courtesy. In my defence, the last three months have been one blank space after another — of both the Swift variety and the sort that materializes in poor student brains after too many missed lectures and incomplete WebWork assignments. Emergency dance parties and cramming sessions definitely outnumber the chemistry lectures I sat through awake.

I never thought I’d ever compare my academic life to a trainwreck, but there you go. First semester was a disaster. Nobody’s going to look at my transcript and call me a joke of a student, but I’ve never been so disappointed in myself. I know I could’ve done better — and that seemed to be the general sentiment around campus earlier today. I’m so determined not to fall short of my own expectations again, and I think (key word there) I might even surpass them if I try hard enough.

For the second time now my physics professor opened his first lecture by asking us all what our goals are, and for the second time now ‘medical school’ far eclipsed the other options. I remember ‘pharmacy’ being the second most popular choice last semester, seeing as I gave that answer myself — but I think my goals have changed, and today has been such an eye opener. I’ll be honest; first semester was like a slap in the face. Somehow calculate the collective volume of the sweat and tears that have run down my face since September 3rd (with integral calculus — thanks, Professor Doebelli) and it’ll probably come to the conclusion that I’ve cried enough damage to equate a literal slap. I realized what I’m good at (not chemistry), what I’m terrible at (chemistry) and what I no longer want to major in (biochemistry). I realized I’m capable of attending six hours worth of class on just two hours of sleep, but not two nights in a row and certainly not three.

I don’t mean to sound upset, because I’m not really, but first year has thus far done a great job of teaching me about my limits and how far I can push them for academia’s sake. It’s done a genuinely terrible job of teaching me about chemistry, but I’ll get to that. I’m jumping on the bandwagon with course reviews while my workload is still light — though I’m hoping I’ll be better at keeping up with this blog this semester than last.

To finish off, quick bullet points re:stuff I learned last semester that’s mostly irrelevant but oh-so life-changing:

  • Professors smile a lot during office hours. A lot. They genuinely want you to show up and  regardless of the usual demeanour will (generally) become the sweetest person alive upon your arrival.
  • Using the facilities prior to sitting down alone in a library will save you the hassle of struggling to find someone trustworthy to look after your stuff later.
  • It is possible to walk out of a physics lab halfway to buy a Blue Chip cookie across the street.
  • Buchanan D is the one with the fountain.
  • Strange stuff happens when you live directly above a parking lot — ie. someone may get arrested about four floors down from you and your open window will be the equivalent of a front row seat.
  • Pizza is never a bad idea. Seriously, order a medium pizza and eat it all by yourself over the course of a few days (or one day, if that’s your style). You’ll feel better for it. Trust me.


003 | Remember This?

Super nerdy, caffiene-fuelled post to the right, FYI.

Midterms in high school were no big deal. I remember barely cracking open my calculus notebook in grade 12 and still knowing every answer on the October exam. I remember feeling ‘just okay’ about my Biology 12 midterm, only for some loser to call in a bomb threat to my school that day and for the test to be cancelled (not kidding). I don’t remember taking midterms for any other courses in high school, because really, marks back then were determined mostly by homework assignments and other small-scale assessments. Exams happened only in January and June, and that was all fine  because here’s a confession, kind of: I loved high school finals. I liked vague questions that relied on overall understanding rather than close inspection of the details. I thought synthesis questions were cool. I loved rolling my shoulders back on the way out of the exam room and realizing that my fate was in someone else’s hands, and as unsettling as that was, it meant no more work — at least not on my part anymore. 

Here’s the thing: university, so far, has been an entirely different beast. Case in point? It’s just past midnight on Saturday and I’m at home, two doors down from my parents, doing a PHYS 100 reading that isn’t due for another two days. Why? Because in three days, on my eighteenth birthday, I have two midterms, a chemistry quiz, a physics lab, a worksheet to hand in and not one party to attend.

So, so stoked. Considering nothing particularly traumatic has really ever happened to me, I’m convinced this is my rite of passage to adulthood, and all I have to do is not fail. And while once a upon time that would’ve been a laughable goal, I can’t help but stare into the empty pages of my BIOL 112 notebook and wonder what the hell I’ve been doing for the past three weeks, because understanding was not it. I wish I could go back to high school and relearn the entire polarity unit of Chemistry 11 — my life would be a lot easier now if I’d actually paid attention then. 

Note my complete lack of stress over my other exam, MATH 102. It’s because calculus happens to be the exact opposite case — I remember everything I learned in Calculus 12, meaning this upcoming midterm covers only material I already know. Everyone says math exams are brutal, but I’m feeling weirdly confident about this one. We’ll see how that goes. 

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that retention is everything. I mean, duh, yeah, obviously. Maybe I’m late to the party but this idea has seriously never occurred to me until now. Maybe it’s because of the way high school works. You learn about plants and microorganisms in Biology 11, and humans in Biology 12. You learn about electricity in grade 9, only to never touch that aspect of physics again. You completely relearn how to write essays every year unless you get the same English teacher twice, in which case you just apply the same methods to slightly more difficult readings. I think there’s a huge disconnect between grade 9 and grade 10, 10 and 11, and 11 and 12 and so I’ve never felt the need to actually retain any of the knowledge I attain each year. I can honestly say I’ve never experienced any sort of continuity in my education, and the only reason I remember a thing about calculus is because it was my favourite subject — don’t judge.

There’s a good chance this is all my fault, though, I mean. Maybe instead of cramming for that chemistry final two years ago, I should’ve taken the time to internalize the material — maybe then I’d actually remember some of it now. The blame game’s always fun to play, though. And you know what else sounds fun? No, not stabbing myself in the face with a fork. I’m talking about procrastinating, which I’ve done enough of for today. It’s 1 a.m., which makes it thirteen hours since I last studied and 89 hours until my first midterm. Oops. Off to bed. 

002 | Day Twelve

My first two weeks at UBC have been less than stellar — and yeah, that probably sounds harsh, but last week at the Blog Squad social, I informed the rest of the cohort that I’d like to become more concise… so here I am, cutting straight to the chase. I feel like I’m struggling with every possible aspect of university life. The difference between my highest and lowest marks so far is 58%, which is absolutely terrifying*. I’ve made a few new friends, but I can’t say they all know much about me beyond my face, name and faculty. I know where all my classes are, but I still can’t find the SUB on my first try. I can’t stop buying crappy pizza despite telling myself time after time that I’ll only regret it (and I do. So much).

I mean, on the whole, this is an incredible experience. I know that by the end of the term, I’ll know way more about biology, chemistry, math, physics and English than I ever thought I would. I know that I’m in an amazing position. I have friends who didn’t make the cut and I’m incredibly thankful that I’m here. But I can’t help but feel like I’m either missing something or doing this university thing wrong.

There have been good moments, obviously. Last week, a pre-school classmate I hadn’t seen since grade eight shouted my name in a crowded hallway and we had a brief chat. On Friday, I stopped by the SUB’s famous poster sale and picked up a monochrome map of the world and a Captain America silhouette (slightly disappointed at the lack of Chris Evans’s face in it, but y’know. Whatever). Yesterday, I redecorated my half of the dorm room, and everybody who’s stopped by has said good things about my two-hour wall tape job. And today, I headed back to Totem Park via a slightly different route than usual and survived, which is more than I can say for the lunch I’d left in my backpack.

Those all feel like the little things, though, anyway, and while I’d like to care more about them, their help is minimal when it comes to the crazy readjustment that is living alone — or at least, living without parents. It’s funny how much of a downer it is to realize I have a whole day’s worth of dishes to do by myself. I actually cannot believe the amount of work I’m doing every night between homework, chores and trying to have some semblance of a social life. I’m failing at the last one, apparently, and I can’t help but feel like that’s what I’m missing, though at the same time I haven’t been getting my homework done too well so maybe it’s that. Who knows? Everything here is confusing and every interaction, every assignment, every dining hall entrée even feels like I’m taking shots in the dark, and when aunts and uncles and grandma ask how I am… well, that’s one heck of a loaded question, isn’t it?

I’m sure it gets better, I mean. I almost definitely raining on everybody’s parade, now, so here. Take this song. It’s sort of keeping me alive as I (ironically) continue to procrastinate on my English summary and snack on chocolate I brought from home.


* and admittedly ever so slightly skewed thanks to bonus marks — don’t worry, mom. 

001 | Hi, Hey There, Hello

So, hi everyone! My name is Karen and I’m super excited to be a member of UBC’s Blog Squad this year. In case you’re curious, adventure.exe is a reference to both the crazy journey we’re all embarking on here and this song, which I’m a little in love with. I’m a first year science student, anyway, and I hail from Coquitlam, B.C., which is a very lovely but ever-so-slightly transit-impaired city in the lower mainland. As you can imagine, I wasn’t expecting the move to Vancouver to be any sort of challenge, but within hours — minutes, really — of unpackingI was proved wrong.

I mean, first things first, I didn’t even have internet in my room for the first little while on account of a broken Ethernet outlet (given the age of my building in Totem Park, I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was terrified, really). I had my first encounter with the UBC’s IT team the next day, though, and the friendliness of the technician who came by had me crazy optimistic about the social environment here. It sounds ridiculous, I’m sure, but I was pretty homesick and even the smallest gesture seemed equivalent to having all my closest friends around again — or at least like I’m heading in the general direction of not being the most confused person on campus. I haven’t been at all consistent with it, but I’ve been making an effort to greet my floormates when we pass through the halls. My roommate aside, I only know a few faces and even fewer names, though, so I can only hope I’m on the right track.

That all aside, I’ve spent the last few days exploring UBC and I have to say I’m quite proud of how well I can navigate it already. To say I’m geographically challenged is kind of an understatement, but over the course of four days I’ve slowly figured out how maps work and that’s been immensely helpful in… well, every way imaginable. If there’s one piece of advice I can already give, though, it’s that exploring inside buildings is just as important as figuring out where they are. I had a little panic earlier today outside my PHYS 100 building; the wheelchair access door was labelled with the hall number but was locked from the inside. Turns out all I had to do was take the stairs next to the girls’ restroom — I felt seriously silly when I finally showed up five minutes late and the prof was already shouting vehemently about supermodels.

My first lectures have gone well, though, and besides that I have two midterms on my birthday, I’m happy with my schedule and everyone I’ve met in my classes so far. It’s funny how beneficial being late to class has been to my overall self-confidence, actually; yes, it was absolutely horrifying and I really should’ve been better prepared, but being late allowed me to sit with (some really friendly) strangers and it’s given me something to lead in conversations with — y’know, “Hey, did the prof introduce himself before I got here?” or even “Wow, I can’t even make out his face at all from back here. Want to come early and sit at the front tomorrow?”

I’m totally not condoning tardy arrivals in my first post, though. I promise. But if you do end up running late, use your confusion as a weapon or something other than a point of embarrassment. If there’s one thing I’ve realized in my first half-week here at UBC, it’s that being upfront about being stressed out will probably earn you more friends than trying to hide that you’re obviously uncomfortable. Almost everyone you meet is trying something new just by being here, after all, and uncertainty is easy common ground.