Friday, 9 October 2009

Week one in review.

As the first week of fifty passes, it seems appropriate to stop and reflect on the last five days. Granted, it wasn't technically the first week (we had a week of introductory talks, induction sessions and general 'getting to know people' type events last week) but it was the first week of teaching, and my first class on Monday morning left me with a heavy heart.

Now, much had been made by the lecture staff about the wide variety of backgrounds and experiences we, the students, had prior to the course. For some this is their second or third masters, but for the majority it is their first postgraduate qualification. Many, like me, graduated with a BSc or BA in Psychology, but there is also a wealth of other talent on board, from computer science students to those who studied linguistics. Some studied neuroscience, and others had a more biomedical background.

Therefore one would hope that the lecture staff would really start with the basics, and build up to more complex and specialist information. Sadly not. My main complaint about Tuesday morning is that Marty Sereno, who teaches 'Structure and Measurement of the Brain' (which encompasses Neuroanatomy, Neurophysiology, and Neuroimaging Physics)seemed to assume we were all already familiar with pretty advanced maths, physics and chemistry concepts, and wasted no time in explaining much of the terminology he employed. For poor old me, who hasn't done any maths or real science in the last decade (not since the last century, in fact) this was a bit of a problem.

This was exacerbated by the fact that, rather than starting at the beginning, Marty seemed to deliver the points of his lecture in a bizarre mixed up order of concepts, often explaining how a process works far before explaining what the process actually is and does. Passionate he certainly is, and his knowledge seemed superb. But when I asked a question (basically 'what on earth are you talking about') he merely stated he would come back to my question, and then promptly forgot.

Luckily when I went home and began to plough through the reading things started to make sense. I now have a basic understanding of the signalling processes employed by neurons (or brain cells), which is far too dull to even bother explaining here, but in very simple terms it has to do with flipping the balance of positive and negatively charged ions inside and outside the cell wall to create a sudden electrical charge which then fires along to the next brain cell to convey the signal. Simple, and it only took a few hours of reading.

The rest of Tuesday was pretty much administrative stuff, learning about the departmental intranet and IT services and a little information about our major project for the course. We also discussed applying for PhD funding, which needs to be done very soon indeed. This presents me with a bit of a problem, as a large part of my reason for doing this course is that I don't yet know what field I want to go into for my PhD, and so was hoping that the masters would give me extra knowledge of all aspects of neuroscience. So it came as a bit of a shock to learn that I would need to apply for funding within the first month of the course. Arse.

By the time my second day of lectures came around, I was still worrying about my experience of Mondays class. Surely it couldn't all be this hard? If week one was going to be that complex then what the hell was week ten, twenty or fifty going to be like?

Luckily, I was presently surprised by Thursday, as much of it was very basic revision of the statistical concepts I had learnt at undergraduate level. I would say I was already familiar with about 90% of what was discussed in out first 'Advanced Quantitative Methods' class, and looking over the timetable for the coming months most of this module does seem to build on concepts with which I am already familiar. I had been dreading statistics, but I left the class feeling very, very relieved.

Which brings me on to my final class of the week, 'Lesion approaches'. This class covers what we can learn about the brain by examining what effect is observed when a specific area of the brain is damaged, and the impairments it causes. I have a feeling this may become a personal favourite of mine, and although week one was very basic and introductory in tone, it did not disappoint.

So there you have it, week one. Sorry there wasn't much to report, but due to the nature of these things this first week was mostly spend getting to know the staff, finding out where we needed to be for each class and discussing what we will be learning over the next 12 months.

I would imagine that as of Monday, the exciting stuff starts! But don't worry, I will be here to keep you posted!


  1. Urr... First weeks they like to intimidate you. I remember once when I started doing German GCSE, he did the whole first lesson COMPLETELY in German.

    Next lesson he spoke in English.

    So hopefully you'll find you feet and it'll all be fine.

  2. I think Feynman has good commentary with regards to the difficulty level - if it wasn't difficult, you probably ought not to be in the class! :) plus, as you kind of pointed out, it started to make sense once you started reading up on it.

  3. It wasn't so much the difficulty as the disjointed nature of the way he went about it. He would introduce key concepts later into the lecture, that would have been needed to understand much of what was covered earlier. It's like teaching a child to count at 5, following with 8 and 10, whilst leaving 1,2 and 3 until the following week.

    But to be fair, I think his teaching style is a product of his passion for the subject. He seems to enjoy going off on tangents and exploring concepts as he goes along. Passion being a very desirable quality in a tutor!