Author Archives: aliceking1993

19 things I’ve learnt in my 1st year of Uni

So first year is coming to an end,, which is both terrifying and depressing in equal measure. I know its a cliche but I really don’t understand how its gone so fast! If this carries on I’ll be graduated before I feel like I’ve even been here 5 minutes!

These past 9 months have come and gone at supersonic speed, but in the mean time I feel like I’ve learnt quite a bit. This post is kind of a summary of what I’ve learnt and I hope it serves as a good bit of advice too. Much of it is those old clichés that no-one listens too at the time, only to realise in hindsight that they hit the nail right on the head, but some of them might be less obvious…

1) University is wonderful.

2) Halls are not wonderful.

3) The people you live with in halls will most likely not be your life-long friends. Especially if they smoke copious amounts of weed in your kitchen and never tidy up after themselves.

4) You will make some VERY good friends at Uni. Its something to do with the shared experiences and the close proximity. There’s a temptation to stick in the small group of friends that you meet during Freshers, but keep yourself open to meeting new people all the way through the year. You’ll probably end up meeting the people you have most in common with sometime after Christmas.

5) Enjoy Freshers. It won’t last. You’ll most likely get 1/2 way through and be exhausted/ill/on the verge of death. Ignore all of this and power through anyway. You won’t get it back. Of course the nights are generally hilarious and great fun but remember, its not all about getting hammered every night though. Don’t pass up the opportunities to try random sports and activities during the day and take ALL of the discounts/vouchers/free things you can get hold of. Even that soap and flannel set and jar or pickled onions you never thought you’d need.

6) NEVER put foil in a microwave. Seems obvious, but don’t forget this. It ALWAYS ends badly.

7) Even if you get desperate…NEVER resort to eating dry Tuna in brine straight out of the tin. Its just not worth it.

8) Chicken Dippers should only ever be consumed at 3am…when you’re very VERY drunk.

9) There are lots of people on campus who think they’re the bee’s knees. You’ll notice their hipster-ness…but they’re no more cool than anyone else. There are no ‘cool kids’ at Uni because no-one cares and this is fantastic.

10) There are more opportunities for you to learn things and do things and get involved with things at University than you could shake a stick at. Seek them out…and do them ALL.

11) If people get jealous that you’re taking these opportunities…ignore it. Do what you want to do. Concentrate on making University what you want it to be and squeeze the most out of it that you can…because it goes SUPER FAST!

12) The words ‘1st Year doesn’t count’ are VERY annoying…and some people use this as an excuse to say ‘I can fail 2 modules and get 40% in all the others and its fine..its only 1st year’ but being one of those people is neither clever, nor cool. Don’t be one of those people.

13) Go to ALL of your lectures. Even the 9am ones. Its really not that hard…and you’ll miss out if you don’t. You can always go back to bed afterwards if you’re really THAT tired.

14) Some lecturers are AWESOME. Some aren’t so interesting. Some modules are AWESOME. Some are a bit dry…but they’re all there for a reason – to give you the best possible grounding for second year when things get serious (booooo!).

15) If something in one of your lectures catches your attention, go with it. Look it up, read around it, read papers on it. Grab the chance to learn really exciting things while you have plenty of free time. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Just make sure they’re not stupid questions first. Don’t bother your lecturers with questions that you could google in less than a minute. They’ll always appreciate good questions…but they won’t appreciate having to ‘mother’ you.

16) The library is a treasure trove of information. Use it wisely…but not after 6pm or on a Sunday..the library at these times is a very odd place to be.

17) Make the effort to get to know your lecturers a little bit. Ask them questions about their research and be interested in whats happening on campus. You could sit through 3 years of lectures without a lecturer ever knowing your name but why would you want to do that?

18) University is generally awesome but if something isn’t right and it annoys you, don’t be afraid to question it. Get involved with SSLC (Student-Staff Liason Committee) or get your voice heard through your Student Union. Most people will happily moan away, but then sit there and do nothing about it. Don’t be one of those people.

19) If you have an idea about a new society, or some fundraising or a project…run with it and try and see it through. There’s lots of help and support and the transferable skills you learn will look great on your CV.

So I think that just about sums it up. In short my advice reads as follows…Enjoy EVERY minute. Have FUN. Be INSPIRED. Don’t take it for granted. It might not always be perfect. Sometimes it might be quite hard, but take the bad with the good. Not everyone is as lucky as you are, so make the most of the experience.  

1st year does matter and my beef with MCQ’s

“First year doesn’t matter”.

Chatting to a friend the other day, we realised that those four words have possibly been the most annoying four words we’ve heard all year. I think its meant to be reassuring (at least it is when the lecturers say it), although sometimes its a bit more snide. Its like anything, when you go past a stage in life it becomes hard to look back and remember how you felt at the time. Instead you tend to see a rose-tinted picture where everything was less stressful and more fun and you know what, you’re probably right. I’ll probably look back in hindsight and see a totally different picture to what I see now. I’ll long for the days when it didn’t matter.

I don’t know if its the same situation everywhere, but in England the first year of your degree doesn’t count towards your final mark. You only need to pass your first year modules (40%) to gain the necessary 120 credits, your marks don’t go towards your average. Now this is nice in some ways. I think the main argument for this is that is allows you to ‘settle in’ to your studies without having any pressure put on you. In reality, it seems many students use it as an excuse to do very little work for a year. Whether they come unstuck in 2nd year is another matter.

I wonder if lecturers on 1st year courses feel the same? I wonder if its frustrating for them that they’re supposedly teaching things that ‘don’t matter’? It must be annoying when only 1/2 the class turns up to a 9 o’clock lecture that you’ve spent time preparing, mustn’t it?

So 1st year doesn’t count. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. I don’t know about anyone else but I’m not confident enough in my ability to know I can mess around for a year and be fine when I turn my brain on in second year. I see this first year as the basis on which I’ll build in the coming two years, so to me its important to make sure I ‘get’ everything we’ve been taught. Its frustrating when people above me on the ladder of degree-dom (New word. I like it.) brush me off with those four words. I think they see a naive fresher who’s worrying unnecessarily. I’m not worrying. I just want to know where I stand.

First year exams at my university are largely multiple choice questions. With a class size of 150 students, its quite obvious why this is and that’s completely understandable. Nevertheless, I don’t like multiple choice questions. They don’t test what you ‘know’, they test what you can memorise. Everyone says that University is not about rote learning. Well in first year, it is. But isn’t first year meant to be about gaining a foundation of knowledge on which to build? How can you be sure that you understand the core of what you’ve been taught when you’re tested on it by being asked 40 questions that relate to one sentence of one lecture of a 150 hour module? There are some modules where this is justified. My Zoology modules for example. I just need to know the difference between a cnidarian and a rotifera, where the turtle’s came from, what a bird’s bones look like, how an amphibian breathes…but testing my knowledge of the underlying principles of evolution, for example, with a multiple choice question test seems a bit of a cop out.

While my lecturers assure me otherwise, I’m sure its quite easy to fluke an MCQ exam and this leads me on to my next point. We only ever get given our percentage mark. We’re not given access to the right answers (because the majority of the questions stay the same from year to year and they don’t want us to pass them down to next year’s freshers). So we get no feedback on which questions we got wrong. If I get a mark of 70% on an exam, its impossible for me to be absolutely certain which 30% I got wrong. In my head, I’m thinking ‘what if the questions I thought I definitely got right were actually the one’s I got wrong and I fluked the one’s I didn’t know?’  Then I could go through the whole of the rest of my degree thinking I know things when I don’t and not knowing the things I think I don’t either. I’m not sure that makes sense in anyone else’s brain, but it does in mine. Before you say ‘just go and ask your lecturer individually’…I have, but when everyone’s saying to you ‘1st year doesn’t matter’ and you’re taking up your lecturers’ time by wanting to get feedback on an exam, it makes you feel like you’re being a nuisance.

I think basically from this we can conclude that I think too much. Maybe I’m in a minority that finds this whole brushing off of 1st year a problem, but deep down it obvious that the first year of a degree is somewhat important. If first year REALLY didn’t count for anything, none of us would be here would we?

Is it just me?

I’m beginning to think I’m a bit weird. Not in a running-around-thinking-people-want-to-eat-me kind of way but in the sense that I’m not sure I quite fit in with my peers.

I like to plan. I spend an inordinate amount of time by myself, planning things in my head. I don’t just mean I plan next weekend’s night out, I plan for things 5+ years down the line. Now these plans are obviously quite likely to change, so I don’t just make one 5 year plan, I make about 4, all at the same time and they evolve and develop with me. Planning my life in this way has been a feature of my personality for as long as I can remember, but especially from around GCSE’s when we first started having to think about careers. My planning-centric brain decided that this meant I had to decide NOW what I wanted to do as a career in 20 years time and lay down a precise set of steps to get there.

I admit, this is not normal. It might even be unhealthy. It sometimes means I don’t like to do things spontaneously and if I’m not careful, the plans I’ve made put pressure on me to not change my mind. Its sometimes easier to go with a plan than have to adapt and change to new circumstances or feelings. On the other hand, so long as my plans are flexible enough to mould with me as I get older, its meant that I’m a step ahead of the future competition. I already know what I want to do (I think) and I’ve exhaustively researched exactly what I need to do to get there.

This character trait also means that I’m determined to grab as many opportunities as I get a sight of. This isn’t a bad thing and its reflected by the sense of gratitude and genuine love that I now have towards University life. In less than a year, University has already presented me with more opportunities and experiences than I could have dreamed for and I imagine that these chances will only increase as I progress. I’ve had opportunities to gain skills that may be important to my future career/life in general…but what I’m most grateful for is the opportunity to feel totally enthused by and enthralled with a subject.

Studying Zoology is the best decision I’ve ever made. Studying Zoology at the University of Exeter is the 2nd best decision I’ve ever made.

Whilst I’d had a minimal interest in Darwin and Evolution prior to University, I wouldn’t profess to being all that bothered. I’d flicked through the Origin of Species without thinking too deeply about it. So its somewhat to my surprise that I find myself absolutely fascinated by it now.

English: Edible Frog, Pelophylax esculentus (s...

The Edible Frog, or Rana esculenta, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It came about in a rather subtle way. It snuck up on me whilst I was least expecting it. Lecture 2 of my Introduction to Evolutionary and Behavioural Ecology module. My lecturer mentioned in passing how Rana esculenta comes about as a result of hybridization between two parental species and how the paternal genome is excluded from the female gametes during oogenesis. I found this bizarrely fascinating. It presented me with so many questions…How? Why? Is this common? So I promptly spent the next day reading every paper on hemiclonal reproduction, pre-meiotic genome exclusion and frogs I could. This though led me on further into social hybridogenesis and facultative mate choice. Yet more unanswered questions to explore. What joy!! Now, hemiclonal reproduction is interesting, but I’ve no idea why it caught my attention in such an intense way.

The best bit about this little crusade of mine though, was the way my lecturer responded to my new found interest. I had questions, which he patiently answered and encouraged. This meant that rather than getting stuck and feeling stupid, my new found interest (not just in Frog reproduction, but more generally) was nurtured rather than stunted before it had begun. I’ve had ‘teachers’ in the past tell me in a roundabout way that I was being annoying and they’d prefer it if I just stopped asking them questions. Believe me, that knocks your confidence. At one point, it becomes easier to not be interested than to risk having to ask a question.

Luckily, this didn’t happen in this instance. Instead, the response I received meant I felt comfortable to continue asking questions throughout the course and fueled an ever burgeoning interest. I can now say my main interest lies not in frog reproduction per se, but more broadly across sexual selection, evolutionary conflict and co-evolution. At one point in the course, I even managed to ask a question about the evolution of anisogamy that no-one had seemingly asked before (either in class or in research). That was pretty cool. My lecturer, by the way, remained patient to the end. Even when my end-of-lecture questioning became somewhat of a tradition, and for that I’m truly grateful.

Getting back to the title of this post though. Part of the reason I asked my lecturer so many questions during the course was because I couldn’t find anyone else to talk to about it! I tried my coursemates – they were totally nonplussed. I tried my family – they were glad I’d found an interest, but they didn’t care what it was. Eventually I did manage to find one coursemate who shared my interest to some degree, and we’d grab a coffee after the lectures and spend a good extra hour discussing the various details of what we’d been taught, or (sometimes more interestingly) what we’d looked up ourselves. It was GREAT to have someone on the same wavelength, and through our discussions we managed to build a more rounded friendship too.

What I’m getting at here though (and sorry its taken me 1000 words to get here) is..Why did I struggle so much to find someone who shared a vague interest in what we were being taught? Where is the enthusiasm amongst the rest of my coursemates? My specific interest in the Evolution module hasn’t meant I’m not interested in the others. I’ve at some point or another put in a few hours of extra research on every module I’ve done so far, because something I’ve seen has caught my attention. I do realise that some of my coursemates may be feeling the same way as I have in Evolution about a different module and I hope they’ve found an equally enthusiastic buddy to bounce ideas off.

What really narks me though is the seemingly high proportion of people who are on my course, or at university in general, without really knowing why they’re there. They seem to have taken the degree because they had no better options. They’re happy to pass 1st year with 40%. How can you sit through a year of education and not make the most of it? How can you not try to do your best (whether it counts towards your degree or not)?! I just cannot understand how someone could lack that motivation. You could quite happily sit through 3 years of University, without ever speaking to a lecturer face to face…but why would you? You’re paying money and expending effort in gaining a degree which presumably is part of some sort of longer term plan. Why then would you ignore opportunities that stare you in the face, or seek out those who might be hiding from you?

This is where I think I’m different. My desire to plan means that I predict the consequences of my immediate actions in relation to things that might or might not happen years down the line. A small missed opportunity here means that I might miss a bigger opportunity in 3 years time. Perhaps my desire to make the most of my time at university also stems from the fact that I missed out on my original offer of a place by just 1 mark. I then put in a year of 40+ hours in two low-paid, unskilled jobs to earn the money that might go some way to countering the fact that I stupidly missed the last boat of £3000 fees!  It means I feel I’ve put the hard graft in and I deserve to be here. It also gives me extra motivation to avoid having to go back to those unskilled jobs in the future!

Who knows what the reasons are. All I do know is that I’ve started to ask ‘Is it just me?’ and I’d quite like an answer!

Maths is SCARY

E.O Wilson’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled ‘Great Scientist ≠ Good at Math’ seemed to cause lots of debate amongst established scientists (see here and here, amongst others) as to whether Wilson’s opinion and arguments were valid or whether they were a dangerous misrepresentation of what it is to be a scientist. However, in all this discussion no-one seems to have bothered to garner the opinion of the people who Wilson was trying to target. By that I mean the aspiring young scientist perhaps currently studying their A Levels or in the very early stages of their Undergraduate degree.

As it happens, I am part of that demographic. Just coming to the end of the first year of a Zoology degree I feel somewhat justified in having an opinion on the Science vs/via Maths debate. You see, I chose Zoology largely because of my lack of ability in Maths. Until the end of GCSE’s I had dreamed of studying Veterinary Medicine and becoming a Vet. My total lack of confidence in my mathematical ability (although I got an A) coupled with a lack of ability to relate to the subject meant that my Vet dreams were over. I avoided Maths at A Level and chose Zoology instead of Vet Med because there was no Maths pre-requisite.

As it happens, my decision to choose Zoology over Veterinary Medicine couldn’t have worked out better. I absolutely love my course and couldn’t imagine studying anything else. If I hadn’t chosen Zoology I wouldn’t now be sat surrounded by books on Evolution and dreaming of a career in academic research, but that’s another story.

Back to Maths. Somewhat naively, I have swept  Maths under the carpet, hoping never to see it rearing its ugly head at me again. However, as my career aspirations have changed I’ve begun to realise that it might not be that easy. For example, at the most basic level, it is obvious that if I want to do valid research in the future I will need to understand something of statistics. As part of my new found interest in Sexual Selection etc I’ve discovered Game Theory and a host of models that aim to predict what should happen under certain conditions. I suppose that in future some understanding of how these work will also be necessary. Many of the scientists commenting on Wilson’s article went further, arguing that a fairly comprehensive understand of Maths is vital to all scientific endeavour. I personally think the real level lies somewhere in between these two. There will always be people in Biology that are more interested in Empirical research and those more interested in Maths and by working together both sides can somewhat make up for their lack of skill in the other discipline. This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to continually improve our abilities in the weaker side, its simply saying that it shouldn’t be an insurmountable problem.

At school (at least up until GCSE level), Maths is taught in an isolated and trivial way. You never get taught how different parts of Maths might join together, or how the maths you’re doing in the classroom might relate to the outside world. In fact, it was always a great source of frustration to me that this was never explained. I found myself sat at the back of the classroom bored and seething because I couldn’t see the point. On many occasions I asked my teachers (not in a sarcastic trouble-making way) what’s the point of studying how to find the circumference of a circle? When will I ever use that Maths again? And guess what….they never provided me with an answer. In fact, most of them agreed that it all seemed a bit pointless. This lack of ability to teach Maths in a way that makes it relevant is one of the biggest obstacles to students like myself. If I don’t think something is relevant, why would I focus my efforts on understanding it?

So here I am now after 4 years of denial and joyous freedom, discovering that learning more Maths might actually have been quite important after all. And that’s SCARY. Where can I go now to learn the Maths I need? Will I be able to learn it along the way, either through my degree or through my supervisors and collaborators as I slowly (and hopefully) progress up the academic ladder? Will I have to seek out opportunities and courses? The trouble for me is, ‘Maths’ is a massive umbrella term. How am I supposed to find out which parts of Maths are the basic set of principles that I should be attempting to understand? And once I’ve found them out, how can I go about learning them? Having not studied Maths since GCSE I don’t even know what the word ‘Calculus’ means, let alone what it is!

This is where E.O Wilson’s article has been reassuring. His belief that Maths is not the be-all and end-all of science and the example he sets of being someone who successfully started an academic career without being a maths whizz is refreshing. Okay, he started his career a long time ago and he is clearly an exceptionally clever man and an excellent empirical scientist, and perhaps someone like me will need to work harder to understand the Maths than he did. Despite this, I agree with what I believe to be Wilson’s overriding message – that if you’re truly interested and focussed on a subject and you work hard enough, a lack of confidence or ability in Maths should not be an insurmountable stumbling block.

Whatever your opinion on Wilson’s article and the level of Maths that’s needed to do good science, the fact that a perceived lack of ability in the subject is putting talented young people off the idea of studying science further is a tragedy. These people could be the new E.O Wilson, who if given enough support and if helped to conquer their Maths fears could make a substantial contribution to our understanding of the world around us. I for one hope that I’ll be amongst those who do find a way to conquer maths and who can succeed in studying science at the highest levels.

Well Hello…!

My very first blog post. To be honest I’m worried I won’t have any thing useful or insightful to say, but we’ll see how this goes. I certainly won’t kid myself into believing this will actually ever get read by anyone! So why did I bother starting this blog? Well I suppose its down to the fact that I’m generally quite opinionated (I hope in a self-confident but not arrogant kind of way) and so I’m sure I’ll relish the opportunity to air my views! 

I’m still trying to work out the layouts and things, so this post is a bit of a short and rather boring tester. I’ll move on to more interesting topics soon!