Monday, March 28, 2016

Course 2...0?

I'm a course 2 junior. You're probably wondering, why in the world are you taking 20.109? Trust me, I ask myself this every day.

I decided to be premed almost immediately after arriving at MIT. At the same time, I decided to put off taking a bio lab until the last possible minute. Unfortunately, that minute has come.

I didn't think it would be that hard. Yeah, it's a CI-M, but I just finished 2.671 (the course 2 CI-M and notoriously the worst class in the major), and this couldn't be much worse. I thought my prior experience with scientific writing combined with the fact that bioengineering is infinitely more interesting than "measurement and instrumentation" would make this class a breeze.

I was wrong. It is incredible how different bioengineering writing is from mechanical engineering writing. As I was writing the protein engineering summary, I could not wait to get back to writing about linear actuators and force sensors.

I found that because of my previous scientific writing experience in a different field, I was struggling to follow the standard constructs of bioengineering writing. It is like if you learn how to throw a ball one way, and all of a sudden, you have to learn how to do it another way. Because you have the muscle memory, it makes it infinitely harder to change your methodology than if you had never learned to throw a ball before.

I guess we can start the comparison with the abstract. The overall idea of an abstract is pretty universal. However, when we were sitting in our communication workshop on abstracts and titles and Diana starts talking about a "Here we show..." statement, I am baffled. Never ever ever ever were we allowed to use first person, ever. It was beaten into my head from day one, and I lived in fear of "I".

The next difference is figure captions. Now I can't say that this is right, but we were taught in 2.671 that figures did not have titles. In 20.109, every figure needs a title. We were also taught that figures had to be interpretive; they had to explain what the data meant, not just what was being displayed. I always got bashed for not interpreting my figures in 2.671. Now, I have a really hard time writing figure captions without interpretation and, consequently, get bashed for it in 20.109.

I would say the hardest difference for me was the results and discussion section. In 2.671, the results and discussion, like the figure captions, was where you would show your results, and give every possible explanation for them. Of course, I never explained enough. We had to give every little detail about how one thing could possibly relate to another. We had to provide multiple potential sources of error. We even had to mention some implications in this section. Although it was hard, it was nicely formatted so that you could talk about each result in succession and finish interpreting them all in one place. In 20.109, it is different. The results section is purely for results. Initially, I was very happy about this based on my previous tendency to under explain. However, I realized that it is much harder to talk about the meaning and implications of results when you talked about the results two pages ago. It feels too disjointed for me. I feel like I have to restate everything in my results before I can even start the implications. Even then, I miss information because it does not feel like one cohesive thought process.

Despite the hardships, I survived. Of course now I have to go write my methods section for mod 2, but I'm going into it with at least a little experience now. I have the protein engineering summary behind me and all of the homework for mod 1 and 2 to guide my writing. That is one thing that is different between 20.109 and 2.671 that I really appreciate. Part of the reason that 2.671 is so awful is because there is no guidance. They tell you do make an experiment, tell you it's bad but to do it anyways, and then write about it. In 20.109 all of the professors and kind and supportive and the assignments, although annoyingly long, really do make the whole process better. If we didn't have them, I would be sitting here the night before the systems engineering research article was due with a blank screen. So thank you, 20.109 staff, for forcing me to get my work done in a timely manner. And thank you for your constructive feedback that didn't make me want to throw a fit and then crawl in a hole.

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