I didn’t start this website because I felt a need to be heard, or that people should necessarily be listening to (or even interested in) what I have to say.  I started this website, and the projects on this website for one simple reason, because I’d spent years searching for something like it, and it didn’t exist.  One day, I decided to take ownership of my desires, and started creating the things I had spent years longing for.

When people ask me about my involvement with something I do, whether it’s degree program, a company, a hobby, a subject matter, or a sport, I often find myself saying “It’s a thing for me, not the thing“.  Learning, however, is the thing for me, and is exactly what I try to build my life around.  After I read Raymond’s blog and had a few conversations with him about the learning process and neuroscience, I realized that he could become a valuable learning mentor for me.  So, somewhere between our first and second podcast episodes, I asked Raymond if he had any interest in writing an article titled what I learned about learning in my first six months in a neuroscience PhD program.  I told him I didn’t want to give any inputs other than the title, so that I could hear what he had to say about the topic, unfiltered, and without any anticipation of what direction he should go.  I did this because trust his judgement and wanted to hear his independent ideas expressed clearly.  The post below was not what I expected Raymond to say, but is surprisingly consistent with many of the ideas I’ve had around how we learn from my recent first-hand learning experiences.

Raymond is an incredibly smart, knowledgable, introspective, analytical, articulate, and genuine guy, and if you have any interest in my writing you’ll probably enjoy his as well.  If you like this article, check out his blog MangoRaySanchez.com.  If you want to learn as much as possible from this article, don’t just read it, live it, experiment with it, try it!  It’s what Raymond himself recommends. 😉 ~ Charlie

What I’ve Learned (about learning) During My First 6 Months in a Neuroscience PhD Program

By Raymond Sanchez

As you’re all well aware, Charlie has been doing a fantastic job of writing and sharing blog posts full of thoughtful reflection and actionable advice. The quality of his posts and our mutual interest in writing have been catalysts in pushing my own blog forward, so when he asked me to write this guest post, I was happy for the chance to contribute.

For those of you who don’t know me, I started a PhD in Neuroscience at the University of Washington in Seattle about 6 months ago. When Charlie first suggested I write about what I’ve learned (about learning) since I started, I had absolutely no idea where to begin. I’ve studied topics ranging from movement control and visual processing, to cell biology and pharmacology. I’ve been fortunate enough to have opportunities to conduct research addressing the neural mechanisms of sleep, circadian rhythms, learning and memory. Basically, I’ve learned more about the brain than I ever thought I’d care to know.

I could spend this entire post regaling you with amazing stories of how this gelatinous, three-pound lump of flesh occupying our skulls makes us human. I could even write about some practical daily applications of neuroscience, like how to get on a better sleep schedule or how understanding basic motor neurophysiology can help you improve your physical intelligence. But I’m not going to talk about any of that.

The gelatinous, three pound lump of flesh that makes us human.

The gelatinous, three pound lump of flesh that makes us human.

Instead, I’m going to discuss two broader and far more important lessons I’ve taken away from the last six months: the importance of learning by doing; and the power that comes with the ability to adapt in the face of change.

Now, these ideas likely won’t be new to any of you (especially if you’re interested in the topics Charlie typically discusses), and they certainly weren’t new to me. Still, they became much more real to me as I transitioned from my relatively cushy life as a college student in my hometown to a much different environment in a huge new city. The serendipitous coincidence of this tough transition and some fundamental shifts in perspective about what sorts of things I’d like to accomplish, both in grad school and outside of it, forced me to re-evaluate how effectively I’ve actually been implementing these lessons in my own life.

Life in Graduate School

The goal of a doctoral program (assuming it’s research-based) is to move away from the didactic methods of classroom lecturing, and towards a more practical, hands-on approach to learning. After spending the majority of my last four years in college sitting in a desk and listening to someone talk at me all day, I was excited by the idea of taking more ownership of my learning process.

Of course, like most neuroscience PhD programs, the first year or two (out of five total) include a fair bit of lecture-based coursework. I knew this going in, but figured they wouldn’t take too much of my attention away from time spent in the lab. Imagine my frustration, then, when I found myself spending a majority of my time listening to lectures and stressing out about homework assignments.

In the classroom, we were forced to consider questions like: what physical properties of the cell membrane allow it to conduct electricity over long distances? Or, how do these properties change in response to different genetic mutations? Rather than flip through textbooks or frantically copy down notes from slideshows, the lab I worked in was studying the same problems by actually making chemical and electrical alterations to real-life neurons, and listening in on the “conversations” they were having with one another. Unsurprisingly, I learned far more about the firing habits of neurons by sticking electrodes in them and tinkering than I did sitting in lecture.

In fact, the goal of my most recent research project was to characterize how a certain genetic mutation resulted in defective communication between neurons, and how this translated into deficits in the ability to learn and remember. The science of learning and memory fascinates me – in a recent blog post, I discussed how better understanding the mechanisms underlying the learning process can have implications for everything from our education system to the political process. Naturally, I was pretty excited by this project.

Weeks passed. While I learned a lot about how this particular mutation affected learning, I became increasingly aware that what I was spending the majority of my time doing was extremely esoteric, and unlikely to have much impact on how people learn, even in the long-term.

Thinking vs. Doing

It was around the time I came to this realization that I began reading the book Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a Wall Street trader turned philosophical essayist (note from Charlie: I see Taleb as a mathematician.  All of his work is centered around analysis, and most of his work, from books to hedge funds, analyzes patterns and uncertainty in complex systems). The book is overstuffed with valuable insight, but Taleb’s core message is that some things benefit and grow when exposed to stress, randomness and disorder. Anything that possesses these qualities is called antifragile, and some examples include: evolution, culture, political systems, technological innovation, and bacterial resistance. Everything else is fragile, and that which is fragile can only be transitory. Taleb argues that the rigid “publish-or-perish” nature of academic research is especially rife with fragility, and that the great leaps forward in technology and medicine are the result of stochastic tinkering and maverick innovators, rather than theories from theorizing theoreticians published in exclusive journals. Simply put, we humans are much better at doing than we are at thinking.

As you might imagine, this realization was not a particularly productive one to have halfway through one of the most challenging periods of school I’ve had in my life. To be blunt, in the last six months I’ve learned that I’m pretty frustrated by the indirect, slow and esoteric nature of most basic academic science (to say nothing of the ugly political brown-nosing and begging required to even stay above the poverty line, much less relevant, in this game (Note from Charlie: the start-up world has some scary parallels to what Raymond expressed in his parenthetical)).

Still, this isn’t to say I don’t love doing science and that graduate school hasn’t been an awesome and enlightening experience – I have just been reevaluating what I want to accomplish as a scientist, and the kinds of contributions I want to make to society both within in science and without.

Honesty about my feelings towards my work and readiness to reevaluate is both deeply and fundamentally important. Too often in life, people have changes of heart over their work, hobbies, goals and relationships, and ignore them in favor of the “safe route” – putting their heads down and settling for that secure (but soulless) 9-5 job or comfortable (but passionless) relationship.

The cherry blossoms on campus, where I imagine Raymond takes his Talebian "thought-walks". Photo by Raymond

The cherry blossoms at UW, where I imagine Raymond takes his Talebian “thought-walks”. Photo by Raymond

For many people, any disruptions to normal life, both internal and external, can be completely derailing. Indeed, my own realizations about thinking versus doing could very well have derailed my experiences and attitudes towards grad school, and at the very least made the next 4-5 years a complete and total drag (note from Charlie: and potentially a waste of time). Instead, I’m exercising my ability to adapt in the face of internal change, changing course and setting the following goals for myself:

  • Engage in scientific research that aims to have a direct impact in the lives of real people. Starting in April, I’ll be working at Seattle Children’s Hospital studying Dravet Syndrome, a severe form of childhood epilepsy and autism.
  • Making innovations in STEM less esoteric and more accessible to the general public. I’ll work towards this by blogging semi-weekly on my website and open source journals like PLOS One about topics in science and their practical applications.
  • Working with some close friends to turn a couple of ideas for startup businesses into a reality (Taleb argues that entrepreneurship and writing are among the most antifragile professions there are, and I’d tend to agree).
  • Re-engaging with some personal learning-by-doing experiments that have long been sitting on the backburner, like learning French and electronic music production
  • • Most importantly, never sacrificing my own happiness for the sake of a “career”.

If you get nothing else out of this article, take it as an impetus to look for the own fragilities in your life, whether they’re in work, school or relationships. If you want a change, don’t be afraid to act on it and deal with the consequences as you go along. Most importantly, take ownership of your own learning, and don’t forget that your greatest advances, both personal and beyond, will come only as the result of taking chances.

(Note from Charlie: I often find that the greatest risk is not taking enough risks, because, as Taleb argues, capping the downsides often caps the upsides.  When you protect yourself from heartbreak you prevent yourself from fully experiencing love.  I’ve found this this applies to almost everything from my first-hand experience).