I Learned More About Science From Books Than From College Classes

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They say that college is where you find your passion and purpose in life. Or at least, that’s what every single adult told me while I was in high school. But reality is far from the truth. As the dutiful daughter of Indian immigrants, I signed up for the compulsory science classes. And I tried. I really tried to enjoy the material. I went to class. I’d even skipped seeing America Ferrera while she was on campus so I wouldn’t miss a lecture. I tried to care about the Krebs Cycle and the Noble Gases.
And while I did learn a thing or two about science and am still deeply fascinated by it, I didn’t find my passion for it in college. As always, I found it in books years after graduation.

My science classes in college averaged 150 students. If memory serves me well, my largest class was Genetics with over 200 students. The professor never knew my name and read off poorly edited PowerPoint presentations during lecture. My Cellular Biology professor was old-fashioned and conducted his entire lecture via chalkboard. Not a whiteboard. Chalkboard. You try divining information about the powerhouse of the cell via the dusted entrails of chalk and tell me that you love Cellular Biology.

As clever and even well meaning as my professors were, they had no passion for teaching undergraduates who just wanted passing grades. And their lectures reflected that. It’s really in that word though: lecture. A lecture is meant to correct a wrong and places the lecturer on a pedestal. It’s not something anyone should look forward to.

But it was years later when I started looking at science differently that I started enjoying it. And strangely enough, it wasn’t just nonfiction books that sparked my interest. In fact, the first one was Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith. Although it’s a blend of poetry and science fiction, Smith’s reminiscing on human existence in space reminded me why I loved science so much as a kid. The college lectures had emotionally drained me to where I became resentful of anything related to science. The notes and the labs felt so impersonal and prescriptive. I also loved how Smith explored so many topics in her poetry collection de ella, which had the added benefit of showing me that science does n’t just exist within the regimented bounds of academia protected by gatekeepers who are the sole proprietors of understanding it.

Curious about my curiosity, I began to read more books that addressed various topics in science and medicine. I actually read a book on a topic that piqued my interest in my Evolution class: The Red Queen Hypothesis, which proposes that species must constantly adapt and procreate in order to compete with other species for things like land and resources. It was proposed by an evolutionary biologist named Leigh Van Valen, who named it after the Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll.

a vintage cover of Through the Looking Glass

According to Van Valen’s theory, species must expend a ton of energy to evolve just to remain in the same place. This sentiment is perfectly captured in Through the Looking-Glass when the Red Queen tells Alice that “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Just another great example of literature being a better teacher to me.

I decided to read The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature by Matt Ridley, which I will say was suggested by my Evolution professor. Although I found it to be cynical, it certainly put some of the theories I learned (and still recalled) in college to real world application. Ridley discusses why sex is a survival strategy for humanity and even attempts to use his take on evolution to explain why humans have such complex standards for beauty.

Don’t get me wrong. There were highlights in my biology lectures, and I did learn a lot. However, the constraints of the PowerPoints and the multiple choice exams didn’t encourage me to apply the knowledge I had in the real world. I was just asked to remember a set of facts and answer canned questions correctly. So now I’m in the process of relearning so much of what I learned in college through books that actually contextualize the knowledge and examine real world implications of everything from evolution to surgical procedures.

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