Autodidacticism

by reestheskin on 18/06/2020

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Story 1

I started my dermatological career in Vienna in the mid-1980s as a guest (I am deliberately not using the cognate German term) of Prof Klaus Wolf. Vienna, for close to two hundred years, has been a Mecca for all things dermatological, and Sam Shuster, in Newcastle, thought it wise to go somewhere else for up to a year — before returning to Newcastle. The plan was to learn some clinical dermatology and see how others worked. I had a great time — Vienna is a wonderful European city – and I didn’t work too hard. I learned some clinical basics, enjoyed the music (more ECM than opera) and spent some of my time doing a little lab work, more as a technician than anything else. I knew that when I returned to Newcastle I would spend a year or so as a registrar before applying for a MRC or Wellcome Training Fellowship (and for the medics amongst you, no, I never registered for higher training). In the meantime, as well as learning some clinical dermatology, I needed to learn some cell biology.

I went to medical school in 1976 and qualified in 1982, having taken a year out to study medical statistics (with an emphasis on the medical) and epidemiology, so I hadn’t any lab or cell biological experience. It was now 1986-87 and the preceding decade has seen a revolution in what we now call molecular cell biology — or just biology(?). I needed to teach myself some. Luckily, the best textbook I have ever read — the Molecular Biology of the Cell was published by James Watson and a bunch of other wonderful scientists in 1983 and my memory is that it was this first edition I bought. The book had attitude. The authors clearly loved their subject, and thought science was to do not so much with facts but the activity of designing and implementing experiments that whispered to you how the biological universe worked. They wanted to share that feeling with you, because one day, just perhaps, you might… On the back cover there was a picture of the authors pretending to be real superstars like the ‘fab four’ on that most famous of pedestrian-crossings in the world. (There is more on this here and here)

In the company of a good companion (a book in this case) there is little in biology that is very difficult. If you are motivated, even the absence of a personal teacher is not too serious a drawback. You would be better off with a teacher — if the cost of teacher was zero — but it would be wasteful to imagine that you need a teacher for a significant fraction of the time you need to spend studying. For some areas of biology, say quantitive genetics, the above statements may need tweaking a little, but the general point holds.

Story 2

Almost a quarter century ago, I read a paper in PNAS on statistics by Peter Donnelly and David Balding on how to interpret DNA forensic evidence. I had studied a little statistics in my intercalated degree but a sentence from this paper made me sit up

We argue that the mode of statistical inference which seems to underlie the arguments of some authors, based on a hypothesis testing framework, is not appropriate for forensic identification.

The paper itself was remarkably clear even to somebody with little mathematics, and unpicking it signalled that I knew even less than I thought I knew. Several years later, it prompted me to go back and try and re-learn what little mathematics I had grasped at school, so that I might appreciate some modern genetics (and medical statistics) a little better.

Learning mathematics is different form learning biology. The absence of a teacher is more of an issue, but there are lots of historical examples showing that a good ‘primer’ with questions and answers allows many children to develop, if not high level skills, a facility with numbers. (I am talking here about using mathematics as a toolbox to follow how one can solve well defined problems — not push back the frontiers). A key aspect of this is the nature of mathematical proof, and how well you can obtain feedback on your abilities by submitting to the discipline of simple exercises with unambiguous answers. I don’t think there is a direct equivalent to this in most of biology but in the process of writing this today I see there are workbooks for the Molecular Biology of the Cell textbook. No doubt they help, but the uniqueness of the correct answer in maths is a wonderful guide and fillip.

Story 3

I retired earlier this year (yes, thanks for asking, it’s wonderful), and one of the projects I had lined up was to learn a little more about a domain of human knowledge in which my ignorance had been bugging me for years. I had made some attempts in this area before — bought some books as an excuse for lack of effort — but had failed. I had found an excellent primer (in fact I bought it ten or so years ago), but speaking of the present, I have to say that I find the task hard, very hard. For me, its tougher than intermediate mathematics, and although there are questions at the end of each chapters there are no given answers. This is not a criticism of the book, but rather reflects the nature of the subject. A teacher or even a bunch of fellow masochists students would help greatly. I make progress, but some more pedagogical infrastructure would, I feel, push me around the winding path a little faster. So, for several months I have been plodding away, mostly being disciplined, but because I have other things to do, occasionally falling off the wagon (indeed I note that I can multitask by falling off several wagons simultaneously).

All three stories are germane to how I think about undergraduate medical education and how it is far too wasteful and expensive. As for the how, that I must leave for another day very soon. Even without an exam in sight, I have to get some studying done. Spaced recall and immersion is the student’s friend.