An update from the study cave…

November 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

Anatomy midterm in 24 hours and I having been staving off a panic attack for the past week or so. There is so much to learn and so little time to learn it. I can only hope that it goes smoothly tomorrow, whether a failure or success. I only need to pass in order to be exempt from the practical part of the final exam, but that fact has yet to comfort me.

There is no structure to the days now. There is only studying and hopefully remembering to make food and do house chores. I can’t wait until tomorrow is over! I need this knot in my chest to go away. Once the anatomy test is done, it will be a quick turn around. On Friday we have our statistics and biophysics midterms and next week we have Hungarian, Latin and chemistry. Time is flying by!

Thanksgiving was a day spent studying and then out for a quick dinner with my fellow Americans, Rina and Charlotte. I can feel the homesickness increasing as we go deeper into the holiday season. Perils of being a medical student I guess..


Strained Eyes and Fear of Failure

November 18, 2012 § 2 Comments

Closing in on what might be 12, if not 13, hours of studying for today and I can feel it in every bone in my body (I can say this because I actually know every bone in my body). There are 4 weeks left of classes. This next week will be the last “normal” week, as we have no midterms. The week after that we have our anatomy, statistics and biophysics midterms and the week after that one, our Hungarian, Latin and medical chemistry midterms. Then it is one last week of classes, chemistry lab final, and embryology midterm. So many hurdles to survive just to make it to finals!

I’m definitely feeling the pressure now. I’m going to try to focus a little bit of my time this week on subjects other than anatomy (just to keep my head above water in them) but it is hard to do when I’m not even on top of anatomy. While on the phone with my mom today, I expressed my worries about the midterms and upcoming finals season. My mom juggled law school AND raising two kids, so she is the perfect person to seek out for advice. She told me that fear will only help me fail. She illustrated with the analogy of walking across a narrow board: when placed on the ground, you can walk across it without any problems, but the higher and higher it is raised from the ground, the more the fear builds up inside you and the more likely you are to fall. Instead of letting the fear of failure get the best of me, I should use it as fuel on the path to success.

It’s a beautiful day for a histology midterm

November 16, 2012 § 4 Comments

I’ve just completed my histology exam and my body is buzzing with adrenaline. It went by so quickly that I have almost no recollection of the last hour. I know it will come back in pieces, but I think the adrenaline level will need to subside before that happens.

This morning began like all other Friday mornings: with the groups waiting for their histology labs crowding the histology corridor in the anatomy building. People were chattering nervously and flying through their notes, trying to cram in as much last minute information as possible. Skjalg and I woke at 5 and spent an hour or so reviewing our weak points before heading out. We both brought our histology atlases (with pictures of the slides) with us on the tram in hopes of reinforcing our knowledge. After a few minutes we realized that nothing was going in and that the time would be better spent taking some deep breaths and talking about something unrelated to anatomy – at both macroscopic and microscopic levels.

Our professor appeared on the steps leading in to the lab area and called the members of our group forward. The room was set up with two long tables of ten microscopes each, five on each side. With nothing but a pen in hand, we spread out around the room, placing ourselves at different microscopes. I became momentarily superstitious and hopped over microscope #13, deciding that I needed all the luck I could get. I took a spot at #18 and awaited further instructions.

The exam was set up as follows:

– 5 tissue identifications

– 5 tissue identifications with staining identification

– 10 specific identifications (structure, organelle, etc)

– 5 cell biology questions (identifying structures of the cell from electron microscope images)

Example of tissue identification question (transitional epithelium)

Example of specific feature identification (neutrophil)

We were given 40 seconds per slide. This time included moving to the next microscope and writing down your answer, so the total time given to identify each slide was most likely around 20-25 seconds. The first twenty slides were set up on the light microscopes and the cell biology slides were projected onto the screen after we completed the first portion.

They definitely made things more difficult than I expected. Some of the slides that we’d seen in lab were presented at a much lower resolution than what we had previously studied and some where with a different stain. The cell biology slides were easier, but only because they were the same slides that the head of the anatomy department had sent out earlier this week.

After the exam we were told to gather our things and wait in the back corner of the room while the next group filed in. We were ordered by the associate histology professor to not mutter a single word, not in any language.  Once they’d settled in, we were allowed to leave – in silence of course. There was still an hour left before I had to be at my statistics lab, so I decided that I would wait outside of the lab area for them to release the results. The expected post-exam chatter ensued and I felt my heart sink a little each time someone mentioned a different answer than what I had put down.

They ran long with the results, so I had to head to statistics and asked another member in my group to check it for me. Half-way through my next lab, I looked down at my phone and saw two texts – one from Skjalg and one from the girl in my group – wishing me congratulations on my 5. I couldn’t hold in my shock and was lucky that my professor didn’t notice my reaction. Afterwards I found out that when they were grading the exam, they accepted several different answers for the same slide. So long as you had an answer that made sense, you got full credit.

Getting a 5 on this exam puts me in a good position for getting an exemption from the practical portion of the final in anatomy. In order to get an exemption, you need to have a total of 12 points from the three midterms. If I get a 2 on the next anatomy exam, then I will only have to do the theory portion of my final. I would still have to study the same amount, but it would be a load off to not have to worry about that part of the exam.

Tonight we will be joining some friends for dinner at Arriba! Taqueria near Oktagon. It’s our friend Rina’s 23rd birthday today and she wanted to celebrate with a casual dinner. It will be a really nice way to close out an otherwise stressful week.

When in Budapest, look up – and watch your step

November 15, 2012 § 4 Comments

The biting cold has returned to Budapest. We had a solid week where it was crucial to don your winter best, but then it headed towards a more “balmy” cold. Skjalg and I are on our fourth day waking up at 5:00. Both of us have alarm apps on our phones that evaluate our sleep rhythm and wake us when we are at the peak of the REM cycle. This is supposed to help us feel as rested as possible when waking up, but it doesn’t always have that effect – especially when the snooze button is so conveniently located next to the dismiss button.

The sleep app for the my phone comes complete with a “CAPTCHA – Really Awake?” feature where I can choose between a number of tasks that must be completed in order to shut off the alarm. Monday was my first day using it and I didn’t choose well. For the alarm I chose ocean waves and seagulls and the sleeping sheep option for the CAPTCHA challenge. I woke in a panic that morning with the sound of birds squawking in my ear as I tried desperately to shut it off. Apparently, you are supposed to tap the awake sheep, but the screen changes every couple of seconds to keep it challenging (and to confuse the half-awake person furiously tapping the screen).  I’ve since changed it to peaceful music and a math problem.

Today is lecture day, but with our histology midterm awaiting us bright and early tomorrow morning, Skjalg and I have decided to stay in and study all day. We started off our morning with a visit to the gym. As hard as it is to get up early, I wouldn’t trade those extra hours of sleep for the feeling I have after a work out. It clears my head and reminds me that there is a whole world that exists outside of studying. Who knew?

I headed home a bit earlier than Skjalg. I’d forgotten my headphones, so I had to occupy my mind with something else, something like observing my surroundings. I looked up at one building and noticed that there were at least 40-50 holes marking the façade at the 3rd and 4th floor levels. I’ve been told by several people that there are many buildings still riddled with bullets from WWII and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, but haven’t seen them myself. I pondered these markings, wondering first whether they were actually bullet holes and then why they would be mainly on the 3rd and 4th floors. The buildings in Budapest carry so much history and the architecture of some of the buildings is fascinating. The down side? There is dog poop everywhere (at least on the streets we walk on). There is one street especially where I always see at least two people walking little dogs and numerous piles of little dog poops – but I never catch them in the act! It’s a bit of a downer having to constantly navigate the poop minefield, but I guess it’s just a feature of city living. I remember being shocked at the dog poop situation in Nice, France. It was so bad there that they even had professional poop cleaners that drove around on motorcycles with a vacuum pump to suck up the poop piles. In areas where there are not a lot of parks, trees, or nature in general, I assume it’s normal – a dog’s gotta go right? But that doesn’t explain why people can’t just pick up after them. I feel bad for the shop owners who emerge each morning to scrub the sidewalks clean.

Anyways, enough of my tangent about poop, bullet holes and pretty buildings. It’s histology time!

When you are going through hell, keep going

November 14, 2012 § 2 Comments

2 days until our histology midterm and 10 days until our next anatomy midterm. Many of us are experiencing debilitating phases of panic, which can be expected as we approach finals. My panic level reached an all-time high yesterday, such that I actually stopped stressing – almost as though my body has a self-defense mechanism in place for just this scenario. In efforts to stay equally on top of things in all my classes, I notice that I am falling behind in anatomy – the worst possible class to fall behind in. The truth is that there is simply not enough time to do well in all of your classes unless you have recently studied the topics or are some sort of genius. I had been avoiding allowing myself to join the “I just want to pass” bandwagon because I didn’t want to accept mediocrity. But now it is clear that it is not really a choice. Anatomy is the most important subject of this semester and should be prioritized above all others. Period.

Skjalg and I have dramatically changed our schedule – from hard-working to intense. We are up at 5 and then out the door to school, library, or gym soon after. At this point in the semester, you are lucky to find a free seat at any of the libraries associated with the school. This is a combination of them not having enough space for everyone – 50 or so school library seats for some couple thousand students – and people acknowledging that studying at home is the least productive option. Yesterday we went to the gym at 6:00. Afterwards Skjalg headed to class and I to the library at school, which opens at 9:00. Though I was there only 15 minutes after opening, I got one of the last seats available. Skjalg joined me after his anatomy consultation and we sat there until closing at 20:00, leaving only to attend class and a meeting.

It’s another early morning and we’re headed to the 24-hour library to study. I’m going to cram for my 10:00 anatomy lab, in hopes that I will get something out of it. During the lab, we are supposed to be preparing our specimens for the final exam, as it is these specimens we will be tested on. This means that they need to be completely dissected – skin, fat and fascia removed, muscles and vessels exposed. Unfortunately, our group has split into two: one that dissects every time and one that studies with the professor. Us naïve students in the dissecting group didn’t realize this until our TA pointed it out to us. With our hands on our scalpels and faces down at specimen level, we didn’t realize that everyone else wasn’t doing the same. We’re going to try to change that today, to tell the other group that it is their turn to dissect – hopefully it goes over well. It’s not fair that they have had 3-4 labs of hands-on study time with the professor, while we do the grunt work, but it may be a challenge getting them to see/admit that. As can be expected, there is a serious lack of good humor at this point.

A quick check-in

November 12, 2012 § 2 Comments

It’s early in the morning after a short and less than satisfying one-day weekend. Skjalg and I were miserably tired last night so we settled on watching a movie and heading to bed early with plans on waking up early to be at the library by 7:00. Things are getting pretty hectic here, especially as we head into another round of midterms. This round will be quite brutal as it lasts all the way up to finals and requires that we have 1-3 midterms a week until then. I really don’t know why it is called a midterm when it doesn’t actually take place mid term. I think I would rather it be called something like examination, though I would probably dislike it to the same degree.

Saturday was a full day of class to make up for the long weekend the week before. Afterwards it was home to recuperate and prepare the house for Skjalg’s poker night with the guys from his group. I myself headed out to a dinner with my group. I would detail more of the experience myself, but my friend Charlotte shares a perfect account of the evening in her own blog post.

This week’s midterm is histology – which I am nowhere near prepared for. In fact, I don’t feel prepared for any of my classes, something which seems quite unfair considering that I do nothing but study. I’m sure I will start feeling better once I am partially into this little midterm exam period. For now I will just have to accept the anxiety and lack of sleep.

Study, study, study, study!

Shot from inside Instant – a ruin pub here in Budapest

At the end of the tunnel

November 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

The first round of midterms is complete and we are gifted with a four day weekend. This is our second long weekend this month and we learned the first time around that it comes with a price. In order to make up some of the classes missed during the four day weekend, we are expected to attend classes the following Saturday. This means a four day weekend, followed by a one day weekend, followed by a four day weekend, and finally a one day weekend. While it’s nice to have the long weekends, there is nothing at all pleasant about the short ones. The worst part is that on Saturday the 11th, we are to have our friday schedule. For those of you who have been following my blog, you know that this means that we get, not one, but two days of hell that week. Two full days with 8-9 hours of labs and only one day off to recover before the second midterm season begins is going to prove quite challenging.

Last Friday we had our biostatistics and medical biophysics exams. I find it really difficult to figure out a good study plan because you never really know how much of the subject they want you to know. It is common that they tell you to “follow the lectures” but then there are things that you aren’t sure about. For example, this portion of one of the statistics lectures: are we simply supposed to understand what a continuous random variable is or do we need to be able to reproduce the drawing and explain it in depth?

Biostatistics lecture clip

Or take for example this slide, from one of our medical chemistry lectures:

Medical chemistry slide

Its obvious by the dwindling amount of students that still attend the lectures that I am not the only one feeling a little lost. It’s a hard choice to make, whether to attend or not. We have a full course load – about 30 hours a week – and we are still expected to cover the majority of the material on our own time. It’s a bit painful to sit through a lecture that you are getting nothing out of knowing that you could be utilizing that hour or two more effectively at the library. I’ve never been the kind of student to skip classes or lectures, in fact, I can’t remember ever having done so before coming here. In all fairness, the only times I have skipped these past few weeks have been when I was too sick or had a midterm the following day. It’s not a habit that I want to keep and I would rather adjust my study tactics so as to get the most of the lecture as possible.

The statistics exam proved to be difficult to study for. We have no textbook, only a short manual written in technical yet grammatically challenged English. As our classes are to pertain to the medical field, we are approaching these subjects in different ways than I have before. When I took statistics at Santa Monica College, we never used a computer and instead spent the majority of the semester calculating probabilities, standard deviations, and making the graphs by hand. Here we are doing everything in excel and our goal is to be able to make a medical diagnosis based on statistical data. To study, I reviewed the lecture slides expecting that the information contained there would cover the theory portion of the exam. For the data portion, I went through the labs we had done and repeated the calculations. Finally, I attended the statistics consultation the night before the exam – along with 35 other students. The competency level in statistics varies quite a bit and I think one of the greatest difficulties for people is actually knowing how to use excel. I used excel a lot when I was working in Norway as a booking manager. I love organizing data and presenting it in charts and diagrams and would often use these in my weekly meetings. Being there for almost 3 years provided me with a lot of time to play around with excel – something I didn’t expect would help me so much now. It really is interesting to witness just how much of an affect previously unimportant things play out in the present. One thing I’ve learned since starting school is that nothing I’ve done these past few years was a waste of time.

The exam was a bit more difficult than I expected, but I finished it rather quickly. Sometimes I feel like I have taken so many exams that I know almost immediately whether I know something, don’t know it, or should come back to it. I do a lot of jumping around, knowing that it is useless to simply stare at the problem. There was a lot of arguing between some of the students and our professor. There were many claims that we had never learned this and never even seen that. It made for an extremely uncomfortable environment, especially when I knew that they were topics we had covered, even if only for a second or two. One of the calculations was mentioned in a small box in the margin of the statistics booklet provided by the school and the only reason I remembered it was because I thought it was cool (dork that I am). I once had a professor who based the majority of his exam questions on the small boxes in the margins. It was his way of testing how thoroughly you covered the material.

Medical biophysics was a whole different ball game. I had no idea how to prepare. I only knew that our professor was going to focus mainly on what we had done in our labs and that we should know how to do six of the homework problems. I reviewed the themes of the labs, practiced drawing diagrams that explained the topics covered, and did each of the homework problems so many times that I no longer needed to look up the equations or constants (which are given on the exam) to complete them. How did this work out? Brilliantly. The first thing I saw when I opened up my exam was that the calculations were almost exactly the same as the homework problems. There was one calculation that dealt with the eye and how the image projected on the retina depends on the distance of the object from the lens. For this calculation, we were also asked to draw the formation of the image – and this was one I knew very well. I had my pens handy, so I even drew it like this on the exam (maybe a little overboard…but at least it looked nice).

Image formation of a convex lens

Skjalg’s Dad and stepmom arrived on Saturday night and we met them after classes for dinner. It was a rainy, but relatively warm night – especially when compared to Norway – so we sat outside. Skjalg and I rarely go out to eat and getting to do so with family allowed for a much needed release. The chance to get our minds off of school didn’t stop us from overwhelming them with school talk – when you are in medical school it is like there is nothing else to talk about! On Monday we went to Pata Negra, a tapas bar located near Kalvin tér. Good company and good food 🙂

I spent all day Tuesday cramming for Latin, taking a break only to attend Hungarian and the medical chemistry lecture. For our exam we had to memorize 250 medical terms, 50 of which would show up on the exam. By the time night arrived, I realized that there were still 70 or so words I didn’t know. I then had to make the decision to stay home and study instead of joining Skjalg and his dad and stepmom for dinner on their last night. It’s times like this that I wish that there were more hours in the day.

Instead, my lonely night looked like this:


The Latin exam went much better than I expected. The most helpful study aid was actually making “sample exams” in excel. I made one column with all the terms in English, a second with the terms in Latin, and finally a third where I inserted the “random number” function. This function assigns a random value between 0 and 1 to the cell and it changes every time you make a change in the document. I was then able to sort the data in the first two columns in order of increasing or decreasing number (of the third column) to generate a randomly ordered list of terms. I changed the text of the Latin column to gray and then set it as far right as possible, so that it could be easily covered during my self-test. I ended up with about 5 pages of terms and after completing each page, I would go through and correct my answers.

Step 1: set-up in excel

Step 2: print only first two columns

It was very apparent how much this technique helped when I took the exam. Recreating the exam experience beforehand, and at a greater magnitude, made the exam itself so much easier to complete. I finished my exam in about 10 minutes and then forced myself to check my answers (something that is so difficult to do when you are done and want to leave). The professor looked over my paper and pointed out three small mistakes I had made – marking the gender as male instead of neutral and reverse. I’m sure many students took the opportunity to correct these small mistakes, but I told him that I wanted to stick with the answer I had put down – even with the knowledge that it was wrong. It was a tough situation to be in, but I reassured myself that I wouldn’t be satisfied with anything other than the grade I deserved – whether it be a 3, 4 or 5. In the end I was told that with a total of only 4 mistakes, all within genders, my grade was a 5. Yippee!

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