First Semester: Check!!

January 18, 2013 § 6 Comments

On Wednesday I had my last exam, in medical biophysics. I can’t recall a time that I have ever been so nervous and scared. For 3 nights before the exam, I was up until 3 or 4 a.m and then on the night before the exam, I only slept from 20:30-23:30. With so little quality sleep, so much Red Bull coursing through my system, and so much pressure riding on that last exam, I was feeling completely disconnected from my body. All I could think was that I never ever wanted to be in that position again and that the next time around, I would do it better.

I walked to school that morning, something I feel like I will do more of in the future. I did the same thing before my chemistry exam two weeks ago and it really cleared my head and calmed my nerves. I’ve been inspired to choose walking over public transportation after coming across an article describing journalist Paul Salopek’s new project Out of Eden – A Walk through Time. For the next 7 years, he will be retracing the steps our ancient ancestors traveled as they migrated across the world. I felt most inspired when watching a clip from an interview on the project’s home page, in which he explained his passion for this project:

The reason why I am doing this, the reason why I am excited by it, is that it is going to press the boundaries of communicating in a world where there is just too much information and not enough meaning. So I am going to swim upstream against the flow of information and try to slow people down, to have them absorb stories at a human pace – at about 3 miles an hour.

After watching that video, I began to consider the flow of information in my life. I am in a chapter that is characterized by an overwhelming amount of information and takes place in a country that challenges me every day, with every trip I make outside of my apartment. I am constantly running on max. It doesn’t help that I spend my days speeding between home, school and the library/café. I have acquired such tunnel vision that I can’t remember witnessing the seasons change. I remember summer, since that is when we moved here, and winter, since I am looking through the window at the snow, but nothing about fall. So it is understandable why his comment about “absorbing stories at a human pace” really struck a chord with me.

Anyway, back to the exam. We were called by groups into different rooms in the Basic Medical Science building. It seemed that it was done alphabetically because all the members of my group (the one I share all my semester classes with) were called into the same room. Those of us who were exempt from the written portion were asked to sit in the front row. The written exam was passed out to the other students and the tension in the front row began to increase exponentially. Martha, a friend and fellow group member, and I exchanged a couple glances during this time. We were both teetering on the edge of panic and were dreading what was ahead of us. Once the written exams were distributed, we were asked by the proctor to choose a yellow card with our lab topic and a pink card with our theory topics. Neither of us moved when he first asked. We just sat there staring at the cards, as if hoping that time would stop or even miraculously fast-forward so that we would find ourselves at the other end. I took a deep breath and reached forward to select my cards. “Right now you are determining whether you pass or fail,” I told myself. No pressure there, right?

When I reviewed my topics, I experienced a clash of relief and panic. They weren’t the topics that I really wanted, the ones I was really passionate about, but they were topics I could do. These are my topics and what I was expected to explain:


I felt (and honestly still feel) that my exam went horribly. I had used whatever energy I had to fill out 5 pages of notes after receiving my topics, that I wasn’t prepared for the extra questions she asked me. At one point she asked me what would happen if I were to disappear, and I just sat there staring at her before letting out a nervous laugh. (She had wanted me to relay the relation e=mcˆ2 to her.) When I was finished, she looked at my midterm scores (a 5 and a 4) and said, “Ok…you have, good midterm results, and good lab book, it is….a 3. But very weak, you must work harder.” I was so exhausted, embarrassed and just relieved that I just thanked her profusely and apologized (for what, I don’t really know…it’s a reflex).

The worst part of the exam is really that you have to do it in front of other students. We were sitting in a small classroom and I had my exam as other students were sitting there writing their notes for their topics. I don’t know why it makes me so nervous, they are in the same situation, but I can’t help getting that “stage-fright” feeling every time.

After leaving the room, I expected to feel a wash of relief at the realization that I was done, but it never came. Skjalg still has some exams and I really only know two other people who are done, so it doesn’t really feel real yet.

Yesterday was my first day of “freedom”. Skjalg had his anatomy exam and since I knew I would be a nervous wreck during that time, I met with Charlotte for coffee and a study planning session. It began to snow quite heavily and made for a really cozy ambiance in the window-walled café.

Mustard Smiley Faces

A victorious Skjalg joined us soon afterward. He stayed only for an espresso, eager to get home and get some rest. I came home later to a perfectly cleaned apartment (Skjalg, you are amazing 😉 ) and we headed out for trip to IKEA.

Tomorrow night my mom will be arriving from California and I can’t express just how happy and excited I am to see her. It’s been over a year since I last saw my family – the biggest downside of living abroad. With no more exams to burden me, I look forward to enjoying this quality time with my mama. A huge added bonus is the simultaneous visit of my amazing Aunt Aida from England! When I was younger my family all lived in the same area and I really took for granted the family dinners, birthdays and holidays. I feel so lucky to get a little of this family feeling in the midst of all this school chaos.

I love you, but it’s 3 a.m.

January 14, 2013 § 3 Comments

This is the response I got when trying to update Skjalg on the case of Aaron Schwartz’s suicide (founder of Reddit) and the hacker group Anonymous’ subsequent shut-down of the servers at MIT. I don’t normally spend the early hours of the morning searching for tales of tech tragedies online, but it popped up on my Facebook newsfeed – which I do check at various intervals throughout the day (unfortunately). Instead of playing games online, I’ve picked up a habit of helping to “map the retinal connectome” over at They are a lab over at MIT, so if you’ve tried checking out their site in the hours after this post was published, odds are the site is still down. Here’s a little info about the site from their Facebook page:


Eyewire is a game to map the 3D structure and connectivity of neurons from Seung Lab of Computational Neuroscience at MIT.


Inside the retina, tucked away at the back of the eye, lies an incredibly dense tangle of interconnected neurons. If we can map the many connections between these cells, we will be closer than ever to understanding how vision works. To achieve this, we need something more intelligent than even the most powerful supercomputer — you.

You can help discover things that machines can’t. Delve into the microscopic realm of the retina to glimpse the twists and turns of neurons hitherto unseen. You will be at the forefront of scientific exploration as you chart the entangled branches of those tree-like cells called neurons. Join us to explore the eye’s jungle

So, why are we up at 3 a.m.? Well, it’s finals season. I’ve been cramming for physics and Skjalg for anatomy. Yesterday at around 15:00 (and by yesterday I mean Saturday) I decided to start a log of my study time. In preparing for this exam I am pretty much just watching every video possible on yairmeiry’s youtube channel (see the Resources Galore page to the left). I was curious about how many actual minutes (with pausing, rewinding, note-taking, etc.) I use per actual minute of video. I love charts, lists, logs – anything to organize or assign a number value to something. Plus, after last week’s statistic exam, I’m a little bit more fluent in excel.
Click Image for Larger View

Click Image for Larger View

I noticed today that keeping the log actually made me actively more efficient. It kept me aware of and accountable for my time – and time for a med student is gold.

Ok, that’s it. Sorry for the nerdy post. That’s all I have to offer this far into exam season 😉

Biostatistics and Informatics: Check!

January 8, 2013 § 2 Comments

It’s a little over 11:00 p.m. in Budapest and I went to bed more than 3 hours ago. It wasn’t until I realized that I was keeping myself entertained by rhythmically grinding my teeth together that I admitted defeat and got out of bed.

Now 8:00 p.m. is nowhere near a normal bed time for me, but it is what should be expected after our first “all-nighter” of the year. I put the phrase in quotations because we only made it to 5:30 a.m. before we agreed to let ourselves sleep for a couple of hours. We got a late start yesterday and at about midnight, decided to hold our sleep hostage and use statistics problems as ransom. It worked surprisingly well and Skjalg and I continued to work our way through the exam material until the early hours of the morning when our progress slowed and Skjalg bargained for 5 minutes to “just rest my eyes”…

We definitely didn’t plan to cram for the entire night on the night before the exam, but things don’t really work out according to your plans here. We slept for about two hours, waking around 8:00 a.m., and used the rest of the morning before the exam doing some practice tests.

The tram wasn’t working as it normally does and the platform was beginning to fill up with more and more curious city-travelers. Normally the tram comes every 5 (if not 2 or 3) minutes, but today, it just wasn’t coming. When one finally did come, it didn’t even stop. It just inched by slowly, like a sulking child, and continued on down the line.

scumbag budapest tram

At that point, I was getting a little too stressed out to wait much longer. We weren’t too pressed for time, but we definitely didn’t need any public transportation stalls to prevent us from getting to the exam on time. I hesitated when Skjalg suggested that we get a cab. The number one piece of advice I’ve gotten from previous students is, hands-down, to not take a cab from the street – unless you want to be swindled. Always, always, always call first!

Regardless, we soon found ourselves inside a cab stealthily navigating its way to the university through the side streets of the city. The ride was surprisingly smooth, swindle-free, and the driver spoke a decent level of English – not bad for my first cab rid here.

This exam was – by far – the least stressful of the ones I’ve had so far. Biostatistics and Informatics is a single-semester class, so this was our final exam and not a semi-final. We were given an hour and a half to complete the following:

  • 2 tests – either 1-sample, 1-sample paired, 2-sample, Correlation, Wilcoxon, Mann-Whitney-U
  • 1 Chi-squared test
  • 1 evaluation of diagnostic tests – calculating sensitivity, specificity, diagnostic efficiency and prevalence
  • 20 multiple choice questions – about various tests, statistical parameters, probabilities, etc.

Afterwards we waited for a little over an hour for the exams to be graded and to get our index books back. I don’t think I’ve written anything about the index books yet…they are small black grade books that contain all the signatures and grades for our classes. At the beginning of each exam we deliver it to the examiners and then we receive it once our grades have been noted inside. Very, very old school.

The examiners finally emerged and began to call out names of different students. I got mine before Skjalg and immediately looked inside. It took a second to figure out which of the signatures it was (everything in our index book is in Hungarian) but then I found it: a 3. I was happy – of course – I mean, I’d passed! But there was a bit of uneasiness about it because I’d thought that I’d done a lot better. Skjalg also got a 3 and, when he confirmed that he felt the same way that I did, we decided to stay back and ask to see our exams. The exams are done in excel and graded by a computer program, so there is a possibility that it made a mistake (or four).

While we were waiting, one of the examiners asked us if we had failed and wanted to see what we had done wrong. When I answered that we had passed and just wanted to look at our exams he said, “but you have passed! Be happy and go home!”

My statistics professor was the one to go over our exams with us. He opened the test and we saw almost immediately that things didn’t look right. We spent about 10-15 minutes going through my calculations and finding my missing points. In the first test, the grading program had penalized me for not calculating a value that I wasn’t supposed to calculate for the test I chose and then awarded me more points in one part and less in another.

Exam point recreation

In the second test, I got full points for choosing the right test, but then 0 points for all my calculations! My professor was openly about his irritation with the program and mumbled frustrated comments under his breath. (I got the impression that he is against using a computer program to grade the exams.) In the end, we found that my exam was missing a total of 18 points, bringing my grade up from a 3 to a 4. Well worth the extra time going over it! And I wasn’t the only one – there were about 4 other people (including Skjalg) that were missing points on their exams.

It frustrates me to think of all the exams that were most likely graded incorrectly. There were only 5 of us that stayed back and checked our exams – out of 70 total – and all of us had something wrong with them. I’m not sure if there is anything I can do about it…other than recommending to others that they check their exams. My professor was clearly not a fan, so maybe a change is in the works already.

So now it is only physics and then I am done! After that I will have two/three days before my mama arrives (love you mama!!). I haven’t seen her in over a year and am looking SO forward to spending some quality time with her.

Alright, I’m off to try to sleep again. Wish me luck! 😉

Chemistry Exam and Yoga

January 5, 2013 § 2 Comments

I wish so badly that this exam season was over! Only two more left and then I get a little bit of a break before the whole thing starts over again. I’ve started looking at some of the material we will be covering in anatomy next semester (though I should probably be reviewing the stuff from last semester that I don’t know). Everything in time…

Yesterday’s chemistry exam was a lot less stressful than the others – most likely because it was written. There is so much less pressure when it is a written exam! You have time to really think things through and no one is sitting there awaiting an answer.

The exam was split into two parts. The first included 10 structures and 5 calculations. I memorized all of the organic structures for the exam, but only briefly reviewed the inorganic ones (since I memorized them when I took chemistry in college in Santa Monica). I was able to answer all but one on my exam – orthophosphoric acid. I felt like an idiot when I got home and looked it up because that is just another name for phosphoric acid – which I couldn’t forget the structure for even if I wanted to. I think we’ve mentioned phosphoric acid at least 50 times throughout the semester. You’ve won this round, H3PO4!

As for the calculations, I was able to finish 3 of them with complete confidence. Luckily enough, I had done eerily similar ones to those in my cramming review session before the exam. For the other two I was able to list the equations and steps to complete the problems, but could not figure out how to actually do them in the few minutes I had left.

After we turned in the calculations sheet, it was time for multiple choice. There were few that I felt confident about. Some were taken from the review questions handed out to those students who had applied for exemption earlier in the semester – and luckily enough I got a copy of this from Charlotte. There were maybe 4-5 that I had to completely guess on – and I mean completely, as in “hmmm…B…for Bianca…and….D…because I haven’t done a D in a while”. For the others, I was able to make a more-or-less educated guess.

The third part of the exam was the lab portion, which was really just a retake for those that didn’t pass their lab exams during the last week of school. Since I had passed my lab exam, I waited outside until 1:00 p.m. when the exams were done being graded.

Once the doors opened to the lecture hall, we all filed in and headed down to the front of the room where our index books were spread along the front desk. Everyone groaned as soon as they found theirs – no one wants to stress about having to take an exam over again. I passed my exam, doing better surprisingly on the multiple choice than I did on the structures/calculations (curse you, H3PO4!). In hindsight, I should have asked to see my exam, just to see what I had missed points on, but as soon as I knew I’d passed – I was done.

After my attempt at taking a nap when I got home yesterday (I’m horrible at relaxing), I decided to fit in a little yoga session. I set up everything in the bedroom, lit some candles, and found a full vinyasa yoga class online. I tried to take a picture but it’s a really awkward space, so this is the best I could do.


Alright, enough break, back to statistics!!

Medical Chemistry: Check!!!!

January 4, 2013 § 2 Comments

I am running on fumes, but so blissfully happy that it doesn’t matter right now. Somehow, even on two hours of sleep, I was able to muster up enough brain energy to pass my chemistry semi-final this morning. (A special thanks to Charlotte for being my online tutor almost all day yesterday! I wouldn’t have passed without her help.)

I will write more on the exam itself later, but just wanted to mark this amazing moment. Chemistry is absolutely my weakest class – something I will definitely change next semester. Now I’m off to take a hot shower and a long, long nap. Then it’s up and at ’em again! We both have our final in Biostatistics and Informatics on Monday, so there isn’t too much time to rest. Trust me, I will take what I can get!

If you say A, they will ask about B

January 3, 2013 § 2 Comments

Today, while grabbing a bit to eat during a study break, I looked confidently at Skjalg and said, “I’m stupid”. He has a habit of batting away such comments with humor, but this one he took seriously. He asked me why I thought that, and I began to explain to him that I feel like I am doing everything wrong, that I don’t know anything as well as I think I should, and that its takes me forever to learn something basic. “You are not stupid”, he reassured me, “this is hard and you are learning, so you’ll feel stupid at times, but you are by no means stupid”.

Exam season is the worst. I fight off a mild panic attack every time I look at the topic list for whatever subject I am studying. I am constantly criticizing my study habits of the past semester and thinking of how I should have done it differently. I still get anxious when I come across anything anatomy related – even though I am done with my exam already. I try my best to console myself with mantras, motivational quotes and wise words of family members, but sometimes things are just too overwhelming for them to sink in. I just want to make it through to the other side! To start a new semester and prove to myself that I can be more organized, more efficient, more… everything.

We resumed our studying, Skjalg focusing on reviewing for his anatomy exam (which is tomorrow) and me purging the 70 organic structures I need to know for my dreaded chemistry exam on Friday. After about half an hour had gone by, Skjalg took a moment to show me a little technique for remembering the structures for citric acid, cis-acontic acid and isocitric acid.

citric acid and friends

“This one is only different by a molecule of water”, he pointed out. “What is it called when two molecules are joined by the removal of the equivalent of a water molecule?” He was asking me something easy, to help boost my confidence.

“Condensation”, I mumbled.

“And the opposite?”

“Hydrolysis….but they aren’t exactly the opposite of each other because they are mediated by different enzymes,” I added sheepishly, recalling on something I’d learned from a Khan Academy video back in May.

“See! You know stuff,” he reassured me.

I then argued that it didn’t matter because everything that I was proud of knowing was not deep enough any more. I complained that it didn’t matter that I knew that there were two different enzymes – I needed to know their name and structure. Everything always goes one or two, if not more, degrees past what I know.

My wise boyfriend then consoled me with the words that inspired me to write this post in the midst of exam chaos:

“Their job is to see how much you know, Bianca. If you say A, they will ask about B. If you say A-F, they will ask about G. They are just going to follow the trail down until the point where you don’t know anything more. They know the whole path, so they will always be able to go further, to go deeper into the material, than you can.”

I realized in that moment that I have forgotten what it is like to be a student. It’s been over three years since I was last in school and I’ve allowed the confidence I gained in my “real-world” years to work against me. I’m here to learn, learning is hard, and it’s going to take me a long time to get to the point where I feel confident in what I know. So I better settle in and get used to not knowing anything – because that is why I am here!

I would love to close this post with some wise, witty ending, but I fear my creativity is on vacation and structures of organic acids reside in its place. Besides, Skjalg’s musings of the day were wise enough 🙂 Today, we reminded ourselves that we are students and that we aren’t supposed to know everything – at least not yet.

o chem notes

Structure scramblings of a crazed med student…

Anatomy: Check!

December 27, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’m exhausted, so this won’t be long. I passed my anatomy final!

I had the following topics:

  • Histology – placenta
  • Locomotor 1 – the knee joint
  • Locomotor 2 – the diaphragm
  • Embryology – neurulation
  • Cell biology – cilia and microvilli

Afterwards I visited Skjalg at the café he was studying at to let him know how it went. Rather than head straight home to start studying for chemistry, I decided to give myself the night off. So, I headed to IKEA to buy a bunch of candles.

Now I am settled in bed watching an episode of Downton Abbey. Tomorrow it all starts again!

Candles 2New Candles

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