Category: Biology

The 4-week reaffirmation of where I’m going

So my last post was a while ago, before I got back from Chapel Hill and San Francisco. Then I blinked and three weeks of my MOE Teaching Attachment flashed by.

It’s been a blast, of course. The first couple of days were incredibly jetlagged, no doubt due to my usual “hit the ground running and die later” approach to being home. But I got a great mentor, and I’ve been fortunate to get a pretty thorough exposure to Beatty Secondary School in the past three weeks. I’ve sat through staff meetings, professional development exercises, school assemblies and various lessons. I’ve hovered at the back of the various classes that my mentor takes: 1E2, 1T1, 4T1. I’ve been exposed to others as well: PE  lessons with the Secondary 2 and 3 students (where I learnt that I suck at wushu), Thinking Skills and English lessons with 2E4. I got to celebrate National Day, teach a lesson package I developed by myself from scratch on answering skills for Biology essays. I got to work with a range of standards in classes: from the top class that takes the heaviest combination possible to those who are struggling to pass their N-levels in two weeks.

Conclusion? I love this my job.

I love the days when I drag myself into school all sleepy but cheer up when my students wave to me. I love the moments when I swoop down on an unsuspecting student who has been guilty of multitasking and then sheepishly stuffs his storybook into his bag sufficiently chastened to focus on the lesson at hand. I love giving my individual attention to the Secondary 4 Technical students and bantering with them in whatever Mandarin and Hokkien I can muster to reduce the distance, and then cajoling them to follow my instructions. I love squatting down at the side of a struggling student who is all quiet in class and lost trying to catch up with what’s going on in the main lesson, then slowly going through the material until he gets up to speed. I love watching them develop their own confidence to attempt questions they left blank in their preliminary exams: “you see, you did it all by yourself and that wasn’t hard right?” Especially when they break into a smile after hitting the final calculation and getting the same answer that’s on the board. I love challenging the Secondary 3 triple science students to think a little beyond the textbook: “so based on what you know, what do you think might be the reason?” Befuddled looks, then that “ah-hah” moment as everything pieces together in their minds.

I love sitting in the library getting some work done and then having students come up to ask me questions. I love it even more when it devolves into stuff out of curriculum, and then even further when a bunch of them come and we talk about their dreams and aspirations, the choices that they soon have to make: JC/poly, what to study, where to study and what they want for their life. I love walking by students at the canteen and then getting to chat with them and hear stuff they won’t ever say in a classroom, knowing that they’re comfortable with me. I love sitting in the main staffroom and hearing my colleagues talk about their students, each worrying about the weaker ones and yet taking pride in their achievements. I love being around students, if only because their struggles remind me of my struggles when I was a student, and their worries my worries.

This attachment has been the most tiring time I’ve had in a long while, but also the most satisfying. I have a week left. I will miss these students when I leave, and I will miss the experiences I’ve had in this attachment. But it’s not forever, and I can now look forward to the years I have after I graduate from university, knowing full well that for me, things can only get better (even though uni already is pretty awesome).

A look back, then the head goes back forward.

So I was helping to peer advise an incoming freshman to USP this year who happens to want to go to Waseda University for the same programme I’m on and unfortunately, studies in the Faculty of Science in NUS. Which happens to be one of the most inflexible and rigid faculties when it comes to classes, and where schedules and module mapping nearly impossible to small liberal arts colleges that really fit the arts side more than being a balance.

And then she asked “how did you do it, really? how did you manage to finish all you did in the last two years?” I gave her the quick answer: “I don’t know, really, I just kept going on.”

But that’s not the truth. The truth is, I only made it so far on the determination and grit that I found somewhere. Reaching this point though, required the support of the friends and family that kept me going. So this is where I sort of think about what I’ve done here in the midway point of my degree (more or less).

Crazy plans like what I am doing always begin with an idea. They start small, but they get nurtured by the friends around you. For this, I have Min Xun, Benjamin Choi and a whole host of others to thank. I really still owe it to her: “do you think they’d let me double major with a double degree?”; “well if you don’t try, you won’t know right?” and then there’s Ben’s sagely advice when I was killing myself academically and the constant support. All the Nocturna folks here helped a ton too: suppers and company, laughs and cheers. Scoldings when I needed them, and for making me feel like I had something to come back to other than studying each day in the RC. My #06-100 suitemates too: Justin, Brian, Aaron, Jianyi, Hewlett, Wu Chao, Jin Hui (and yes Justin, your putting up with my idiosyncrasies day in day out is greatly appreciated). The honorary members too: Shona, Ming Ting, Gwen and Laura. You guys were the best company I could have asked for.

I think a special mention has to go out to the USP Life Sciences folks, and the NUS Science Crusade girls who were my lecture buddies for the first three semesters. Especially in the crucial Year 2 Semester 1, where I had horrible 8 hour lecture days that were consecutive. I really appreciate how you all: Edna, Stella, Meredith, Tasneem, Chester, Geelyn, Jie Min, took turns bringing me coffee and food so I could spend the 25 minute breaks in between lectures lying down on chairs in the lecture theatre instead to catch up on sleep.

So yeah, I look back now: how did I do it? I did it with the help of my friends. Or to borrow a turn of phrase from the The Beatles: “I get by with a little help from my friends”. Thanks, guys.

Why I Am Doing Biology, Linguistics, USP and International Liberal Studies

So I stumbled on an article in The New York Times dating back to November 17th, 2002 entitled “For Students Seeking Edge, One Major Just Isn’t Enough“.

And well, I thought to myself, perhaps I should pen down somewhere why I do what I am doing now, in my decision to pursue in effect, a triple major in biology, linguistics and international liberal studies. I’ve had scattered thoughts about it all around, but I’m at the stage now where I can decide to drop the idea and graduate immediately (one nice perk of overloading is that I’ve managed to meet university requirements to get a B.Sc in just two years). Or I can press on, spend the next three years in pursuit of what some might describe as paper-chasing and others as “wasting your time”.

So again, I would begin by considering what university means to me. To me, university isn’t so much about taking classes and enjoying yourself. Sure, that’s great to have, to explore the intellectual interests you want to, but I think there’s ultimately the recognition that university entails a preparation and a training. Not for the workforce, as others might argue, but to think as a person and to get ready to tackle the rest of the intellectual challenges that life might throw down your way. This then leads into my next bit: the point of majoring in something.

Lots of people have told me to just enjoy taking classes ad-hoc in whatever I’m interested in. It’s tempting, for sure. You don’t have to worry about meeting academic requirements, nor do you have to worry about weird professors that have decreed that as a biology student, this esoteric course in statistics is necessary (who needs statistics in biology anyway, eh?) But that’s not quite how I see it either. I can definitely pursue a far more exciting range of classes and interests if I just took what I wanted and cherry-picked my way around things. But the major is important to me, because it represents a course of study planned and designed by people who have far more experience in this field of study than me. I might not like all of it, but it is the best way of making sure that I get a broad view of the basics as much as I can (though admittedly, the second major in English Language at NUS is really so flexible I feel like it doesn’t matter anyway). It’s a way of studying that the university then decides: yep, I will stand by the integrity of this undergraduate’s education in this subject matter at my university.

It’s like how EL2201 (Structure of Sentences and Meanings) was a compulsory course when I was clearing my minor requirements prior to upgrading it to my second major. It’s not exactly the most “artsy” of courses, but it laid a lot of foundational work for syntax and grammar. I might have done less than I hoped for it (I did pretty well on the final, but that wasn’t enough to drag my lacklustre CA grades up enough to make an A), but I felt like it gave me a good taste of what the discipline entailed (and of course, other would-be EL majors ended up changing majors after it). So in that sense, a major represents a commitment towards a field of study: enough that it would lay the basics for future exploration in it, either formally as a graduate student, or perhaps to teach it to pre-university students. That’s why I chose biology as my first major and linguistics as my second major: I wanted to get the firm foundation in biology before heading out to teach it.

So, why international liberal studies? What’s the whole jimgang thing about Waseda about? Simply put: exposure. I wanted a double degree programme to give me more depth. So Waseda made the shortlist simply because it counted as a DDP. But as time went by, I realised it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind intellectually: it was more diffuse than I expected a second degree to be. And my understanding of liberal arts also changed: it wasn’t a field of study per se, but a style of education which mattered. But along with this, I realised that Waseda could make up for it in other ways. A chance to do things outside of my majors, for instance (with all my Year 3 modules in Waseda mapped to something that counts to my requirements in Singapore, only Year 5 really counts). I have no Unrestricted Electives in NUS, USP and then the linguistics major eating them up (or as I say sometimes, I have -15 UEs because I’m going way beyond my 200 MC requirement). But hey, Year 5 doesn’t count, by order from the Registrar’s Office. So Year 5 is when I get to explore other things: business classes, international relations, perhaps?

And there’s the last bit of why Waseda: because it’s 2 full years overseas. I’ve always been chicken about this studying abroad thing. I knew I couldn’t bear to leave Singapore for all that long as an undergraduate (3-4 years abroad felt like forever) and so I only applied to the two Singaporean schools I wanted (guess the one I didn’t want, har har). Being here in UNC Chapel Hill has confirmed that for me: 3 months and I’m missing home so much that small reminders of Singapore stab me right in the heart. But a year in Japan (hopefully) isn’t that bad. Timezone’s closer, culturally I get food I connect more with, and the idea that I’m just an 8 hour flight away that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg comforts me. I will have to spend longer than that abroad if I want to get my Masters and my PhD (if I ever stump up the courage to study even more than now), but this is probably as good a compromise as it gets.

So yes, the plan is more or less set already: National University of Singapore, University Scholars Programme Class of 2017, B.Sc (Hons) in Life Sciences (with a Specialisation in Biomedical Sciences) and a Second Major in English Language, B.A. (Waseda University, Japan).

3 more years of study, 3 more years of slogging. I hope this works out. And I hope it prepares me for to be a better teacher in the future. See you at Commencement 2017, if I make it there.