Learning about my learning style, Singapore Week 5

Hello World!

The weeks are absolutely flying by, and I feel barely able to process all the thoughts flying through my brain! First and foremost, I was able to do several trial runs of my muscle strip stiffness measurements on an atomic force microscope (AFM) located in one of the research buildings/institutes (“SMART” – Singapore MIT Alliance for Research and Technology) in the newest part of campus, University Town.

I’ve read a lot about AFM and am very familiar with the principles of the technology, but it was a really valuable experience to be able to prepare and probe samples using this equipment first-hand. I gained a lot of insight into the technical challenges that accompany acquiring and processing experimental data with AFM and I now have a much better idea of what is possible with this technology. Extensive conversations with two graduate students who routinely use AFM to measure the mechanical properties of soft tissues in biological environments really expanded my knowledge base and got me up to speed on the state of the art.

While I gathered some useful data from these experiments, I learned that I can get even better and more reliable results using a different AFM located within the SMART institute. (My samples are nearly opaque and are more readily measured with an upright microscope than an inverted one… I won’t bore you with the details)! I’ve contacted a student who works on that AFM regularly and hope she will be able to help me finish up this round of experiments before I leave town and head back to Illinois.

This week I attended part of a three-day workshop sponsored by the Mechanobiology Institute that offered extensive training on an image-processing software that is widely used across institutions worldwide. All scientists and engineers know that the easiest way to sell one’s research to peers (as well as to the public) is through beautiful images that convey its impact without compromising on the science!

Image processing software tools that help you “clean up” pictures obtained via various forms of microscopy can generate really accurate and beautiful 3D digital models of various biological samples. I enjoyed the first day of training on this software, as it has always been relatively intuitive for me to learn new computational tools. I have to say that by the second day, I was getting a little too bored to sit through the rest of the workshop! This is partly due to the fact that I’m a very independent learner and prefer to be left alone with a “puzzle” to be solved.

This can definitely work against me at times, as I’m sure I missed a few tips and tricks of the trade taught to workshop attendees by the experts leading the workshop, but it’s a mindset that is so widespread with engineers everywhere that I hope I can’t be blamed too heavily for it!

While reflecting on the workshop this week, I started thinking about different learning styles and how they affect the way we approach the world and tackle problems. In terms of scientific experiments, I know that my strength lies in my divergent thinking and somewhat wild imagination (fueled by excessive consumption of fairy stories in my youth, no doubt). I have good ideas and I know where they fit into the big picture.

My main weakness is probably an inability to be completely detail oriented; experiments have to be precise, repeatable, and produce statistically significant data. You have to be rigorous and really focus on the details in order to produce truly high-quality work. This is something that doesn’t come naturally to me, as my thoughts are almost always global rather than focused. However, I’m aware of my weakness in this area and am trying to implement a system that will help me improve upon this as I progress through graduate school.

When I obtain my PhD and pursue a career in academia (that’s the career plan at present), my global thinking and idea generation skills will really come into play as I write grants and manage my own lab!

Following this train of thought, I realized that I am a very “verbal” person and find it relatively easy to express myself through speech and writing (hence the existence of this blog), but often struggle with visual representations of data. While I am very easily influenced by the appearance of data and have instinctive responses to what looks good and what looks terrible, I don’t often have that insight when I’m the one producing the images/graphs/tables to be presented!

Perhaps what I need in order to improve these skills is not a workshop on image processing software (which I apparently prefer to learn on my own), but rather an introduction to design. This is something to add to my list of personal development goals for graduate school and beyond – presentation isn’t everything, but it can turn a good research story into a fantastic research story!

I took a short trip to Kuala Lumpur this weekend (a few hours away from Singapore by bus) and, once again, really enjoyed the experience of immersing myself in a new environment and actively observing and absorbing everything around me. I’ve learned so much about the diverse cultures in this part of the world – my mind feels stimulated and broadened!

I’ve often been told that the best writers write about “what they know,” so I want to make sure to see and experience as much as I can so that I can improve as a writer. Seeing new environments (both natural and manmade) has also generated many memories that I hope to draw upon in the future as I brainstorm new research ideas, plans, and designs!

Despite all the positives of this international research experience in Singapore, I’ve been feeling absolutely homesick this week and am starting to grow really impatient about coming back to Champaign-Urbana. I want to see my family and friends, eat food that I cooked myself (eating out every meal of every day is a challenge, especially when you’re vegetarian!), and work in my lab where everything is familiar and accessible.

I’m refreshed, reset, and ready to wrap up next week and return to Illinois!