Capstone Reflection

When I tell people that I study biology and neuroscience, I am frequently asked if I want to be a brain surgeon or something else involving treating people with brain disorders. While I do care about people being healthy, their treatment isn’t with what I want to mainly concern myself as a career: what interests me isn’t the “what” of disease but the “why.” I would much rather figure out the process behind how something happens than fix it with knowledge other people have discovered. There’s no doubt that application is important (and far less tedious than pure research, in some people’s eyes), but science is exciting to me because of that discovery.

What this capstone course emphasized was how understanding the neurochemical mechanisms involved in diseases and disorders can help us think about their possible treatments – something that benefits aspiring medical professionals and researchers alike. What’s more is that the discussion-based environment encouraged knowledge and perspectives to be exchanged amongst this group of critically thinking students with differing interests and insights, allowing everyone to benefit from the collective strengths of the group.

One of the most difficult aspects to this class was getting through the scientific literature. Since we read a new paper each week, we had to develop the skills to separate what we knew from what we needed to learn more about and make connections from our current knowledge bases in order for them to expand. We would pool together questions we had whose answers we thought would be especially important to our understanding of the paper, and each person would select one to share with the class. Many of the things we learned in the beginning were important for further papers, so as this general knowledge grew, we became more able to analyze the specific nuances to each one. Because of my interest and background in genetics, I found I was uniquely able to research and explain the genetic components of our weekly topic. The same was true for other students who, for example, had a better understanding of chemical structure or neuroanatomy than others. These different skills were needed for the inherent interdisciplinary nature of neuroscience and added to the capstone experience by drawing from various fields of study.

The final part of learning about a topic was its actual discussion, where we went beyond the scientific details and thought about what sort of implications our new knowledge on the week’s issue could have on how people live and how we view our world. This helped to identify how someone in a position to understand scientific topics has a role as an educator when hot topics such as obesity and Alzheimer’s are discussed in the general public. We needed to consider what people knew, what they should know, and what actions should be taken to ensure a better life for everyone. The personal conclusions we drew from these final discussions ended up in our blog posts, where we attempted to communicate our entire learning process with the community.

Problems do not exist in individual bubbles: more and more we are uncovering new ways by which all things are interconnected, signaling a greater need for information and interpretations of this information to be shared amongst seemingly distant groups of people. We need to get the input of others in fields different from ours to see how they view something, why that might be different from how we see it, and how we maybe need to adjust our approach to get a more favorable outcome. The organization of this course made it so that it could not be accomplished alone. Everyone’s insights and discoveries, however small, were needed for furthering the group’s understanding of the subject. It served as a reminder that while information and ideas are accessible to anyone, it is often the case that our peers can be our greatest teachers – and sometimes we take on the role of that teacher, if we are more qualified.

This class helped to solidify my desire to do research in that it allowed me to think by exploring questions that I personally had concerning seemingly tangential topics that also excite me – that is, it encouraged me to find the puzzle pieces I was good at and enjoyed finding in order to contribute to the whole, very complex picture. I believe that I have a renewed idea of how to approach what I do and how to use my ideas as well as a more defined way in which to be responsibly engaged throughout my life simply by doing what I love.

The End is Just the Beginning

Going into the class without being a neurochemistry minor or even a chemistry major for that matter, I felt as if I was blindly walking into a course which would be entirely over my head.  For the first several weeks, that was exactly the case.  It was as if I were thrust into a foreign country, one which I did not know the language, and was asked to analyze new scientific research.  In the beginning, different neurological pathways were flying at me left and right and I barely had enough time to read the acronyms associated with a given pathway, before a whole new one was thrown at me!  However after the pathways began showing up over and over in different disorders, I was able to reach a new level of understanding and it was then that real analysis and connection to the global issues.

Elements of panic set in every weekend as a new papers outlining a different neurodegenerative diseases were assigned.  However the fear gradually subsided as everyone came back to class on Monday.  We slowly picked the articles apart as a group and then identified subject matter that we would like to learn more about in order to better understand the articles.  Topics were then assigned to each student to be researched and familiarize with for the next class period.  Wednesdays were so endearingly coined the “speed dating” days.  It was on these days that students brought their new-found knowledge from researching the topics that were assigned on Monday.  Each student had a chance to break apart and explain these difficult topics in five minute sessions, one on one, with everyone in the class (thus the term speed dating).  It was then on Friday, when we were able to apply these new concepts to the real world.  Fridays consisted of large group discussions in which the neurodegenerative disease was discussed in a more humanitarian way.  These discussions were far more centered around personal connections with the neurodegnerative disease of the week.  Without fail, someone would know someone or have a relative who was suffering from the disease or condition. While neurlogical pathways were still discussed, Fridays allowed for the class to understand a whole new side of the disease that was typically detached from the hard sciences.

Not only did this class improve my critical reading skills when it came to groundbreaking neurological research, it provided an avenue in which I could view these issues from many different perspectives, and connect them to our current society.  While I have come to realized that each one of these diseases is different, (even though they all might possess certain imbalances and “modulation” of normal function) I have also found that placing a label on an individual who is affected can be particularly harmful.  For example, for people who are labeled as autistic or bipolar — even though they might be very high functioning — are immediately seen differently.  This can lead to many adverse social affects, all due to the fact that other people do not know what is really going on with their condition, and therefore do not know how to act around them.  So while these topics might be difficult to discuss, it is important that they are because otherwise general ignorance can lead to additional, unnecessary problems.

The end is just the beginning, why might I choose this title you may ask? Almost all of the articles that we have read in class have come from the past five years.  The information that is coming out is groundbreaking!  However there is still much more that needs to be discovered in order to fully understand and know how to treat many of these neurological diseases.  So while the end of this class subsequently symbolizes the capping off of my four years at Concordia, there are still many more interesting findings that I am excited to learn about in the future and share with those around me!

The End That Shows We’re Really Only at the Beginning

When I first signed up for Neurochemistry last spring, I simply took it because it was hitting two birds with one stone. I could use it as my elective course for my chemistry major and also complete my capstone class with it. I hadn’t taken any other neuroscience classes throughout my career at Concordia and considered my knowledge of the brain to be pretty minimal compared to others I knew would be in my class. Needless to say, I was quite intimidated. Not only because I thought I might be behind my classmates knowledge-wise, but also because discussion based classes have never been my favorite. I’ve never been one that enjoyed having a class-wide discussion and arguing viewpoints on something with another classmate. My favorite types of classes have always been the professor in front of the class giving a lecture for the entire period. To some, this is excruciatingly boring, but I’ve always been someone who learned better – and preferred – to just sit and listen. For that reason, I was nervous for Neurochemistry and having to “force” myself to get into the discussion. But after an entire semester of the most discussion-based class I have ever taken, I’ve learned they aren’t always so bad.

At the beginning of the semester, we had several class periods discussing background information and learning things we would need to know to help us understand most of the papers we would be reading. This was immensely helpful for students like me who didn’t have a good background to begin with. Right away my fear of not knowing everything was gone. As the semester progressed and we read many very in-depth papers and covered topics from autism to marijuana, I came to realize that not knowing everything is okay. There wasn’t a single paper we read where the researchers understood every pathway or mechanism. In fact, most of the time it was a “this happens in this disease but we really don’t know why” case. As a class, we tried to take each piece of the puzzle that was known and formulate a way those pieces might fit together. Each week, every member in the class would tackle a particular topic and then share what they found to the rest of the class. It was amazing how little we would know about a disorder, even after reading the paper, but once we dug a little deeper and taught the class what we had learned, we began to have a really good grasp on the topic. The amount of learning in one single week was astonishing. For a class that didn’t have your typical lectures and quizzes and tests, I sure learned more than I could have thought possible. I think this truly highlights the idea of learning for school and learning because you are curious. I wanted to know what was happening in the brain in each one of these disorders because it was interesting, not because I had to. In addition, as the semester went on, I grew to love – instead of my usual hate – our Friday discussions where we could discuss not only the science behind that week’s topic, but also the social and ethical sides.

All in all, I really enjoyed neurochemistry. For a class that scared me at first, I realized that class discussions aren’t all that bad. I loved learning so many knew things and sharing my own findings with classmates and my professor, who was more like another student in the class and learned right alongside us. I saw connections between neurochemistry and other fields, like anatomy and biochemistry and psychology. I was able to discuss with my peers the social and ethical implications that certain disorders of the brain have on our society and what our next step should be in trying to treat or cure these disorders. This class went so much further than just the science, which ultimately is what a liberal arts education is all about. My capstone class certainly capped off my education in true Concordia fashion. I came to realize that not knowing everything is okay – it simply shows us how much we have left to discover and that we really are only at the beginning.


The Value of a Capstone

Capstone classes are all designed to be just that, a capstone. They are supposed to take what you have learned in four years of lectures, tests, and study groups and apply them to one goal. In Neurochemistry, that goal was to find, read, understand, and finally communicate scientific literature. I’m sure we all thought we had enough practice at researching and reading articles to be proficient but I think we all learned that it is a very hard skill to master.

The most important that this capstone taught me was how to communicate novel and abstract scientific ideas. To take a paper and be able to digest it is one thing, but to be able to tell anyone, whether they have a scientific mind or not, what you have just learned takes a much more refined set of skills. Not only is it a more challenging thing to perform, but communication is becoming more and more relevant and necessary in society today. One timely example of the power of scientific communication involves the “Vaccines cause autism” misconception. A few people claiming to know something that they actually know nothing about could have been more readily dispelled if the scientific community was more proficient in the communication of the facts.

Because interdisciplinary communication is so important I would recommend this class to students of any major. The fact that we all worked together to tackle the very difficult concepts of neurochemistry makes the challenging aspect of this class a lot less daunting. The teaching of this class fosters the teamwork and connection-making necessary to learn the material instead of just going with the flow. Overall, this was a very fun and positive experience and the lessons and skills learned will stick with me for a long time.

Capping it off – 4 months to sum up 4 years

Where do I begin?  Last spring when I was registering for classes, I somehow had in my mind that I needed to take this class.  That for some reason, this class was the required class for my chemistry major, and no other capstone class would compare.  Fast forward to now, and I learned my assumptions were wrong, but I am glad I had them to start with.

The capstone course is an integral part of any major at Concordia.  It seemed logical that I would take a neurochemistry simply because I was a chemistry major.  I walked into class the end of August, and my entire learning process was thrown a curve ball.  I am old school.  I am significantly older than most, if not all, of my colleagues.  I thought the only way to learn difficult subjects was to sit in class and listen to lecture after lecture, watch one power point slide morph into the next, and take endless amounts of notes that you can feel the early onset arthritis setting in.

This class was the exact opposite.  For me, this class was not about what I learned and could regurgitate.  It was more about being able to intelligently read an article (not a magazine one), understand the science behind it all, and communicate it, not only amongst my peers, but allow those who don’t have the extensive background we had to understand.

My biggest test was talking it over with my wife.  If I got her to understand what I just learned, I accomplished one of the largest parts of the course.  Now don’t get me wrong.  My wife is intelligent in her own right; we just share different career/educational interests.  Looking back now, I feel very bad for her.  The conversations about how your day was must have been just smiling and nodding on her end.  I never broke down Hess’ Law, equilibrium constants, light diffraction, and so on.  I’m sure a lot of it went right over her head, but not this class.  She followed along week after week, paper after paper.

So yea, there were some major pluses to this class, but at the same time there were a few negatives.  Often times, the papers were SO difficult to digest.  If there were not 18 of us in the classroom, I am pretty sure I would only understand 1/18 of what was written.  The research required did not seem fair to be disseminated in only 90 seconds, and it seemed the amount of time invested did not pay off in the end.  Yet as I look back, it seems to dictate what most of our lives require.  If we have a presentation, we spend hours upon hours practicing, making sure it’s perfect, yet the message is delivered in a short period of time.  This was the most perfect class to predict our professional future.  It took me the entire four months to realize this, but I am grateful I took this class.

Neurochemsitry in Review

Neurochemistry  – it sounds like a lot to wrap your brain around (see what I did there), and it is. I guess I could say I had no idea what to expect for this class. I chose it because it made the most sense to fulfill the senior capstone requirement and my chemistry elective. Besides that, I had always had the desire to learn more about neuroscience, but poor planning on my part did not allow me to do this in during undergraduate education. I had missed the all important, and apparently eye-opening, meeting in the spring. So on day one, Dr. Mach says that we all should know what we’re getting ourselves into. Let’s just say my reality check about what Neurochemistry would be came about four months after everyone else.

The class was set up as discussion based, something quite foreign to my lecture style science courses. I have roommates in social work and psychology who spend their days discussing readings, but to do so for our very technical, scientific papers was daunting thought. In the end, it was a breath of fresh air to my very content heavy courses with regular homework and exams. Neurochemistry had a different routine of reading the article for the beginning of the week, researching topics to clarify information in the article, and a discussion day talking about the significance the topic had for society. Finally, we were required to summarize that week’s topic on our Cobber’s on the Brain blog.

Basically, each week we struggled to read articles to understand the details of pathways, receptors and molecules we hadn’t learned about or had just reviewed at the beginning of the semester. I can’t say I could tell you the exact mechanism for each neurological disorders we talked about, but I can say that I learned how to critically read articles. You might be thinking, “Doesn’t sound like you learned very much.”

I would say you’re wrong. I would argue that I have gained or at least strengthened a skill that I hope my undergraduate courses have been forcing me to do. I can efficiently find the important pieces of an article, look further into topics that were unfamiliar, and put the pieces together in a cohesive picture on this blog. I didn’t have a professor standing in front of the room saying “This is how it is.” Instead, I was forced to pull things out of the article, ask the right questions, find the proper resources, and come up with the bigger picture. The picture may have been mostly hypothesizing, but it still required active thinking – something that can be lacking in lecture style courses.

I wouldn’t be as confident in saying I have improved on this ability, if it weren’t for the exams. The exams required little preparation, and instead put us in the live task of reading and critically analyzing an academic article. Honestly, in the moment, I wasn’t sure whether I made any connections or whether I was pulling things out of thin air. But when I got the results of our in-class and take-home portions, it turned out that I was able to put more of the story together before my further research than I had thought.

I would say that Neurochemistry has been a good change of pace in my science heavy senior year. I was able to expand on a useful skill, break out of my comfort zone a little, and learn how to communicate about science to the general public. The Capstone experience is supposed to have an interdisciplinary component and our Friday discussions really fulfilled that. We broke out of our narrow science topic and discussed the larger impact. I think this class fulfilled the Capstone goal and was an interesting addition to one of my last semesters at Concordia.

Even Though It Seems We Know Nothing

My experience in Neurochemistry this past semester has been quite unique compared to other courses I’ve taken here at Concordia. With a very minimal background in neuroscience coming into the class, I was very worried about how I would do and how much I would be able to understand. But after building a background on a variety of topics the first couple weeks, I felt well prepared to tackle the challenging issues I would face throughout the semester. We learned all about the most recent science of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Bipolar, Migraines, and Parkinson’s, among others, by reading research articles. As we dug into our first few papers, one thing became clear to me. There is a fair amount we have learned, but there is so much more that we have yet to discover (AKA more research needs to be done, as the papers often say).

But as the semester went on, what started as an initial interest in the topics, grew into a passion for learning and understanding exactly what was going on and how researchers might approach the problem using the new information we read about in the papers. But the learning didn’t end there. At the end of each week we thoroughly discussed the societal implications of the research and the major issues, including both cultural and ethical. We also learned the importance of integration of other disciplines as the complex papers we read required knowledge of chemistry, biology, nutrition, and sometimes even sociology.

Yet perhaps the most important part of this class happened in between the research articles. Each week after discussion, we were required to write a blog post that would appear online, open to anyone to read. Now this seems like a simple task, but taking highly sophisticated, complex, and very confusing scientific research and morphing it into a manuscript that requires little to no background knowledge is quite the task. But without turning the complex ideas of science into something that can be understood by everyone really makes science completely useless. Being able to communicate science effectively is so vital to applying it to the vast array of complications it hopes to eliminate, and I’m proud to say that that is exactly what we learned in Neurochemistry.

So even though there is so much more research to be done, and at times it seems like we know a whole lot of nothing about everything, this class was not in vain. I have had a wonderful experience and have learned many skills that will be extremely useful for my future. I really can’t think of a more applicable class, for this is one that will certainly stick with me forever. I can’t think of a better way to cap off my career at Concordia.

Capping off Neurochemistry

If you had told my freshman self that I would select Neurochemistry as the capstone for the end of my college career, I probably would have requested that you undergo a psychological evaluation. And yet here I sit, nearly four years later, reflecting on a truly transformative course. I will admit, as a Psychology and Spanish double major taking the course to fulfill a Neuroscience minor, I definitely felt like the underdog. As the sole representative of the science of the mind facing a class full of pre-med, pre-pharmacy, and chemistry majors, it definitely took me awhile to feel as though I belonged there. But I believe wholeheartedly that this Capstone course captures the essence of a liberal arts education. We may possess different strengths in certain areas and have varied perspectives on an issue, but this does not make a certain background any more or less valid. We can combine our strengths to achieve a more comprehensive level of understanding from a variety of avenues. Each week, we tackled articles containing language that reminded me of the time when I briefly contemplated learning Russian. From ALS to Alzheimer’s, Bipolar Disorder to Parkinson’s, and even the controversies of cannabis, we explored the complex mechanisms behind numerous neurological conditions prevalent in society. This course allowed me to connect behavioral elements of disorders with which I am familiar to their chemical components in the brain.

The biggest lesson from this Capstone course: get comfortable with the uncomfortable. We took recent scientific discoveries and broke them down into smaller subcategories. Then, we shared our assigned topics on speed dates with each other until the topics became as familiar as a family rant about the frustrations of loving Minnesota sports teams at Thanksgiving. On Fridays, we met to discuss larger implications of the scientific findings, such as the various social issues. Should medical marijuana be legalized? Would you genetically modify your children to guarantee not passing on a life-altering condition? Finally, we posted our perspectives on the Cobbers on the Brain blog. I hope that my contributions as well as the posts of my peers have been beneficial for all of you who follow our forum.

I have thoroughly enjoyed wrestling with unfamiliarity, confronting my frustrations, and learning to adapt my strengths along with expanding my educational horizons. I plan to pursue a doctoral degree in a different avenue than my fellow comrades in Neurochem, either in Clinical Neuropsychology or Neurolinguistics, a hybrid of my love of language and the brain. Through this capstone course and my education at Concordia College, I can confidently identify as a critical reader, thinker, and a responsibly-engaged individual, possessing skills that will allow be to successfully pursue my educational and career aspirations.

No Fluff and Students Still Learn… Shocking

No Fluff and Students Still Learn… Shocking

CHEM 475 is notoriously known as Neurochemistry at Concordia college, and if I am looking to impress my friends outside of the sciences by the rigorous classes that I am taking, I sweet talk a little “neurochemistry,” and their jaws drop. It seems that the combination of the Latin root “neuro” mixed with “chemistry” gives a killer combination for people to assume that it is an intensely difficult class.

And it is true, the topic of neurochemistry focuses on how our brain works, and we humans clearly have a long way to go until scientists have even a small grasp on understanding how our magnificent minds conduct their daily business. But, in the meantime, students that are ambitious to uncover the secrets of our own brains, like me, must begin to tackle the problem by learning what is known. This is the point of the neurochemistry class: to gain an understanding and appreciation for what is currently known about brain. In addition, over the course of the semester we attempted to develop problem solving skills that prompt us to ask leading questions that need to be answered in order to accomplish this task.

But the intriguing thought is that this was by far the most simplistic course of the entire semester. How you might ask? How could a topic as difficult as neurochemistry come to be my easiest class? And if it was so easy, surely I must have learned nothing? In order to learn and retain information, the course must be academically challenging, right?

If you asked these questions, do not be ashamed; they are logical questions to ask that our societal norms continually reinforce. But as I have considered these questions in respect to this class, I have found that I was quite naïve in my understanding of what is necessary in order to learn.

The curriculum of neurochemistry works like this. Over the weekend, everyone in the class reads a brief (yet technically dense) scientific article about a certain brain disease, such as Alzheimer disease, migraines, obesity, or Parkinson disease. On Monday, we discuss what we did not fully understand, and each student is assigned a topic to look into for the upcoming class period. On Wednesday, we share these new pieces of information with each other to further our knowledge of the topic. Finally, on Friday, we simply come together to have a free discussion about the topic that may cover ethics, chemistry, disease, or even social standards surrounding the disease.

Outside of class, there is very little homework, and there is virtually no “study time” required for the class. With the exception of reading the article and examining one topic, all learning occurs within the classroom. Commonly, the standard “lecture-based” class involves a massive emulsion of information that is presented in a word-vomit style. This requires the student to take hours outside of class to sift through and organize the information into carefully packaged parcels of memorized concepts. Contradictory to this method of teaching, a discussion-based class in which the information is mutually foreign to the students AND PROFESSOR fosters the connection of bigger ideas during the class period. Thus, the information is still present, but in order to have successful discussion, the ideas must be collimated in the minds of the students during class rather than waiting until “the night before an exam” to actually learn the information.

As a busy student, myself, (and to be frankly honest, there simply is no such thing as a student that is not busy) the worst thing that a professor can do is to force multitudes of what I like to call FLUFF as requirements for the students. Fluff, in essence is trivial work that is meant to keep the student busy and thinking about the class. This type of work has little academic merit and is more or less mindless. Although fluff may contribute somewhat to the student’s learning, it is not as efficient as other methods of studying─ and I would go as far to say that cramming would even be more useful than fluff.

By limiting the amount of fluff (i.e. work to be done outside of class), learning occurs in the class, and the time that student’s consider to be valuable is not wasted. Efficiency is a virtue, and I am a strong proponent that if the student is focused and ready to learn during class, then the professor should at least keep in mind that assigning extra fluff may not be necessary.

Of course, pedagogy is a difficult subject, and there is no single best method to teach. In fact, teaching styles need to be tailored specifically to each class as the variability in curriculum and aptitude of the students will certainly influence the way that the class should be taught. However, in general, I believe that professors should strongly consider if the assignments that they give outside of class really are of benefit to the student or if they should be eliminated as fluff.

Neurochemistry has been a perfect example of this. I applaud Dr. Julie Mach for being mindful of student time by eliminating entirely the fluff. In this minimalist perspective, we have stripped the class to a barebones ensemble of discussions, and still, we students have found the motivation to pursue the academic rigor with which we are so familiar. In accordance with the mission of Concordia College, we are becoming thoughtful and engaged men and women dedicated to influencing the affairs of the world─ we just did it faster…

Final thoughts on neurochemistry written by Steven Dotzler

A Neurochemistry Review

When I signed up for neurochemistry last spring, I didn’t know what this class entailed. The only knowledge I had came from my cousin, who had taken it during the fall 2013 semester. She said that she enjoyed it, but it did include quite a lot of reading. I didn’t think much about it again until the informational meeting during Celebration of Student Scholarship. After this meeting, I was quite intimidated about what I was going to be doing. I had learned that this was very different from the science classes I had taken previously, and that it focused a lot on the core.

While I was nervous about the focus on core, I actually ended up really enjoying it. This course has allowed me to connect a lot of my studies with the different articles we read. I had to pull on my other knowledge and resources to learn more details about the neurological dysfunction that were written about. My favorite days in neurochemistry were Fridays, in which we got to have a group discussion led by peers. These discussions started began with a focus on a cause for these diseases, but usually moved towards society’s job and responsibilities that it has towards these patients. Great debate was had on Fridays in regards to humanity’s responsibility for itself.

The semester was wrapped up by different groups creating a public service announcement for one of the diseases we studied. My group chose concussions and CTE. I enjoyed this project a lot because we were able to communicate the scientific information in a fun and accessible way. My group’s PSA will be at the end of this post. I think this class was a great way to cap off core requirements at Concordia. It combined the core values and chemistry that I love perfectly.

At the end of this class, I was able to better critically read scientific articles and then communicate to others. I also had better knowledge of the reasons behind neurological dysfunctions. The human body needs a lot of balance and regulation to function properly. I also realized how much we really don’t understand the human body, and that continuing research is necessary to help those who suffer with these disorders and diseases.

Concussion PSA