The Beauty of Mentorship…A Brother’s Love

When I was growing up, I had the privilege of attending the Johnny Academy. This was not your typical school or institution. This was a valuable one-on-one learning experience with none another than my big brother Jonathan (hence the “Johnny” Academy). He was 13 years old and I was 7 when we first started. It was during the school holidays and he was developing an interest in teaching so here I was, his guinea pig student.

Nintendo Donkey Kong. Image courtesy of wikipedia.
The Nintendo Donkey Kong I used to play during “class breaks”. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

It started off with English lessons where we went through grammar and vocabulary. Then we dived into French conjugation and Math multiplication tables. The next thing I knew, he was announcing that there would be a final exam complete with report card! During the breaks between ‘classes’, he allowed me to indulge in 3 or 4 games of Donkey Kong as a reward for being focused in class. He also promised me a big bar of Cadbury’s chocolate if I finished the entire Famous Five series of books by Enid Blyton.

During other classes, we had “laboratory” sessions where we dived into chemistry experiments using the best chemistry set I had ever seen that had been given to us as a Christmas present. My eyes opened wide at all the unique powders in the set. I’m not sure they make them like that anymore. It had the potential to blow things up! The most fascinating experiment my brother ever showed me was the principal of a burning flame using up oxygen. It was a simple apparatus. A lit candle placed under a glass dome inside a basin of water. As the candle used up oxygen, the volume of air inside the dome decreased and the water from the basin rose up inside the glass dome to replace the space previously occupied by the oxygen. It seemed so magical to me, as if the water had a life of its own!

Chemistry set. Image courtesy of Brighton Toy and Model Museum
Chemistry set. Image courtesy of Brighton Toy and Model Museum

There was no end to the variety of lessons and experiments my brother showed me. I remember deciphering secret messages that had been written in lemon juice by gently heating under the paper, making the letters darken and become visible to the naked eye. So simple, yet so fascinating! We had a very basic microscope that we used to view random samples from the backyard. Our house was filled with all kinds of books, my favorite series being “Tell me why”.

My brother also entertained me by performing magic tricks and card tricks. He encouraged me to be active by taking me out to play tennis, soccer and badminton. He sometimes pretended to let me win!

My brother has been my mentor from a young age. His passion for teaching and his concern for me developed my fascination for science, reading and learning. I love to find out how things work and to this day we still have nerdy conversations. As a former Theater professor who has just finished his fourth year of medical school in the States, he continues to encourage me and mentor me as I embark on my journey to medical school. His drive to succeed motivates me and shows me that if he can do it, I can do it too.

Mentorship is a beautiful thing. It draws on one’s experiences to help another person learn and overcome similar hurdles. It says to another “Here I am to help you get through this, to figure it out and to help you succeed!”.

Jonathan sneaking into my crib
Jonathan sneaking into my crib when we were children
Jonathan and I opening up Christmas presents when we were children
Jonathan and I opening up Christmas presents when we were children
Jonathan and I visiting Kenya where we grew up
Jonathan and I visiting Kenya where we grew up

How to Put What You Learn into Long Term Memory

Have you ever felt frustrated when you try to commit something to memory but you just can’t seem to remember it after a few days or weeks? Have you ever read a topic over and over only to find that it has disappeared from your mind when you try to recall it?

If you’ve been busy preparing for the MCAT like I have, you have probably come across the new Psychology and Sociology sections. Fascinating stuff! One of the topics I enjoyed reading was how our memory works. We have short-term memory as well as long term memory. Our short-term or working memory can only hold up to about 7 items at a time and is usually brought about by repeating things over and over in a rehearsal type fashion. The problem with this approach is that the information in short-term memory is easily forgotten as more information comes in and displaces it. The better approach would be try to get the information into your long term memory for more effective retrieval in the future. How does one go about this?

Well, as I have been learning from my MCAT studying, you need to assign “meaning” to whatever it is you are trying to memorize, in order to get it into your long-term memory. One way that I go about this, particularly for topics that have a lot of details to remember, is to come up with a crazy scenario that I just can’t help but remember simply because it’s so ridiculous or hilarious. This can be applied to whatever you are trying to memorize (not just MCAT material). For example, if you meet someone for the first time and you want to make sure you remember their name, try to assign some meaning or association to their name such as an unusual facial feature or a funny word that rhymes with their name.

For the MCAT, let’s take the example of the brain. The brain is a magnificent organ of the body that we do not yet fully understand. There are many names and functions to learn for the MCAT. Let’s take the example a step further and try to learn the functions of the brain-stem. In the brain-stem, we have the mid-brain, pons and medulla. What does the pons do? Here’s my crazy schematic for remembering the function of the pons which communicates between the motor cortex and the cerebellum:

My ridiculous cartoon for remembering the function of the pons in the brain stem
My ridiculous cartoon for remembering the function of the pons in the brain stem (Click for an expanded view)

Now you may say, “I don’t have time to draw silly cartoons, I have tonnes of MCAT material to get through!”. ‘Tis true what you say however by finding a way to get material into your long term memory, you won’t have to keep reviewing the material over and over to make sure you remember it. Drawing a cartoon or thinking up some other funny way to help you remember does not actually take that long and will save you time in the long run. Cartoons or funny stories can be used in conjunction with mnemonics to get that MCAT material into your long term memory where you can retrieve it come exam day. Happy studying!

Studying on the deck
When studying, try to find a comfortable place where you can concentrate. I like being out on the deck where there’s lots of light.

Three Mnemonics You Need to Know for the MCAT

The MCAT can be a daunting exam. With the new version of the MCAT now almost double the length of the previous version, and with new topics to study, you may wonder how to get through the mountain of information with your sanity intact. There is plenty of useful information online on how to prepare for the MCAT but the most helpful advice I have found is firstly to focus on understanding the basic concepts (don’t rely solely on memorization!) and secondly to practice as much as possible under timed conditions. My goal is to read each passage in about 3 minutes and answer each question in about a minute. It may take more or less time depending on the difficulty of the passage or question, but this would be the average time to aim for.

With understanding the fundamental concepts being your main goal, there are some aspects of the material that you just have to bite the bullet and memorize. Here are 3 mnemonics that I have been using to help me get some key material down pat:

  1. Ideal Fluids: as velocity goes up, PAT goes down (PAT = pressure, cross sectional area and temperature)-by
  2. Reactivity of Carboxylic Acid Derivatives: From least reactive to most reactive: ACE A KetAl Halide (sounds like “Ace a Kettle Halide” and stands for Amide, Carboyxlic Acid, Ester, Anhydride, Ketone, Aldehyde, Acid Halide)-by
  3. Anterior Pituitary Peptide Hormones: FLAT PeG (stands for FSH, LH, ACTH, TSH, Prolactin and Growth Hormone) from

The MCAT does not have to defeat you. With a consistent study schedule, practice questions, good test-taking techniques and a positive attitude, you can conquer one of the most important exams of your life! Happy studying!


It’s Never Too Early to Get Them Interested

Today, I caught a glimpse of what it would be like to have scientific discussions with my children when they are older. And I loved it! I had been studying for the MCAT while my almost 4 year old son was out with daddy, and my daughter was sleeping soundly upstairs.

When my son and husband came back from their outing, my son waltzed up to the computer, “what are you doing mummy?”. I quickly responded, “I’m studying some physics, sweetie”.  My son’s eye then fell upon the comical “salty kracker” character that makes the Examkrackers exam prep material so fun to use. Let’s just say that my son wound up on my lap for the next hour as he asked question after question about a variety of physics diagrams and pictures that appeared on the screen. He is a book worm by nature but it was amazing to see him so fascinated at such a young age. He may not have understood most of the concepts but there was certainly a high level of enthusiasm that ended with him saying “I’m going to study physics in school mummy!”

It’s never too early to get your kids interested in science or anything else you enjoy! Make it a regular part of your week and it can be a great bonding activity with your children.

My son keeping busy with a microscope and developing a healthy interest in biology
My son keeping busy with a microscope and developing a healthy interest in biology

The Human Body

As I have been delving into various topics in Biology and Psychology while studying for the MCAT, I can’t help being reminded what an amazing thing the human body is. From intricate cells with numerous organelles each performing a specific function to the higher centers of the brain responsible for our memory and emotions to immune cells that fight off infection. I just cannot help marveling at how coordinated the functions of the body are. And it reminds me again and again of the magnificence of God’s creation. How can the lens of the eye adjust itself to focus on a distant object? How do the hair cells in our inner ear result in a signal that allows us to hear sound? How do the smells going into our nose interact with memory centers in the brain such that a simple smell can bring associated memories rushing back to us? (Remember how happy you feel when you smell something that reminds you of Grandma’s cooking or the milky scent of your baby’s clothing?) It is truly mind-boggling how complex and yet beautifully coordinated the body is.

The body is also such a powerful symbol of our society and our need for each other, just as the different parts of the body work together to create a functioning human being. The body and society do not always function as they should and there will often be differences of opinion but our lives are made more colorful by the unique people around us who continually teach us something new and help us to be better.