To my second mother

I don’t believe that “family” is best defined by blood relations – I love my mother, my grandmother, and my cousin beyond bounds, certainly, but I don’t think everyone affiliated with me by birth and marriage is sufficiently mine to carry that “family” title.

On the other hand, I don’t tend to call people my brothers and sisters lightly, either. You’re a sibling to me when we have undone all social convention together, and when I know that, regardless of where you physically are at the moment, you’re not going anywhere – Yasmin, Patrick, and Zeinab, for example.

That being said, last Saturday, I was lucky enough to celebrate the birthday of a woman who, though she isn’t family by blood, has always been my second mother.

She’s one of the bravest individuals I know, and has always been cheerful – even when she was forced to enlist in one of the biggest personal battles an individual can undergo. Coincidentally, her girls happen to be my sisters, too: the older of the two is Amanda, of whom I’ve spoken here before, and whom I’ve shared absolutely every part of life with – my home, her home, her church, my cottage, elementary and high school, cancer in both our families, relationships, financial troubles – really nearly everything. She, Esther, and Phebe, relatives by blood, grew up antagonizing one another, so I joined in and snagged little sister Esther – who grew up fast, staying smart and beautiful – and cousin Phebe (who was already relatively grown up when we met, but was and is smart and beautiful) for my own, too, haha.

Throughout all this, Ms. Martey, pictured above, has unconditionally loved and supported all three of us; I’ll leave things there and say that she looks absolutely gorgeous above, and that her appearance is not solely superficial, but also a reflection of her personality. I love her and her girls, and I hope that their lives – all four – will always be as beautiful as our mother was last Saturday.

How do you define family?
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It’s been a long time, now I’m coming back home; the typical New Year’s post

If you’re reading this at all, I applaud you and, as always, offer my apologies. I haven’t written anything here – and this is, in a sense, frightening – in over eleven months. Even more troubling is that fact that I didn’t write nearly anything at all (with the exception of academic and professional documents), via any medium, for the entirety of last year. ’13, as would befit the number’s reputation, didn’t treat me kindly: beginning well, it manoeuvred me into apathy and conflict far too quickly. For the first time, I felt my activities to be completely purposeless. There were great things about the year as a whole: I met people I truly love, I discovered whom I need within my life, and I, in delaying “the offer”, refused to succumb to a conventional path that wouldn’t have suited me. I loved my summer, too, given that I spent it teaching the MCAT free of charge, relaxing with friends, and taking classes that I routinely attended. The autumn term, however, was precisely that: a fall. Exhausted from a poorly organized year-and-summer of overloading in preparation for “the offer” (if you don’t know what I’m speaking of, all the better), I launched into another too-ambitious term (i.e., several graduate courses, one in Arabic – a language I’ve never previously learnt), and layered it with so much extra-curricular work (and med. school applications) that I struggled to keep up even in September.

I then had my share of difficult family and friend situations, some financial problems (the teaching assistantship I was to possess wasn’t made a formal position by the department in question), and a few illnesses; this – combined with living away from (albeit near to) my family for the first time – was enough to get me tired. With fatigue, our minds – to put it climatically (in both senses) – experience variably cloudy periods with gusts of despair. Our daily high is minus ten. Then come the scattered flurries of inactivity, which pile up into a soft blanket of unmet goals: so difficult to shovel away, given the lack of sunshine. Let it get to you, and you – like the season – slowly freeze.

I hit absolute zero. My grades survived (I’m surprised, given that I barely managed to contribute reasonably sound work to my courses), but my academic work began to mean nothing, and I ceased assisting people academically, professionally, and emotionally. I spent far less time than I would have liked to with those family members and friends who matter (human and otherwise). The assorted in-person and online study, professional enrichment, and support groups I created fell into inactivity. I stopped tutoring for free, and didn’t participate in anything entrepreneurial. I didn’t expose myself to nature and wildlife; I barely enjoyed the holiday season.

What happens when you hit absolute zero? To be a little too motivational: you crank up the heat, make yourself feel the burn again, and see if you can take it. With this post, I cease complaining, and do precisely that: thaw icy idleness, and proceed with everything I’ve allowed myself to fall behind on. It’s a new year, after all, and as much as that’s an arbitrarily defined change, I like the idea of beginning again.

I’ll make another to-do list, as I did in 2013 (I notice, by the way, that my tone in my post from December 31st, 2012 is considerably more optimistic than my present one – bear with me, please, I’ll be back soon). I am almost deliriously excited about the upcoming months: about resuming my position in my own life. At some point, I’ll compile a list like this summarizing my life goals: I’ve done so informally, but I intend to publish one. For the moment, 2014 will – hopefully – be defined by the following (some are taken from last year):

    • Blogging weekly! This year, it happens.
    • Reconnecting with all those friends, family members, influences, and coworkers with whom I feel I continue to celebrate the validity of love
    • Seriously segmenting casual, professional, and loving relationships: I have never previously formalized this idea. Too often, I find myself believing that an extended tutoring commitment is a friendship, else that an acquaintanceship is a more meaningful connection – I somehow believe that a person is a “close” friend if he or she is dear to me, and projects friendliness in my general direction; too often, this is not the case. This year, as much as I believe I don’t deserve much, I will seek to call “friend” only individuals who have shown themselves to love me. By this, I don’t mean that they have to consistently speak with me, praise me, or otherwise favourably interact with me – I just have to have no doubt, given their actions and words, that I matter to them as much as is possible within the realm of friendship. This sounds ambitious, but I’m incredibly fortunate to have a handful of such people around me; I’ve finally made it clear to myself that I don’t need anyone else! I realize now, actually, that I addressed a portion of this last year: “I’ve recently had experiences with friends who academically idolize me, think me emotionless, or otherwise misinterpret my behaviour and thinking.  I would like to limit the time that I spend around these people, else modify the nature of our relationships, regardless of which costs this has for both them and myself.  I will have an immense quantity of trouble doing this, but those who do not care about you truly shouldn’t claim themselves to be your close friends.”
    • Teaching my grandmother something new every week: Those of you who know my Babi are aware of the fact that she is my best friend, and that she and I have thought alike for as long as I can remember. Though she is frightfully, intuitively intelligent and inquisitive (she readily commands concepts in such specialized fields as quantum field theory if I phrase them properly), though she was hailed as an excellent accountant when she worked, and though she always wanted to travel to Canada to pursue her life, she has only completed high school – because of the Second World War, her plans for the future didn’t proceed as she would’ve liked. I nevertheless always see within her a desire to learn about everything around her; she has frequently told me  - to my utter surprise, but sheer pleasure – that I and our conversations about people, academics, and the universe at large have made her the happiest she has ever been. She is my biggest influence, has loved me more than  she has loved anyone else in her life, and is one of the people I love most. Because of all this, I want to do my very best to, in turn, give her what little I can, exposing her to some of the greatest ideas, texts, and questions I’ve come across in my limited explorations. This is the most ambitious of my yearly goals, given that I feel myself thoroughly unqualified for the task, but in pursuit of this, I will work hard
    • Taking care of family and friends: Among other things, I intend to teach my best friend’s sister English, aid friends’ parents in settling into Canadian life via job-searching and visits to interesting places, come home to spontaneously help my mother with her chores, visit my cousin at her exhausting day job, take my family out for dinner, and treat good friends to nice surprises when finances permit
    • Doing something necessary as often as I can: Generic, I’ll admit, but this isn’t put forth for warmth and fuzziness. I’ll say – perhaps a little too confidently – that I tend to empathize effortlessly with people when it comes to vital issues; in those instants, I almost always act, often without really thinking, in a way that I think is right. I was once, for example, faced with a man who was clearly without a home on the TTC; he shuffled past me as I was about to eat my Subway, stopped to look at me slowly, and, while he, bending into a slight bow, formed a gap between two long fingers to hesitantly gesture that he’d like a small piece of my sandwich, if I could allow it, he inadvertently smacked his lips. When I realized what he wanted, my hand moved to give it to him. No decision-making was involved, no consideration of the situation at hand: his open palm and water mouth were specification enough. He took the mere combination of sauce, bread, and veggies from me disbelievingly. I don’t think this indicates that I am noble, intrinsically good, or a complete moron. People frequently, I think, consider too many trivialities of situations: whether or not the person before them is addicted to illicit substances, whether half or a quarter of a sandwich is really more appropriate, whether or not the individual seated next to them on the subway is eyeing them oddly. This year, I’ve had the opportunity to avoid stigmatizing interactions: I’ve stroked the hands of, spoken reassuring medical facts to, received fatherly kisses from, and held the crying form of a poet I met on a bus whose thirteen-year-old daughter suffered an unprecedented diabetic attack. I’ve spent half an hour or more in conversation with interesting people who live on the street corners near my new residence, one of whom misses his cat like no other human I know. I’ve built trust with casual acquaintances by lending an ear when the going got tough, either academically or interpersonally. I walked two older women home and lent shelter and blankets during the ice storm. None of this may be “good” or “right” or anything else, but I feel compelled to do it all again, and more – I didn’t ever previously seek out these situations, but this year, I intend to find more need and address it
    • Doing my best to clear others of too-harsh judgements: I’ve had the misfortune of witnessing a little too much judgemental behaviour on the part of both friends and strangers this year. Watching two girls, trendily dressed, sniggering at a middle-aged woman with a distinct sense of style on the subway; hearing TTC-goers bitterly yell curses at a group of young men and women who, dressed in bright colors and laughing happily, infuriated everyone simply by singing a [very nicely harmonized] rendition of “Come Together” a bit too loudly; overhearing family members derogatorily discussing people of differing sexual orientations; reading comments from the misinformed masses proclaiming that all Muslims seek to kill and should be put to death; listening to friends condescend those from schools other than the University of Toronto, narrow-mindedly proclaiming it to be the best and most difficult university in existence while investing very little effort into succeeding at the school, and knowing nothing about other institutions; all this is just too much. I hope to, through reasoned argumentation, gently remedy such situations when they arise in future
    • Taking the time to learn: When I was young, I would spend hours just reading, practicing, and otherwise interacting with academic material. At present, I no longer do this; this year, I intend to make the time to have at least one longer, seven-hour “exploratory” session per week, and to explore academics every day for at least some time. Specifically, I intend to broadly examine one field I haven’t had much exposure to every week or so, spend two hours per day on Wikipedia, re-memorize dictionaries, read journals daily, participate in online courses, consult documentaries, and work towards certifications
    • Participating in interesting contests and assessments: MBA exams, the BAR, the USMLE, the Putnam, IPSC, hackathons, and the Titan Test, among others
    • Reading and understanding the Qur’an, the Torah, and the Bible (in that order), among others: The goal for this year is really to begin. I’m not religious, though I respect all forms of faith; I would like to be able to justify my current agnostic leanings, else embrace what I find to be truth; religion is one method of approaching truth that I haven’t previously explored. I intend to first annotate each text with my own observations, and then re-examine it in scientific, historical, and philosophical contexts
    • Auditing U. of T. courses across all my interests: I have made a spreadsheet containing all U. of T. courses that I’ve categorized under such headings as “Law”, “Health”, “Multiculturalism & Diversity”, “Language & Society”. I intend to acquire syllabi for and potentially audit some courses that I feel would enhance my perspective
    • Embracing U. of T.: I haven’t been formally involved within the University to too great an extent; I intend to remedy this via entering, creating, and leading student groups, including those concerning student politics, orchestras, vocals, equality, health, and university academics. I also intend to make better use of all the facilities that U. of T. has to offer (e.g., its libraries)
    • Exploring Toronto: I’ve lived in the city my whole life, but I haven’t seen all that it has to offer. This year, I intend to scour its restaurants, parks, Winterlicious, libraries, book stores, musical events, and all manner of other good things
    • Independently funding my education and living expenses: Quite simply, I don’t want my parents paying for my education. My scholarship takes care of that at present, but I now live alone; I want to be able to continue paying for my rent, food, and all other necessities entirely without my parents’ assistance. I will ensure, of course, that I don’t neglect other responsibilities in trying to achieve this; attaining financial independence would be optimal, as I really hated being an expense (if not a burden) in past years
    • Continually finding ways of reinventing, standardizing, and documenting my tutoring strategies: Particularly, I’d like to create standardized lesson plans, find new ways of presenting content (e.g., YouTube videos, mind-mapping, group tutoring methods), and learn to more comprehensively psychologically profile my students.  My goal in tutoring has always been to have my students enjoy their interactions with the subject at hand.  I want to ensure that I deliver
    • Improving my focus, scheduling, and organizational skills: Find ways to manage time that I haven’t previously considered, learn to better schedule my sleeping, find natural ways to stay awake and better my focus, develop a better shorthand system, ensure that I file important documents daily, keep everything written down.  I’ve a hectic term ahead of me, and I need to streamline my actions
    • Better employing the technology at my disposal: I code frequently and am generally aware of what machines can do, but I haven’t optimized my life in the context of technology. The potential of Evernote, Facebook, WordPress, my S3, and my new T440s remains far too unexplored for comfort
    • Upkeeping a 4.0 GPA: Albeit that this doesn’t in any way signal anything about intelligence or capability, retaining such an average does take a certain form of intellectual determination.  And excess work can’t injure a person, if carefully and meaningfully mediated
    • Actively running study groups for all of my university classes: I want to try to get people engaged in material using a wide variety of approaches.  I hope to run weekly or twice-weekly review sessions, personally tutor some students, post interesting related content to all of these groups, and get people interacting with one another
    • Taking a field course: I have always enjoyed field biology, and want to see how it’s practiced in formalized research groups.  If I thoroughly enjoy it, I may choose to lend ecology a greater portion of my focus, as pursuing it was – and remains – my childhood dream.  I would like to travel to Peru, or even to examine parts of Ontario in more detail. I am now also considering the Environmental Biology minor, which would take me to the National University of Singapore next year
    • Further honestly contemplating which field I wish to dedicate myself to:  I have always wandered between the sciences and the humanities, and though that research offer looms, I’m as yet uncertain as to whether I wish to specialize in physics, biology, English literature, or something entirely different.  I’m quite certain that I will never be certain, but at least temporary decisions should be made
    • Spending time daily engaging with my cat, my fish, and the dog I walk (Meowsee, Checkers, Joker, Leopard, Skunky, Specter, Tony, and Endy respectively):  These are the creatures that, in addition to some friends and family, make my life worth living.  I have not spent enough time with them in the last semester, but I fully intend to do so hereafter
    • Revising my entrepreneurial involvements:  Whilst I love my entrepreneurial work, I’d like to further specialize within entrepreneurship, and dedicate more time to those pursuits that I find most worthwhile.  This will mean vacating administrative roles and taking on advisory capacities in several initiatives that I run
    • Writing the MCAT, the LSAT (again), the GMAT, the SAT (again, possibly), more SAT IIs and APs, the GRE, another few GRE Subject Tests, and the MAT:  I’ve taken some of these tests, but need to take the LSAT again should I wish to apply to law school (mine will expire by the time I apply), and the SAT again for work purposes (some employers would like to see more recent stats)
    • Routinely attending conferences and similar academic events, as well as concerts
    • Spending more time revitalizing AMLOC:  AMLOC is a 400-person-strong applications- and enrichment-related group that I run via Facebook.  I want to frequently add people to it, run some intragroup networking exercises, and continue to try to have people care about the information they’re gaining by providing them with connections, ideas, and opportunities.
    • Routinely engaging in some form of athletics: Looks like this may well be tae-kwondo!
    • Perfecting several compositions, of both jazz and classical genres: I want to learn the last two movements of Haydn’s Concerto per il Clarino, Hob.: VII e, 1 (Trumpet Concerto in E flat major) well, and continue to learn Liszt’s TÉs, “Autumn Leaves”, Arabesque No. 1,
    • Revising my physical appearance: I’d like to find clothing for certain inevitable occasions which I can feel thoroughly comfortable wearing.  I don’t currently enjoy my physical appearance, and I don’t think that I will ever be able to, but I hope to at least find items that I can like wearing.
    • Visiting or revisiting the following restaurants: Gryfe’s Bagels, Sansotei Ramen, Okonomi House, Manpuku Japanese, Khao San Road, Scaramouche, Canoe, Guu Izakaya, Zucca Trattoria, Pastis, Karine’s Vegetarian, Grand Electric, an amazing food truck, Solo Sushi Ya, Wow! Sushi, Zen Japanese, Buca, K & K Specialty, assorted Pacific mall locations, the restaurants surrounding 半亩园, Ici Bistro, Estiatorio VOLOS, Japango, Korean Village Restaurant, Sukho Thai, Sotto Sotto, Mengrai Gourmet Thai, Trimurti Indian Cuisine, Black Hoof, Fabarnak, Splendido, Ruby Watchco, Buk Chang Dong Soon Tofu, Seor Ak San, Latinada Tapas Restaurant, Jean’s Vegetarian Kitchen, Sidecar, Polka, Fabian’s Café, Sidecar, The Stockyards, Banh Mi Boys, Pho Tien Thanh, Hibiscus, Jule’s Bistro, Lola’s Kitchen, Sneaky Dee’s, The Hogtown Vegan, Southern Accent Restaurant, Junction Eatery, Black Camel, Smoke’s, Adega Restaurante, Pizzeria Libretto, Yuzu, Guu SakaBar, Etsu, XFY, Gio Rana’s Really Really Nice Restaurant, Chococrêpe, the small Vietnamese place near my home, The Salad House, Magic Oven, Cheesewerks, Lamesa Filipino Kitchen, Scheffler’s Delicatessen, Caplansky’s Delicatessen, Delux, Hair of the Dog, Crêpes à GoGo, Keriwa Cafe, The Burger’s Priest, Sin and Redemption, The Monk’s Table, Café Polonez, Rio 40 Restaurant, WaffleBar, Barque Smokehouse, Chako Barbecue Izakaya, Chatime, El Almacen Yerba Mate Café, David’s Teas, One Hour Cafeteria, Life is Sweet, Bakerbots Baking, T&T Supermarket, St. Lawrence Market, Fratelli’s, La Palette, Bonjour Brioche, Velouté Bistro, Asian Legend, Sakura, Hashimoto, Sushi Kaji, Lai Wah Heen, Enoteca Sociale, Lee, Ursa, Actinolite, Local Kitchen & Wine Bar, Modus Ristorante, 7 Numbers, Nota Bene, Chiado, Bymark, Mandalay, Grand Chinese Restaurant, Golden Turtle, Celestin, Origin, Frida, La Palette, Ba Shu Ren Jia, Tofu Village, Pizza Pide, Obika Mozzarella Bar, and more.
    • Furthering and making more official my language qualifications:  Placement tests, standardized subject-specific language testing, short-term programs, anything.  I’ve spent an abundance of time learning approximately fourteen languages, nine of them relatively well, so I want to attempt to formalize my studies.
    • During the summer, light-sheeting daily, visiting the cottage, and interacting with flora and fauna!
    • Reminding myself of my sources of motivation: I’ve currently a folder marked “Happiness” on my desktop, haha.  I want to fill it with good things, and continually visit it, else create a book with its contents that I may carry around.
    • Completing assorted small projects, many of which have previously been described here:  Improving U. of T. first years’ experiences with ROSI, writing a detailed guidebook to first year, creating an audio-modulated SSTC, the area theorem problem, founding the U. of T. Foreign Languages and Computer Clubs, assorted Spivak and Milnor solution manuals, A Non-Science Major’s Introduction to QFT, da Vinci backwards script, Lewin lines, Greek tutoring, the Chinese project, analyzing attributive adjective ordering via some computer science, rereading 四大名著, a page-by-page analysis of Heart of Darkness, the first of a set of texts geared at explaining fundamental concepts of English grammar in the readers’ languages, log everything that I observe and describe it all strictly scientifically, and more
    • Attempting to acquire more research internships: I may be heading to CERN and San Francisco later this year, but I’m interested in exploring my options
    • Working towards the Rhodes, the Thiel (potentially), and Top 20 Under 20
    • Seeking employment under one or more of the following: Next Step Test Prep., Oxford Seminars, the Oxford University Press, Microsoft, CERN, NEMALOAD, the ROM, Khan Academy, Sunnybrook, Sick Kids, et cetera
    • Revitalizing and founding two charities: Teach Me Free (formerly Top Tutors), which will seek to provide online and in-person education free of charge in a range of innovative ways, and a new initiative I’ve in mind that will seek to expose young children to the wonders of the natural world through university-student-guided field trips through parks and green spaces in the Toronto area
    • Founding, with my best friend, a business geared at offering low-cost MCAT prep., academic advising, tutoring, and more via video in a range of languages and teaching styles (nebulous, but will define itself soon)

And that, for now, is all! You can expect to hear from me tomorrow: despite my having lacked productivity in 2013, I was not entirely devoid of thoughts; I have things I want to address. Happy 2014!

Posted in On Life | 1 Comment

A snapshot from the holidays

WoodsWatching my lovely, dark, and not-so-deep woods fill up with snow.  I prefer outdoor Christmas trees!

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Exam review tips

Those who read yesterday’s brief ramble will know that I’m mid-mid-term season; it’s Reading Week, and over the course of the past few days, I’ve been running group cram sessions and organizing my thoughts where my upcoming eight assessments are concerned.  Through all of this preparation (most of which I don’t typically effect, though I should – I’m putting pressure on myself this time around because all of these assessments are occurring near-consecutively), I’ve begun thinking about the assortment of ways in which one can work to prepare for tests both standarized and course-specific.

The below, then, is a brief list of things that I and those people I occasionally help out have found useful during prep. time; it isn’t at all extravagant, but some individuals I know claim that these suggestions have worked for them, so I figured I’d post.

N.b.:  Some of these may appear to cater to less-than-praiseworthy modes of thought.  It may seem that I’m encouraging you to objectify your learning by suggesting that you study with material rewards in mind.  As someone deeply in love with academia, I understand that this is not optimal.  However, I think we all have those days on which, for one reason or another, we just don’t want to keep going.  At those times, which so often occur when pressure starts building around us, the short-term goal lies not in reshaping our thoughts, but in building enough motivation, however we may come by it, to execute useful actions.  This list is designed to help you do that.

  • Log on to, and get a realistic glimpse of the rewards you could gain if you do well.  Set your profile information to include your current average, and do a scholarship search.  Then, set it to include the average you want to achieve, and search again.  Note the difference, and you should feel some excess incentive to continue studying.
  • Picture yourself on stage, winning a high distinction in your field.  Allow yourself to daydream: think about what you’d say in your acceptance speech, whom you’d thank, whom you’d want to see in the audience.  This should grant you some form of a rush; then, convince yourself that the first step lies in completing what’s in front of you.
  • If you’re a performer (e.g., an actor, a vocalist, an instrumentalist), or if you participate in athletics, draw the necessary parallels!  How nervous would you be if you began rehearsing your lines the night before a performance, first touched your RCM pieces a week before you needed to perform them, or started training two days before a game after a month-long pause?  Though these things and exams aren’t entirely interchangeable in terms of prep. time, the idea holds.
  • Make chains of opportunity, and identify individual links.  Write out your long-term or short-term goals, research them, and draw out flowchart-esque diagrams showing you what you’ll need to do to attain them.  For example, do you really want to go into software engineering?  If so, perhaps a Microsoft scholarship would be of use to you.  But you need a 3.0/4.0 cGPA to even be considered.  So, maybe scoring high on your seemingly unrelated, rapidly-approaching thirty-percent midterm really is worth the study time.  Want to do genetics research?  Networking and prior experience are certainly helpful, but they sometimes may not suffice: you may, for example, be told that you nevertheless need at least a B+ in a relevant lab course, and an A- cGPA.
  • If you know that you need to review, but you understand most of your material so well that you’re severely disinterested in going through the details, teach a friend!  This person will profit from your knowledge, and you’ll be manipulating the material in a new way that demands your focus.
  • Every time you see something you don’t understand, learn it!  People often avoid the segment on the lecture slide that they can’t comprehend, marking it down for “later review”.  Don’t!  Browse the Internet, go through your textbook, or ask a friend, but do so right away.
  • Look for puns, make your own mnemonics, and create bad jokes.  Since I wrote that strange summation of Renaissance-period love poetry to the tune of Haddaway’s “What is Love”, I haven’t been able to forget those references.  The entirety of our third-year physiology class laughed at Janice’s saying that “Rh- doesn’t want the D”, in reference to RhD hemolytic disease of the newborn, and far fewer people have forgotten the nature of the alloimmune condition since she posted the meme-esque joke.
  • Make a project of your studies – write an informative blog post, make sample question sets, create a test review guide and send it to friends, or organize a group study session.  All this things will, assuming that you announce your intent to create them ahead of time, keep you engaging in detailed review of your material well in advance of your tests.
  • Familiar with higher-level material (e.g., related research), and quick to go on tangents?  Allow yourself to browse interesting, slightly-material-relevant tidbits.  Going through your physiology notes, you see that angiotensin II is of relevance to vasoconstriction.  Bored of reading about its effects on a healthy cardiovascular system?  If you’re a neuroscience person, go on Wikipedia and compare angiotensin’s neural effects to the ones you just learnt about.  More into the biochemistry of things?  Look through your textbook for the mechanisms behind cardiac cell growth stimulation’s activating a renin-angiotensin system in the cardiac myocyte.  Really into developmental physiology?  Find papers comparing maternal and fetal systems!  Though this may seem counter-productive, it may be useful if you’re the kind of person who likes making broad connections, and who is willing to spend several hours interacting with the material.  If this is you, you might just remember that angiotensin II does something where cardio is concerned because you know it does something else in the nervous system.  And you may even find that your “tangents” aid you in understanding phenomena in the pages ahead of you.
  • Struggling to finish reading something boring?  Go through different, harder material.  CS person, but stuck taking an intermediate course that you could pass without really studying?  If you feel you want some review that you just can’t force yourself to do, and you’ve always effortlessly excelled where computer science is concerned, ask yourself – how’s your Latin?  Go through those declensions you’ve never touched, spend a few minutes translating a piece of writing, or try getting through a linguistics puzzle.  It’s quite possible that you’ll end up being grateful that C++ is the only thing you have to write in for marks.
  • Write down a particularly complicated paragraph’s main point after just one read-through.  You’ll figure out what you’re forgetting; often, the fact that you see you haven’t noted down something vital once prompts you to recall it when the same subject comes up later.
  • Make connections – every time you see an allusion to a previous lecture’s contents, go back and find the reference, then try to see if the two instances of the concept are at all related.  This can help you prepare for short- or long-answer tests, which frequently demand that you use all kinds of knowledge and connect it fluidly.
  • Always prone to want to study for the exam after this one?  Tempted to review that “worthless” lecture you know so well?  Do so!  Understandably, if you’re a day away from the mid-term for which you should be studying, this is a bad call.  Stimulating your thought process is, though, better than logging on to Facebook when you feel yourself giving in to distraction.  Spend a few minutes reviewing for your easy linguistics exam if you really feel like doing so, or look through that first easy lecture in your fourth-year continuum mechanics course, and then jump back to the sixth.  You’ll at least have continued problem-solving of some sort in the time you took to divert yourself.

Though you may well already use these, I thought I’d note them down.  And with this being done, I’m off to examine more PSL470!

Posted in Standardized Testing | 3 Comments

Of motivation and mid-terms

Several years after having firmly convinced myself that love for one’s subject is the only important thing where studying is concerned, that I’ve no fascination with competition, and that I’m no longer a gamer, I sit here with an unusually elevated heart rate and a familiar form of highly motivational hunger.

For the first time in so long, purely because of a conveniently-placed piece of advertising, I can kinaesthetically image the competitive edge – that rush that comes with, in video games, beating a level after learning precisely how to take advantage of that hidden spot implemented by the game’s developer; the superficial satisfaction that comes with striding out of an examination several minutes early, knowing that almost every answer you’ve given is indisputably correct; the command of and race against your mind that is calmly, confidently, flawlessly memorizing, manipulating, and reproducing every piece of content that can possibly present itself on an assessment.

Performance on tests doesn’t indicate intelligence, understanding of material, or practical capability, necessarily, but it takes a particular, knowledge-based, carefully cultivated precision to consistently obtain near-perfect scores on difficult examinations. You can only acquire this through being truly, diligently, unconditionally ready for whatever comes. Preparing yourself in this manner may take hours, to be sure. But those hours pass quickly, because you’re not struggling through your fourth PSL470 lecture, hoping it’ll end – you’re rapidly scribbling down every single detail of this blasted placental physiology so you can hundred-percent that thing! When you don’t understand a concept, you’re not Googling so that you can barely, maybe pass your mid-term by just half-grasping the main idea – you’re browsing so that you can recite the function of the last, “never-going-to-be-on-the-test” factor on that lecture slide – so that you can easily, intelligently spew things you’re not even required to know, and use them to supplement that last short-answer question! Going through practice questions becomes less and less painless, not because you’re getting lucky after a couple of hours of last-minute cramming at three in the morning, but because it’s a week before your test, you’ve already covered everything, and you’ve all the time in the world – well, almost – to adapt to the testing style that you’ll be facing next week.

And after the first hour of that three-hour exam, when you’re one question away from having confidently finished the test, having written non-stop, and you know exactly what to put down in that last, three-word blank, know precisely what you want to say in response to a question that others won’t even touch for another two hours?  You feel like you’re flying.

With mid-terms looming, and eight assessments awaiting me, I had begun to feel thoroughly fearful earlier tonight.

It was then that I was seized with the sudden will to deposit every aspect of my remaining energy not only into writing my PSL470 mid-term, but into writing it as no one has written any such test before. In learning everything for it a week prior so that complex, time-sensitive questions will look like the fundamentals of some long-ago-mastered grammar on test day. Suddenly, everything is a game – every minute of sleep seems like it’s preventing me from the satisfaction of visibly nearing that last deliciously tricky end segment. Other work is an unwelcome distraction, because if I’m doing it, I’m not puzzling through a detail that could mean the difference between euphorically sprinting past a final intellectual obstacle and tripping over something stupid.

Life-long learning is a dedicated, laborious love, to be sure – not to be pursued for this kind of a rush. But mid-term season?  That’s just a game. And every assessment undertaken?  Just another one-trick boss: impenetrable if you’ve no clue what you’re doing, but easily reducible if you’ve got the skills and knowledge to defeat it.

Only here, there are no demos, and this is p2p.

So first, RTFM. Then, hone your tacs, expand your bases, build your strat. If it works for you, join a clan.

Whatever you do, don’t be a n00b. Be a ninja. Rush that thing, and pwn hard!


In other words, for those familiar with デスノート:

Posted in On Life | 2 Comments

What is love?

Looking for a readily understood, greatly simplified paraphrase of love-related ideas present in Renaissance poetry? Set the period to the tune of “What is Love?”, and modify a few words!

“What is love?” (Dante to Virgil, Canto XVIII, Inferno)

“Oh baby you’ve hurt me, don’t hurt me no more.” (Cavalcanti, Voi che per gli occhi mi passaste il core)

“Oh, I don’t know why you’re not there.” (da Pistoia, Come non è con voi a questa festa)

“I give you my love, but you don’t care.” (Cavalcanti, Sonnet IX)

“So what is right and what is wrong?” (Dante, Canto XVIII, Inferno)

“I’ve been given three signs!” (Dante in essentially all of Vita nuova)

This is what I shamelessly produce when I’m sick, tired, and mid-Developmental Cardiology review.  That can’t mean anything good.

Posted in Amusements, Language | 1 Comment

Study group ideas

As I mentioned in my New Year’s post, I’m running about seven U. of T. study groups this semester.  Each of these has multiple in-person meet-up sessions weekly; most communication within them occurs via Facebook. All of them are rapidly gaining members; I’ve over 200 in one, and considerably fewer in all of the others, but expect minimally forty or fifty people in most of them.

Some of the people within these groups have previously been tutored by me, or are seeking guidance; some of these people are strangers; I know some, and am aware that they are very highly motivated and qualified. Many of these groups are, not surprisingly, science study groups. Regrettably, through sitting in on several life science courses, I’ve noticed that some people present don’t try to actively interact with their material: they simply swallow, regurgitate, and do their best to sit tests well. I haven’t seen too many people answering peers’ questions, or aiding one another, or even learning related content in advance. It’s the “pre-med keener” phenomenon that a lot of people describe, and it is not something I like witnessing, as a person with bio-related experience and, possibly, med-relevant future plans. Whilst I’m certain this form of thought is not as widely spread as it appears, I’d like to encourage people to avoid some aspects of this mentality – those that make you think your grade and not your level of understanding is the only important thing.  At least within the confines of these groups, all of which I’m leading on my own, I’d like to promote interaction, understanding, and enjoyment.

Thus far, here are the ways in which – loosely – I intend to do this:


  • Getting people to introduce themselves via some amusing medium (e.g., a not-too-serious questionnaire)
  • Having people alternate in posting readings.  A friend suggested this, and I think having a different person summarize each chapter of a given text will be very useful.  This will, hopefully, encourage each person to flex his or her reading skills at least once; it will also ensure that if my presentation style doesn’t work for most of those present, we can find one that does.
  • Occasionally polling people for their opinions on the group, themselves, the course, and everything in between.  
  • Setting up presentation schedules:  Having a certain person present a certain lecture, for example.  Of course, no one will be forced to do this, but if anyone’s interested, the option will be made available.
  • Text-message-based question answering: I’ll provide my telephone number for quick course-related consultation; people who prefer texting can contact me via this medium.
  • Mailing list:  Some people don’t utilize Facebook.  I will use course mailing lists to contact them, and will thereafter text them weekly to inform them of upcoming study group events.


  • Scheduling in-person review events at least twice weekly at our university’s libraries
  • Routinely recording and posting lecture audio (for those classes in which the instructors allow such things)
  • Writing lecture notes for every lecture, but comparatively crazy ones.  I firmly believe in the validity of productive distractions, example-rich text, and learning through asking questions. I would aim to include all of this within each set of notes:
      • Interesting facts and examples: I’ve always found it easiest to internalize information that presented itself alongside captivated little facts.  How pleasant it is to learn about the origins of the Roaring Forties when one can simultaneously read about Diomedea exulans’ unbelievable journeys!
      • In-depth ecological or molecular explanations (for biology courses):  When I study molecular physiology, I often find myself beginning to drift towards the “Why?” questions ecology so readily answers.  Conversely, when I’m observing natural phenomena via ecology, I often find myself asking how certain interactions come about – by what molecular basis they are driven.  Making connections between molecular, ecological, and developmental situations can prove very useful to acquiring multifaceted understanding within bio.
      • Chapter summaries in question form:  I find that seeking to create and answer my own questions prior to a test drastically aids me in comprehending course material.  I will be summarizing readings in question form – in other words, I’ll create sets of questions encompassing the content of each chapter.  My fellow students can then read these, attempt to answer them, and compare their answers with mine (which will be provided).  This, I think, will encourage active review.
      • A whole lot of Latin and Greek:  I’ve always used etymology to explain concepts.  I find it’s a lot easier to know what Methanothermobacter does if you can break down its name.
      • Bad puns:  I tend to make dreadful content-related jokes; these usually disgust people sufficiently to foster memorization, haha.
      • Visual aids (e.g., mind maps, intricate diagrams):  Some people greatly enjoy these.
      • Inserting notes under corresponding lecture slides: I find that affixing notes to slides aids my tutoring students in understand what’s going on, so I will seek to apply this here, too.
  • Making unit summations in essay or paragraph form: Some people learn better by reading material in a format that just flows.  I’ll try to condense important concepts into brief short-answer responses.  These could also prove useful should anyone have to resort to heavy cramming (which is typically detail-light and core-concept-heavy)
  • Study tips (e.g., natural ways of staying awake, exam tips that have worked for me)
  • Offering free, personalized tutoring via Top Tutors.
  • Course Question of the Day: Recommended by a friend!  A daily question summarizing course content currently being explored.  Though I’d previously realized how effective this is, I never thought to implement it.
  • Notes from office hours and review meet-ups: If we as a group have some form of question at a review meet-up, I’ll later post my response to it, doing added research if necessary; if our professors discuss something useful during office hours, I will also summarize it via the group.
  • Explanations of multimedia presented in class: Sometimes, an interesting video is shown, but it progresses so rapidly that we can’t understand it.  I’ll try to narrate some media, or otherwise break it down.
  • Assignment, test, and lab solutions and explanations (again, only when permitted by professors): Often times, midterms, assignments, and labs come back to students without clarification.  I would like to try to explain confusing solutions, if I can.
  • Peer editing:  I’ve edited people’s work for many years, so I will offer this free – albeit not particularly useful – service to my classmates, too.


  • Bio-, physics-, literature-, linguistics-, or cognitive science-related news and ideas (e.g., the progress of assorted biotech groups, information in certain journals).  Introducing contemporary connections to the material we examine can foster interest.
  • Summations of debates that routinely occur in some of these fields (e.g., assorted issues in mental health care, the compassion-ration debate in medicine, major theories in Shakespeare studies).  Dealing with higher-level, highly thought-provoking content may encourage people to really take in other facets of the field.
  • Information about conferences and events: All too frequently, people miss out on captivating discussion and idea-sharing because they aren’t informed.  I run several other informational initiatives.
  • Inviting people with previous experience to discuss opportunities with the group, and aid in course assessment preparation: I’ve the good fortune of knowing many senior students and researchers; perhaps having some of them discuss their work or present their thoughts about last year’s midterm examination could benefit current students.
  • MCAT, LSAT, and GRE training sessions, for those relevantly aimed: I’ve sat the LSAT, and will soon having finished the other two.  Older friends could also provide assistance.
  • Leading career-related discussions: Perhaps encouraging people to jointly explore a career a month or something to that effect, and having successful individuals come in to discuss their progress.
  • Introducing students to research and shadowing, and aiding them in working towards placements.  As a relatively young student who has gotten the opportunity to function in both of these situations, I would like to help others figure out how to claim and succeed within placements.
  • Interesting problem sets that relate to course content (e.g., Olympiad linguistics puzzles for LIN100): For those who want excess challenges.

That’s all I can think of, for the moment.  I’m uncertain as to how effective most of these attempts will be, but I want to try my best to foster enthusiastic, useful group learning.  Doing so will be quite the project, and I’m not sure how successful I will be in promoting what I’ve described above, but I’m more than minutely excited for the moment.

What would you seek to include in the structure of a university study group?

Posted in My Projects, University Admissions and Professional Life | 1 Comment