The hardest thing I did in 2019 was taking a graduate course on Proteomics through the Harvard Extension School (not the college). While this probably isn't a noteworthy achievement for many others, it was for me since I couldn't even have told you what a protein was a few months prior to enrolling in the course. You see, I had managed to get through school while barely cracking open a biology textbook. My little exposure to biology was limited to learning about the cell and the human body. DNA, genes, proteins were only mentioned in passing and absolutely nothing on how they're connected through the central dogma of biology.
My first real exposure to biology and genetics didn't come until a few years after college when I started working for the Broad Institute, a biomedical and genomic research center. I didn't need to know any biology as a software engineer but I did feel like I was missing something when I couldn't follow some of the lunch and learn presentations or stray conversations.
At some point, someone suggested that I take the online version of Eric Lander (our founder and at-the-time director)'s introduction to genetics course which he teaches at MIT. He structured his course chronologically and walked us through the key discoveries in genetics, starting with Mendel's discovery of the gene and ending with CRISPR. At each step of the way, he gushed over the brilliance of the scientists that advanced the field but also explained their discoveries so simply that it seemed almost obvious what the next step was. By the end of the course, I felt like I could help make that next step!
That inspiration drove me to take courses at the local Harvard Extension School using the Broad's tuition reimbursement. The first course I took was Introduction to Epidemiology and Biostatistics in summer of 2019. I enjoyed the course but it wasn't too challenging given that it was also teaching programming and statistics and there's only so much depth you can go into when covering multiple subject areas in 10 weeks.
I wanted to take a more biology focused course the following semester so I signed up for Introduction to Proteomics. I knew the course would be challenging since it asked for a series of prerequisites that I didn't have (I asked for an override) but it was still a distressing experience to sit in class and just be completely lost. I would have dropped the class but the TA and a friend helped me get through the first two problem sets which bought me enough time to learn the material by the first exam.
Thankfully, every lecture was recorded so I was able to rewatch as needed until the topics clicked. I developed a study plan where I would watch a lecture, pause every time I didn't understand something, make a note of what underlying piece of knowledge I was missing, and then resume the lecture. After, I would go over the list and learn about each time before repeating the process to generate a new and hopefully shorter list of things I needed to learn. The lists typically composed of terms that I had not heard of before or a molecular biology concept that the professor assumed we knew from the course prerequisites.
Rewatching every lecture 3-5 times took a lot of time but it worked. I received the highest midterm score in a class where every other student worked in lab or industry (I'm also sure I spent by far the most time on the class). I still had to spend a lot of time studying after the midterm but I felt a lot more at ease knowing that I had a study plan that should also work for the final. There was also less I had to learn in the later half of the course since the fundamentals I was missing in the first half were mostly the same fundamentals that were required in the second.
Spending all that time on the course hasn't had a practical pay off - it doesn't help with my job performance nor am I working towards a degree, but it's still my proudest achievement of 2019 since it proved to me that I can throw myself into the deep end of a new domain and succeed.