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Secondary — The Mill

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Hello Everyone!

Secondaries is all about finding a balance between rushing and completion. You have a strict time limit (longer than displayed in this picture), if you wait too long the platform you’re comfortably standing on will disappear, you’ll have to parley obstacles into success. P.S. don’t sue me Nintendo!

So, you’ve gone and done it now — you decided to apply to medical school. You’ve have/or you will put in your primary application early, right? Right?  And now’s a good time as ever to consider the secondary application period. To orientate you:

  1. Primary applications – due early June (changes slightly year to year)
  2. Secondary applications – due early July – end of application period (varies by school, in general get them back within 2 weeks of reception)
  3. Interview(s) – early September until spring of the next year

*the dates are dynamic, keep track of your year.

What’s the benefit of hammering out the secondary early?

If you put in your primary early, you’ll have about a month or so to work on secondary essay drafts. The caveat here is that you won’t actually have received any secondaries by the time you ought to be drafting them — talk about cognitive dissonance, eh? So, what’s the trick here? Well, the secret is to know what to expect. Case in point, because I already knew what to expect I already had drafts to use for secondaries completed in May (because my PS was pretty much finalized by the beginning of May). This meant that I was able to respond to some secondary applications within days of reception, this seemed to have worked out, I was offered one interview less than a week after sending in my secondary in July. Thus, by the time I was working on more secondaries, I had landed several interviews already — this saved me some pesos because I was able to rescind my interests in some secondary applications, therefore saving several hundred dollars.

How long are the prompts?

Unlike the primary, you will respond to each school individually. This also means that each program will have their own prompts, and character limits. In general though, they range from several hundred characters (a fat paragraph) to “write as much as you’d like” 10,000 characters. In general, the less characters per entry the more prompts you’d expect to receive, the vice versa is true as well. I did secondaries somewhere in the teens, with the exception of one school, all of them had multiple short entries (i.e. 6-8 entries). Some of them have an optional entry as well, interestingly, I skipped the optional entry for BU because I couldn’t think of anything worth writing that I hadn’t already covered without being redundant — it worked out.

You’ll also probably find that you’ll have various versions of the same essay, the only difference will be the character count (i.e. short, medium, long entries). The short entries are much harder to write in my opinion, because they should contain a lot of bang for the buck, it’s easy to blabber on and on with a long entry. But, with that said, never blabber on and on.

What types of things do the prompts ask?

In general, the prompts asks for more clarification of things you probably already have briefly touched on during the primary application. The important thing to understand is that, while each school does generate their own secondary, after you do enough of them, you’ll find that you probably have already hashed out 1/2 or 2/3 of the entries, because you already have something drafted similar. Here’s a good link from, they profile the Johns Hopkins secondary prompts from 2013.

Bank these prompts, go search the school you’re applying to for more secondaries. It may astonish you, but most schools are rather transparent about giving away their past secondary essay prompts — believe it or not, they don’t want the process to be the reason you don’t get in!

Do’s and Don’ts 

- Don’t shoehorn a secondary from another program into the secondary you’re applying to. Follow their prompt to the T, if you don’t answer every clause in their prompt then you’ve failed to answer the prompt. Likewise, answering a question that had nothing to do with the prompt is a dead give away that you’re recycling.

- Do customize each secondary, so that any traces of “general answer” is stricken away. Have a friend re-read your secondary, to make sure you don’t slip in the wrong information from another school. Everyone borrows from their other drafts/prompts, it’s pretty accepted, and well expected. But, do make the effort so pretend like that was your only time ever answering that question.

- Don’t let the quality drop too much from the primary to secondary — it’s easy to turn in a great primary, you have all the time in the world. A good secondary is rushed, but should still feel complete. Don’t try to write a Pulitzer Prize entry, but if your writing quality drops too much they may wonder who wrote your primary entries.

- Do attempt to be somewhat consistent in your writing quality.

- Don’t return a secondary late, it shows your lack of comparative interest in their program.

- Do return a secondary within 1-2 weeks of reception, just make sure it’s quality.

- Don’t turn in a secondary without proofreading — you’ll mess up anyways, but you’ll feel a little better.

Well, thanks for having me! And you can find me on twitter at @masterofsleep 


Thanks for Reading

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Hello All,

First, I like to thank you all for taking the time to read my blog. Because of supportive readers, like yourself, I’ve been able to reach out to 56 countries (and territories).

56 countries

The Country List in No Particular Order

United States, Canada, Japan, United Kingdom, Germany, Lebanon, Israel, Australia, Russian Federation, Pakistan, Singapore, Netherlands, Slovakia, Puerto Rico, Finland, Indonesia, Mexico, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Republic of Korea, Ghana, Malaysia, Italy, India, Romania, Sweden, Qatar, Hong Kong, Ireland, France, Switzerland, Taiwan, Norway, New Zealand, Nigeria, Kuwait, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, Barbados, Austria, Cambodia, Bosnia and Herzegovina Guinea, Bangladesh, Serbia, Mauritius, Oman, Viet Nam, Thailand, Guatemala, Poland, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Nepal, Guyana, Dominica, and last but not least Bulgaria.

A 1/5th of my readers are reading from abroad. I can’t emphasize how rewarding it is to know that in the tumultuous world of global politics, the one unifying element is an international goal to become a doctor. Best of wishes to all my readers across the world, and across borders and IP addresses. One day, I hope we can all hang out for a massive medical conference, followed up by lots of partying =).



Three Things Age Has Taught Me as a Premed

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Well, I had a pretty big goal: get into medical school by a certain age. Check. My birthday isn’t today, it’s actually on April 29th, but like many people once the Earth as revolved around the sun another time since my birth I’m reflecting on all the things I’ve learned until now. Here are some things I’ve learned from college, work, and life in general:

1. Clever people don’t always have clever ideas, so it’s okay to ignore them sometimes.


Socrates thought writing stuff down was a horrible idea, and would lead to the downfall of critical thinking.

“He who thinks, then, that he has left behind him any art in writing, and he who receives it in the belief that anything in writing will be clear and certain, would be an utterly simple person, and in truth ignorant of the prophecy of Ammon, if he thinks written words are of any use except to remind him who knows the matter about which they are written.” – Plato, Phaedrus 274

Fortunately for Socrates, it’s not like our entire world has since been interconnected through text or anything, right? Oh wait, no, it is. He was much more in favor or standing around in togas and “duking” it out through verbal reasoning alone (no relation to the infamous VR section). While he didn’t deserve the hemlock death sentence for asking individuals to “consider if religion is really for them”, but  if alive today he would be stoned to death by online commentators for his lack of forethought. Luckily, he’d likely not read any of the viscous comments, as he was a curmudgeon about written arguments. As a premed, its okay to take advice from mentors, and people you look up to. However, there’s always a caveat, even the great people you may look up to may occasionally be wrong. But, don’t just seek out an opinion that is congruent with yours, just be aware that sometimes authority figures aren’t authoritative about everything under the sun.

2. What’s important to you may not be important to everyone.  

This isn't an actual quote, but I'm sure he'd say it now if alive.
This isn’t an actual quote, but I’m sure he’d say it now if alive.

It’s thought that Issac Newton likely died a virgin, so don’t feel bad for how productive you are not likely to be in comparison. Perhaps, Newton was able to re-direct his libido into tracking heavenly bodies, perhaps use terms like fluxions (derivatives) doesn’t make great pillow talk — we will never know. But, what we do know is that he likely died knowing he was going to be a legend after single handed-ly writing a treatise on calculus, infuriating his rival Hooke (ala Hooke’s Law guy), and revealing the inverse square law of gravity keeping the heavens strung up in the ether. 

People often find that premeds and medstudents are asocial, as a premed I was even asked in so many words “If wasting my life learning is worth it”. But, sometimes the ends justify the means. As future doctors, the lion share of us won’t be individually remembered by history, nor acknowledged, our legacy will be swept away with the passage of time like dust in a tornado. But, what will remain will be our contribution to society, because each person we help may be the future Carl Sagan, Newton, Maxwell, or Rosalind Franklin. Maybe, that kid you’ll help in your clerkship will be inspired by you to get into medical school, or another service career. As members of the medical society, our legacy isn’t tied to our fleeting mortal success, but the success of the society that we attempt to better.  Statistically, it’s not likely that I’ll save the next Feynman (post atomic bomb), but I’m optimistic with my investment.

3. Being right doesn’t necessarily translate into success — you’ll also have to make the right decisions.


The rat’s nest of wires you see in the picture above is a drawing of the old system direct current (DC) power line system invented by Thomas Edison. Nikolai Tesla, a former disgruntled employee of Edison created another form of power  transmittance, called alternating current (AC). Edison tried in vain to discredit Tesla, such as electrocuting elephants and prisoners to death (Edison created the firs electric chair, just for this purpose) to show how deadly AC power could be. It was all a marketing ploy, a failed marking ploy because unless you’re using a battery right now, all the power to your house is most likely  delivered through AC current. Tesla, ideas gave the once shingling-less immigrant into a man with an extremely heavy purse, but unlike Edison he decided to give his patent away to the people, as he assumed he’d make the money back later anyways from other ideas. Investors were turned off by his “mad scientist” mannerisms, and well utter lack of written work (other than patent records), he was also reportedly inarticulate about explaining his research to both investors and his lab assistance — a poorly maintained lab book may of been his downfall. He never enjoyed this repeated success, that is until post-humorously; he died alone, destitute and forgotten in a motel room. 

What Tesla had in ingenuity he lacked in understanding the harshness of reality. Don’t be too idealistic, know when to run with an idea, and when to receive credit (and how to document your work). If you work in a research lab, religiously record your own data, it’s not unusual for lab students to use your data (or literature review, pilot study, SOP etc) without credit in publication and/or presentations. In fact, in academia the fatal flaw of teamwork is the tendency for some members of the team to abscond away with others ideas and claim them as their own. Do not at any time believe you’ll receive credit just because you technically did the work. In my job in the office of research, I often see cases where students are coerced into giving up credit for their own work to help the “group”. It’s great to be a team player, but always get a receipt for your contribution. If you’re in a coercive lab, or one that runs with your ideas without due credit, it may be time to pull a Tesla and leave the group and do your own thing.

A birthday doesn’t really mean all that much besides marking the passage of time, but sometimes it’s nice to stop and take stock of your life, your decisions and your mode of operation. The lessons I’ve learned so far are pretty useful for me: its okay to do your own thing even when others don’t agree (sometimes), your own values are the values that matter, and good ideas fizzle out if not done right. And of course, you have to be your own advocate. Though, I’m sure I’ll be adding a few more lessons after medical school is over, and again as resident, then continually as an attending.

Thanks  for reading, follow me on twitter @masterofsleep


Framing Your Narrative

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Be compelling with your narrative.
Be compelling with your narrative.

We live in the age of propaganda. Oh, few words have had their image tarnished like the word propaganda. In the 19th century, propaganda became affiliated misinformation, even to the extent of libel and slander, often to influence others into nefarious activities they wouldn’t of engaged in otherwise if the “whole truth” was known to them. However, the word actually stems from Latin, and it neutrally means “to spread“. We probably would recognize the word better as “to propagate” (e.g. the action potential propagates via..). It suddenly takes on a hint of positivism, well, all depending on what you’re propagating. And, premeds are charged with writing one of the best propaganda campaigns in their career, their personal statement. I assume, that you are possibly like me, okay with science but a little on the weak side when it comes to the touchy-feely part of life.  The AMCAS requires these icky things called “feelings”. There was probably never a time in a premed’s career (except breadth courses perhaps) that how they felt, or expressing how they felt, ever mattered or was considered a valid answer. In fact, we are taught to be objective in our manner, steadfast in seeking absolutes, while discarding the subjective as meaningless — after all, if something is a different color just depending on the angle viewed, what’s the point of arguing about what color that object is? It’s all relative. Though, a qualification of my whole argument there is you’re just as inept as I am at expressing myself. But, sharing my thought process and I strung my personal statement (narrative) together, maybe this post will help you.

As you may already know, I sometimes offer to read applicants personal statements and make critiques. Most personal statements have great content, or have the potential to be great.  Some are written better than others, as it’s reasonable to expect.  So, when I read premed’s personal statements, their “argument” for being accepted into medical school, the personal statement, often usually a series of stacked explicit cliche premises: compassion, passion, lifelong learning, diligence. A superposition of valid premises neither the less — though, it often comes off as a check-list of accomplishments. Often I feel, the problem is not that they don’t have a good story, it’s rather that they haven’t considered their narrative. A lot of applicants have exceptional stories, but poor narratives.

  1. Narrative
    a spoken or written account of connected events; a story.
    “the hero of his modest narrative”
    synonyms: accountchroniclehistorydescriptionrecordreportstory More

       2. Story
  1. an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.
    “an adventure story”
    synonyms: talenarrativeaccountanecdoteMore

Framing the story with the Narrative – Being a Puppet Master

One thing all premeds need to realize is that, on paper all applicants are pretty have identical premises for admission: good scores, medical & non-medical volunteering, interested in helping people, appreciate the ability to learn, and possibly have conducted research and/or various types of leadership positions. Therefore, simply rehashing your statistics and achievements isn’t really a maximal use of the personal statement in my opinion. Now, don’t let me mislead you — there is an importance in using the typical premises albeit in a nuanced manner. The only problem arises when applicants think retelling their story for the personal statement constitutes a “personal” statement. Instead, applicants would do better to structure a narrative, and string together their story to support “their narrative”. There is a time and a place to leave things up to interpretation, a story’s significance is often left to interpretation, whereas the narrative is typically more concrete.  Now, if the reader agrees with the narrative or not is another issue, this will depend on if the story (anecdotes) presented cogent arguments to sway the reader in favor of the author’s position. Of course, you could decide to get artsy and leave the narrative ambiguous, also known in theater/screenplay circles as the Rashomon Effect, but in this type of writing I’d advise against it. A good narrative doesn’t strong-arm, nor coerce the reader into conformity; instead, a good narrative will help to orientate the reader around the premises. And with any luck, the reader and the author end up with the same conclusion.

Building the Bridge from Dreams and Goals — Let’s start with how it ends.

What exactly is your goal — is it just to get into medical school? It may seem like a rhetorical question, I mean, why would you apply if you didn’t want to get in? But, consider it for a second. On your goals, do the curtains drop once you’ve posed selfies on white coat day? Not very likely. You probably want to do well in medical school, clerkship, residency, into attending. Yes, let’s just assume you’re 10-15 years in the future, and practicing medicine and helping new residents. Now, look at your personal statement, and ask yourself do your premises for your acceptance congruent with your picturesque ending? If you think about it, this is likely how far medical schools are also projecting into the future, as they not only care about you getting in, they also want you to be a stellar doctor to represent their program after graduation. I found, this retrograde synthesize method of writing to really help whenever I’m in a writing rut. So, instead of just rehashing your anecdotes, work on your narrative as well.

Each paragraph gives you the right to compose the following paragraph – transitions should be logical to frame the narrative, you’re not trying to make a Memento type personal statement.  If your personal statement doesn’t make transitions well, then it’ll appear that there are logical leaps between premises. Transitions don’t have to hammer the reader on the head, but it should allow a ready to easily conclude why each paragraph or sentence supports the rest of the composition.

If you haven’t developed a narrative, try this:  take your rough ideas, outline etc, to see if your narrative fits that. Try different narratives, people love narratives. If you’re not sure if your personal statement captures your narrative, have a few friends read over your personal statement and ask them to write a 140 character, a succinct (tweet) summary about what they think your narrative is. The key is to keep their translations short and sweet, if they have to fumble for paragraphs to define your narrative then you’re probably missing something.

Remember, if you don’t chose your narrative your reader will. 

Examples: Reefer Madness -

Narrative: marijuana use in all forms is destructive to society

Story (anecdotes) premise 1: innocent youth gets entangled with under world due to marijuana cigarettes(aka reefer, Mary Jane, whacky-tobacky, the Devil’s Lettuce).

Story premise 2: usage of marijuana causes: increased sexual activity, suicidal thoughts, and possibly psychotic murderous episodes.

Story premise 3: if only Johnny didn’t use drugs, he’d not be going to jail, and several people would still be alive.

Validating the narrative is simply a matter of validating the story’s premises, or anecdotes. If anything, we should learn that a composition will back fire, if the premises/story and the narrative are not well aligned. This is evident by how ineffective this propaganda movie was towards curbing marijuana use in the United States.

So, again, if you don’t make your narrative others will make it for you. On the other hand, if you make a narrative and the premises aren’t supported, then that’s possibly worse. And, as you should learn on the MCAT, you don’t have to agree with the premises in order to validate the premises. You can totally disagree with the philosophy of the writer, but if their conclusions are valid they are valid.  Though, valid  priori don’t always mean that the conclusion is supported. Write with the conclusion always in mind, and stack your priori in a logical way to argue why you should be accepted. Use the same (or better) critical thinking tools you used to break down the support and structure of the MCAT verbal passages on your personal statement–at least you can feel better about not wasting your time on that section. 

Find me on twitter @masterofsleep

Enjoying Doing Nothing – Medstudent Limbo

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As you may already know I’m in limbo, the easiest time of a medical student’s life, the period before when they’re accepted and sitting around awaiting school to start. It’s not a bad place to be. So, what am I doing with my time? 

Trying to catch up with what is considered common knowledge!

While studying for the MCAT, I stopped listening to music, and replaced all my audio with Examkrackers Audio Osmosis — I even slept with earphones in at times, I often had very odd but scientifically accurate dreams. In college, I had a TV but it wasn’t actually connected to the wall, perhaps it was for the better because I missed the TV dark ages: Jersey Shore, all the renditions of Bachelor type shows, Honey Boo Boo (pre-health condition), and I never kept up with the Kardashians. I also had no idea who Justin Bieber was for some years, and I’m still confused that Miley Cyrus isn’t that little girl I saw on kids backpacks growing up. But, recently I’ve been defrosted from the frigid lands of premed, into acceptance. For years, people flung music and TV references at me that went over my head. Now that I have time, I try to catch E.R. reality shows, science specials, Walking Dead, Colbert Report, Top Gear, SNL. I started watching the Weather Channel when I realized I might be living in any one of the states buried under the next blizzard. I was in a news desert for a while, so I could only listen NPR due to their reliability, but now there’s another neutral news outlet Al Jazeera. When medical school starts, I’ll definitely pare my TV viewership again, but I’ll keep some shows mentally in queue.


Well, I’ve left the country a couple of times already with my own money, including my “dream locale” of Japan. My stepfather started taking me camping when I was about 16, I’ve camped in different states. I’ve personally driven with friends on road trips to different parts of the US, and the medical school interviews tossed me into many states new to me. And, after consulting with my financier of my life, me, I was told I’m out of money for travel. I have family in Japan, so I might just go to Japan again next summer if I’m not beholden to anything. 

Pay bills before I’m off to medical school

Bingo. When I started college I didn’t qualify for financial aid, this was because my parents income was considered, but my parents believed in “financial self-sufficiency” about my education. So, this was a nice Catch-22 of looking wealthy on paper, while being poor in reality. So, how does one pay for college and living expenses, work and credit cards. So, I want to pay off my debt (fortunately, it’s not crazy, it just needs to be done). My student loan debt, ~40K? chump change in comparison to what I’ll owe soon, so I’ll just stack that on top of the school other 180K bill I’ll get from medical school. Paying down bills will make leasing/renting stuff easier, that’s my main motivation and also why I draw a distinction between my personal accrued debt and government loans. 

Hang out with my friends.

I won’t see some of my friends for years. Though, I moved around a lot as a kid, as do most Californians, so the feeling of the uncertainty of moving is not new for most of us. What is new is that it’s clear across the country, quite literally, and in the land of actual seasons. I’m comfortable staying at home over the weekend, or reading a book over coffee (dream weekend), but I’ve made more of a concentrated effort to be more social. It’s been great. I’ll miss having access to my friends, but I won’t miss them, because I know we’ll keep in touch. I’ve already reached an age where I’ve shed most of my “extra” friends, and I’m left with exceptional ones. Though, I enjoy bringing my friends with me to Boston, giving them a nexus to the east coast. So, I embrace the complex future.  

Read stuff that has nothing to do with medicine — that book over coffee.

It’s my last chance to be able to do this without any guilt about my time. I work at a university, so I have access to a really expansive library, so I’ve used it to catch up on things I wanted to read. I also have been spending a lot of time at the online Gutenberg Library, it’s great for classics, they even have Maxwell’s lectures there. I read the Feynman Lecture Volume I, going over volume II now, with any luck Ill get III done before the summer starts — not that I’ll understand any of it yet. I have a personal goal of being able to look at quantum physics equations and go “Oh Hawking, try again”, as I cross out a formula with a sharpie at Starbucks. One day, one day.

Though, upon reflection all science is tied to medicine, so I’m sort of cheating on the “no medicine reading” thing. =)





Pre-Existing Condition

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Do you see this molecular structure? For your Organic buffs, it’s named (RS)-4-[2-(tert-butylamino)-1-hydroxyethyl]-2-(hydroxymethyl)phenol, this is also known by it’s common name Albuterol or Salbutamol. This regal B2-agonist, a molecule, this drug (along with a myriad of others) is the reason why I’m still alive to type these blogs in the first place. This therapeutic drug is the mainstay drug for asthmatics when it comes to fast action, for times when feeling as though you’re breathing through a coffee straw just won’t suffice. I spent so much time at the hospital, as a patient, that when I came back later as a volunteer it felt like I’d never left my home.

Asthma is a pretty common chronic illness, case in point around over 235 million individuals around the world suffer from asthma (for reference, if that number were all US citizens then 3 out of 4 people in the US would have asthma):

In the United States each year:

  • 4,000 people have an asthma attack. — Growing up I had asthma attacks weekly, though usually it was only when I was concurrently “sick” is when the ambulance needed to be called. 
  • 36,000 kids miss school due to asthma. – I be laid up in the hospital for several weeks, then sent on bed rest for another month or so usually in elementary school. I missed so much school from asthma that I was actually almost held back twice due to missing more class than allowed by the school district. So, I finished most of my school work at home, by myself and did fine. By the time I graduated from HS, Cadillac drugs (long acting beta-2 agonists, with less side effects) were re-released, so missing work was less of an issue. Furthermore, I was a candidate for several clinical trials due to the severity of my asthma — I was on trials for many medicines that finally did make it to the pharmacy, many are still in the pipework (I signed a secrecy consent there). 
  • 4,700 people visit the emergency room due to asthma. – I had about an average of 2-3 hospital resulting attacks until I graduated from HS.
  • 1,200 people are admitted to the hospital due to asthma. — I concur, I was one of them.
  • 9 people die from asthma. — My goal was not to die, though I’ve been there and done that. 


Growing up as an asthmatic without a primary care physician (insurance, or lack thereof), I was a teaching hospital favorite, I’m sure I could of got at least a free hospital stay (or a lifetime supply of jello) with all the stamps I amassed in the ER and ICU. In fact, I’ve been hospitalized well over 30 times in my life time — including one code that made me nearly one of those 9 people to die each year. Now, in contrast it’s amazing to think that I just signed up for healthcare via Covered California (go ACA), I’ll have a primary care physician, and I’ll no longer have to keep my healthcare by being a research subject. Furthermore, it’s very, very cheap (after rebates, it comes out to a little more than a dollar a month to keep my plan). In case a piano falls on me, or if I’m man-handled by a giant squid the most I can possibly pay is capped at $2,500. Growing up with a single parent, the whole family experienced several lapse in coverage, putting my own family in debt (most because of me really). It’s nice to know that less people in the United States will be vulnerable to this.

I’ll remember how it felt to be a constant patient when it comes time to be at their bedside.

PS, get covered!



Physiology Research – My Work/Activity

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“It’s a little too morbid…you might offend someone if you include that part in your presentation”, he was right, I decided to cut certain details out of my presentation at Berkeley symposium that year. I never delete slides, I simply hide them with the mighty right click, so in this post I’m going to discuss some of those slides/explanations that never made into my presentation. It’s going to get a little descriptive, and well, it may even offend you a little bit. So, read on at your own risk.

Prior to being accepted into medical school, a study produced by my former lab was recently published (I was not an author, just a contributor). It was an electrophysiology study, and I helped collect data on this project, and several other pilot projects, so I’m pretty happy about this. i started at this lab when my research mentor, my principal investigator (PI) and former physiology professor, offered me a wonderful experience in his new lab following a satisfying performance in lab and lecture. There was a catch he emphasized, the lab wasn’t actually constructed yet (new lab), nor were there many projects lined up (winging it with science), oh and we’d be learning as we go as it’s a new frontier (kiss your *ss goodbye). At first, I thought it rhetorical, wasn’t all research supposedly on the frontier so to speak? Though, I soon learned he meant everything he said, in the literal sense — in fact, once he asked me “do you know how to solder”, I knew I was in trouble. By new lab, he meant new lab, as in nothing but wall, tiles, and cobwebs. Neither the less, our goal was to get a cellular membrane electrophysiology lab up and running from scratch. We were cavalier on obtaining new equipment, it turns out many pharmaceuticals have blowout sales or giveaways every now and then, presumably with a reward of tax reimbursements. While amassing the fancy equipment, we filled the time by critiquing historic literature (Fatz & Katz, Huxley, Bertil Hille) and emerging research. We lowered our self esteem by spending time trying to decipher Maxwell equations, implications of Brownian motion, and the innards of electric fields and all it’s joyous pleasures — I learned, after taking a year of physiology by that time, that I still knew absolutely nothing. We merged weekly lab discussions with the legacy lab across from ours, another membrane studying lab. But, they had several people interested in medicine, so we had to purchase a tomb called Medical Physiology. To sharpen our fangs on theory, we had to take turns presenting and being torn apart by your peers and several physiology professors (it was good times). I suppose it was here that I finally started to get my answers on how medicine, physiology, and physics were all entangled. It was also the first time that I learnt the main problem/fun of science, the closer your examine the problem the fuzzier it gets, and the less adequate is all the tools you used to get to that point.

After several months of theory work, literature review, technique practice I was finally able to conduct an electrophysiology experiment, independently, from start to finish. Without going into a long, and somewhat esoteric background, let me just tell you (or perhaps remind you) that it’s long been known that electrolytes such as sodium, potassium have an important function in organisms. First year physiology teaches that it’s the gradient of charge, intracellular to extracellular, is vital for the function of most cells. And, it’s long been known that these charges can be created by electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, and for a while only these electrolytes got a day a fame. But, what about chloride? For a long time It was thought that chloride was just an ion that went along for the ride, and the channels that allowed for its flow did so without control — in other words, that chloride was just this channel that sat wide open and didn’t do much. We thought this both weird in evolutionary terms, and although a lot of labs at that time still went against our hypothesis we thought the chloride channel had to be regulated.

*In case you’re curious, the intracellular side gets it’s charge both from the charge gradient and proteins that created the net negative charge within.

Long story short, we verified our beliefs, found out our study had implications with Huntington’s Disease (Nature), and I learned a lot about ion channels. The study also finally gives some leads to some medical mysteries such as some symptoms of certain muscle diseases. Here’s a little bit about how it was done:

A day in an electrophysiology lab:

1. Go to animal facility, sign out mouse to be euthanize. The mice came out of money from lab funds, or research grants brought to the lab.

2. Euthanize mouse with isoflorane. This would asphyxiate the mouse within seconds. You have to be careful about the level of the gas, the dose is very important. Federal regulations mandate a redundancy in euthanization, this is seen as more ethical than proceeding with the rest of the process without being sure that the animal will not be in pain any further. Some labs use a guillotine (no joke), we went with the standard brute cervical dislocation while the mouse was unconscious with it’s heart presumably already stopped.

3. Harvest the muscles you need using a scalpel after skinning the dead mouse, sheers, a dissecting scope, some enzymes, and steady hands. We’d take out 2 muscles usually (sometimes three), two in the palms and one in the neck region (picture not shown).

We took muscle group 8
We took muscle group 10.

4. We either kept muscles as whole myofibers (easier experimentally, but less accurate results), or we dissociated them (notoriously difficult to work with, but gives very accurate results). After we prepared a sample, we then had to visualize it on a microscope, and impale the cell with ridiculously sharp electrodes. *Not all electrodes need be sharp, some experiments keep a end “broken”, it sucks a section of membrane in, making a seal and it’s a type of patch-clamp, we didn’t do these types of experiments*. So, the picture was my work space for hours on end.


This is what we affectionately called the rig. You could spend up to 8-10 hours with it at any given day, after a while more of those fancy dials make sense.
The foil you see there houses a copper case, it’s a ghetto-rigged Faraday cage. Our measurements are very sensitive, so we do a lot to isolate signals that might have originated from the equipment itself. The vials are so we can add stuff to keep the tissue alive, or toxins etc.
That pink blob in the middle is whole muscle tissue, excised from the neck of a mouse. Those giant glass rods plunging into them are the electrodes, impaling the muscle without killing it with the electrodes is an acquired skill. We controlled the electrodes with a machine, it was like playing a background/inverted “claw” catching game, but on steroids.

Last step: find a good muscle cell, photograph it, and measure it’s electrical properties.

The horizontal strands are muscle, the lightening strike shaped stuff going down are nerves that innervate the fibers. This was taken with my cell phone, and a lot of patience.
I was sent to Cal Tech to help acquire this image, this is a muscle cell totally dissociated from others. It’s read because it was using a laser to image the image instead of white light.

And at the end of all of that, you analyze a bunch of squiggly lines, and pretend like you know what you’re talking about. A lot of the formulas I used in this lab later showed up on the MCAT, though in a more “useful” form. All experience is cumulative. Before I thought medicine was for me, I learned a lot on the scientific process, and strongly considered a PhD. Now, I’m getting my MD, but I’ll never forget how much I learned what I didn’t know, and how much I probably won’t ever know.

But, at least I know that we were right =)