This blog post was first published on February 5, 2018, on the White Coats and Polka Dots blog, where Jenna Dafgek ’21 writes about life as a medical student, and offers tips and advice.
The hundreds of flashcards in my backpack were starting to feel ridiculous a week into bacteriology. At what point would they stop being helpful, especially if it took me hours to work through them? There had to be a better way.
Luckily, there is, at least for me.
Being a visual learner with a storytelling background (I write novels for fun), I decided that I needed to somehow personify these bacteria and morph them into characters rather than factoids. I can remember each and every one of my main characters’ birthdays, favorite foods, and every scar on their body. So, it made sense that if I somehow personified the bacteria, I’d have an easier time remembering them too.
How can I characterize them? How do I visualize them? What symbols can I use?
Some of the bugs are drawn in duos since they appear as paired spheres (diplococci) in a gram stain.
Similar to hieroglyphics, I utilized different symbols to represent different aspects and factors for these bugs. For example, the bugs are either pink or purple based on if they are gram stain negative or positive (a laboratory test to classify different bacteria). The shape of their body is based on the shape of the bacteria with many being rods or spheres. A bright pink bow on their head meant that they fermented lactose because those bacteria turn certain agar plates bright pink. Mustaches mean that one of the bacteria’s virulence factor is disguise.
Then there were a few details that only specific bacteria had. H. pylori is a stomach bacteria that can cause painful ulcers. It survives in the acidic stomach environment by secreting urease which creates a more basic pH. To help me remember this unique detail, I made H. pylori into a bass-playing music man who love to jam out. The image of him swaying to the beat with his guitar is easier for my brain to retain. I see the bass guitar and think ‘base’ which primes me for the urease detail.
H.pylori was definitely one of my favorites – even though he causes painful ulcers, I think he’s adorable.
Now, this may seem kooky. In fact, it is. When I first came into lecture with my colorful little guys, I felt like a kindergarten student sitting at the Ph.D. student table. But it worked for me! My test scores have been the best they’ve ever been and I honestly attribute that to me engaging in the material in a more creative way. My mind is naturally creating stories and characters, so it only makes sense to apply that natural tendency to my studying approach.
I hope this approach gives you some of your own study ideas. Please share any tricks you use to actively engage in the material and any goofy characters you make!