Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Memorization and the amino acids

A student of biochemistry, I've often heard the complaint "I have to learn all my amino acids again?"

The trick is not to forget them. And this extends beyond my little corner of the academic world to the periodic table, taxonomic groups, irregular verbs, and schools of philosophy. One must be able to speak the language of their subject so that others can understand them, and so that one can effectively communicate in their discipline. But good luck convincing those who don't want to bother learning.

As much as I dislike the procedure of memorization for school, as I believe that it does not really test your ability as a student, there are cases where it is just plain necessary. At those times if you are doing it right, you shouldn't be working on memorizing each thing, because they should come with an understanding of the process. Past scientists may not have been the smartest when it comes to nomenclature and systematics, lacking the hindsight that we now have, but usually there is still a reason for the names and that helps to know what we're talking about. For example, isoleucine is an isomer of leucine. Did not see that coming. Histidine is the protonable ring. Cysteine forms bridges, proline forms kinks, and glycine is flexible because it's smallest. Glutamine is the amide of glutamate, asparagine is the amide of aspartate. Sure, they're not easy to know but the things that make each one unique are what makes them memorable, and by learning this way, it is a lot easier than beating one's head off the wall trying to figure out how to draw arginine again from thin air memorizing how the N, C, and H's line up.

Like my professor said a few years back, "You need to decide which amino acid you are like. Are you large and negative, like glutamate, or are you small and polar like serine? Maybe you're extremely bulky like tryptophan."


Lou said...

Even a decade after my chemistry undergrad degree, I can recite the a.m.u. of key atoms (H, C, O, N...). I never use it regularly anymore, but I like it that I still know it - harks back to the time when I actually gave a shit about learning and memorizing things like that!

SJC said...

Yeah, those are another - I mean more just that you can't help but memorize them. I don't recall ever trying that hard for either my amino acids, or for atomic masses, they just came with use. But yes, now even without using them much anymore, they stick.

Science Bear said...

I can generally remember what they all are, but unfortunately can never remember more than that. If you would like to share your ability to make them "stick" I'm more than willing to be a test subject!

SJC said...

Hmm....perhaps I'll write them up into a new post. I wouldn't be too hopeful in it working for anyone but myself, but there's always a chance.