A&P Lab Misadventures

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Today’s blog post will probably read a lot like a journal entry. I have some confessions to make and some things to get off my mind. If my dad were here, I’d probably talk to him about it, but he’s out-of-town for the week so I’ll just have to splurge (word choice?) to the internet.

Yesterday I had my Anatomy and Physiology class. The course is so intense that it’s actually split into two courses that are scheduled back-to-back: Anatomy and Physiology I and Anatomy and Physiology II. You have to take both classes and pass both classes to receive credit for the A&P course. A&P classes are regulated by a national association, and because of this the courses are the same no matter what college you attend. This is not an allied health class, it is simply A&P. It is not specific to any one degree, rather it fulfills this specific science requirement for many degrees. Thus the course objectives and syllabus include a wide range of abilities and tasks that set you up for success in further education in many different fields.

What is Anatomy and Physiology? Briefly, it is the study of the human body and how it works. The anatomy of the body is the structural aspect (i.e. we have a heart and arteries) and physiology is the things that the structure can do (i.e. the heart pumps blood that circulates through our entire bodies). We learn, over and over again, that structure always reflects function. In layman terms, our bodies have evolved the way that they do in order to survive, and each part of our bodies is shaped in a way that allows it to carry out a specific set of functions. The opposite of this would be that our bodies are just shaped the way they are and the function somehow happens around the structure, which is not the case.

Anyway, our textbook weighs about ten zillion pounds and it is VERY dense. I’m talking extremely dense. It’s actually very easy to read and understand, there is just a lot of information. Just about every third word is either underlined, bold, or italicized. Everyone knows that this is a tool meant to convey a level of importance about a word or theory; but what is a student to do when almost the entire textbook is highlighted as being important?

I’m several weeks into the semester and I quickly realized that I am not interested in memorizing hundreds of theories and vocab words. This is partially because I understand that science is always evolving and partially because I am a practical human being. Everyone learns in a different way, and I am best at explaining the highlights of a concept instead of every nitty-gritty detail. To give you an easy example: I can tell you that when you screw a light bulb into a socket and then flip a light switch, the bulb illuminates. I can even tell you that it is a filament inside the light bulb that makes it light up, and that it is an electrical current that the switch controls that makes this happen. Anything more in-depth than that might be fun facts for a cocktail conversation, but simply isn’t practical.

So, when I am reading about The Cell, I have fifty pages packed with diagrams and information. I have the different types of cells, functions of cells, things inside a cell, things inside the things inside of cells – it goes on. What I’m looking for – like the light bulb – is the information that I will REALLY need to know. I know it’s all important, and it’s important to understand (at the very least) that these things exist, but I don’t want to dedicate my time and brain-space on parts of the chapter that won’t really help me later. The material on The Cell is so dense that a college could probably create an entire course on just The Cell itself. But we aren’t just covering The Cell, we are also covering (in these two back-to-back classes):

An introduction to the human body, basic chemistry, cells, tissue, the integumentary system, bones and skeletal tissues, the skeleton, joints, muscles and muscle tissue, the muscular system, fundamentals of the nervous system and nervous tissue, the central nervous system, the peripheral nervous system and reflex activity, the autonomic nervous system, the special senses, the endocrine system, blood, the cardiovascular system: the heart, the cardiovascular system: blood vessels, the lymphatic system and lymphoid organs and tissues, the immune system: innate and adaptive body defenses, the respiratory system, the digestive system, nutrition metabolism and body temperature regulation, the urinary system, fluid electrolyte and acid-base balance, the reproductive system, pregnancy and human development, and heredity.

Seriously. That’s my life for the rest of this semester and the spring semester. You understand why I’m looking for the highlights.

So, I went to my prof (who is amazing) and spoke with her about my concerns. I’m worried that if I have to memorize the thousands of vocab words in this entire book, I will have a stroke. I am willing to read every single word – even twice – but don’t expect me to retain it all. She smiled gently and completely and immediately understood my concern. She instructed me to look at the learning objectives at the beginning of each chapter – because those were the highlights I was referring to and those would be the types of things on the exams. I was relieved to find out that despite the massive child-sized textbook I have to lug around, not all of that information needs to be crammed into my brain. After all, if I discover during the chapter on the digestive system that I really feel passionately about tummies, I can take additional specialized courses or training that will expand on that. Otherwise, I just need a basic understanding of how the human body works.

That being said, I love the class. I like the textbook, even if it does take a long time to read through. And, now that I know what the objectives are and what their purpose is, I can “lightly read” the parts in the book until I get to the core concepts, then I can really focus on detailed note-taking and memorization.

That’s my Monday from 1-4. Three straight hours of A&P lecture. She uses power points, which I have printed out for note-taking during he lecture, and she follows the textbook. She also glosses over the stuff that’s not directly stated in the objectives. We talk about it, but briefly.

From 4-7 it’s a whole different ball game. I have come to realize that Mondays are my least favorite day of the week.

You see, from 4-7, it’s a three-hour lab that relates to the lecture. This week we finished talking about The Cell and moved onto Tissues. The lecture is FAST PACED – designed to highlight the important concepts from the chapter reading that is supposed to be done before class begins. The lab exists to see – in real life – what the textbook is talking about. So, if we are talking about different types of tissue in the body, we go to lab and look at slides under a microscope to relate it to what we just learned.

There’s only one problem. I suck at it.

I don’t suck at using a microscope – I know what all the parts do. I can adjust the eye things (definite word choice.) so that it’s a binocular view, I can use the knobs to move the slide where I want it to go, and I understand how different levels of magnification work. All of that is fine. I run into trouble when it comes to locating what I am supposed to locate – which is what I learned yesterday.

Our lab assignment was to view different tissue types under the microscope to find different kinds of cells. Tissues have many different kinds of cells in them, so you have to be careful you find the right one. They are all stained purple so you can actually see what you are looking at, and because of the stain you can see the nucleus of the cell so you know it’s there. But there’s not just one, there are thousands and it’s hard to tell which one is which.

Let me give you an example. I was looking at epithelial tissue. There are different kinds of cells found in epithelial tissue. Here are the types that my textbook gives me:



Seems simple enough, right? Just look at that pretty picture. They are all so distinct and awesome-looking. The columnar cells look like columns and the cuboidals look like cubes. I am confident in my ability to find distinct shapes. So, I pull out the slide and this is what I see:



Uh… okay. So, clearly this is a god damn mess. Look at it! There’s all kinds of stuff going on here. Anywhere you see a dark purple dot (or a dark purple oval or circle thing) is a nucleus, so you know there are tons of cells here. From this far away (scanning power on the microscope) it all kind of looks the same. Let’s say I want to find the stratified squamous. Remember that those are flat and squishy. I locate the area that I think is the stratified squamous:

stratified squamous


Doesn’t that look like the picture from the textbook? They are flat and squishy. In the big picture, they are about a fourth of the way down from the top, right in the middle. I am so proud of myself! Check out my ability to look at a diagram and find the cells!!! Go me! So, I call my teacher over excitedly, to tell her that I think I found what I am looking for but I need verification – I am nothing if not thorough. She peers through the microscope for a split second and says:


Now, she doesn’t say No in a way that is at all insulting or soul-crushing – but I am devastated. I was riding high on my ability to match a diagram from a fucking science textbook to the real thing. Aren’t the diagrams supposed to be HELPFUL!?!? Dammit!!!!!

My prof made a few adjustments and asked me to look in the eye piece. She had located the ACTUAL cells I was trying to find. She explained what I was trying to find and I, in quite an ashamed tone, told her why I thought the cells I had found were the right ones. I was not defensive, nor was I pouty. But I was embarrassed. There’s a diagram for god’s sake.

Here’s what I was SUPPOSED to look for:

actual stratified squamous


ARE. YOU. KIDDING. ME. Let me ask you to scroll up a few times. See the top of the picture where all the lines are and a bunch of blobs? Yeah. That, according to the diagram, is this:

textbook squamous


Those two things don’t even look alike! I was half embarrassed at my inability to translate what is obviously meant to be a cruel joke (textbook demonstration) to the real thing (tissue sample) and half angry at the stupid author of the textbook for not being more realistic. If it were me, I would have just drawn a big winking smiley face with the caption “Good luck, chump.”

To say that it deflated my self-esteem and confidence would be an understatement. I didn’t exactly run out of the room crying, but it only got worse from there.

Every. Single. Tissue. Sample. that I continued with from that point forward – I got them all wrong. I asked her over to verify (as she was doing for everyone else) and every time she had to show me where it really was. I became more and more agitated that I couldn’t find even the simplest things. I tried harder and harder to compare what I saw in the book to the real-life example, even jacking up my magnification to ensure that I had the right thing – and they were all wrong. I tried to explain to her what I saw through bizarre descriptors, like: “See that white blob that looks kind of like a silly lake around those other blobs that look like pink lakes? I think that’s what I’m looking for!” and she just looked at me like I couldn’t science. I felt like I should be wearing a t-shirt like this:



By the end of the class, I was emotionally spent. Completely out of confidence and steam and also on the verge of tears. Even the graded assignments she passed back – all As – couldn’t cheer me up. What good is an A on an assignment if I can’t locate something in a microscope – which is the whole point of the lab? I’m not kidding – they all look the same to me. I don’t see what I am supposed to see. It would be like trying to have a conversation with one of the Swahili people. I don’t speak Swahili. I don’t even know how to say hello in Swahili. It is completely lost on me. At one point during my spiral into madness, I even considered that I may not be intelligent enough to pass the class at all. I thought to myself that maybe I’m just not smart enough to pursue a nursing degree at all. You have to be really smart to be a nurse, I know that, but I thought I was smart enough. Social skills could use some work, but I can learn anything if I really try. With this, though, I literally do not comprehend it. I can’t see it. It’s the visual form of gibberish to me. I briefly considered abandoning the nursing path to professionally pick up dog shit instead. No way I could screw that up.

Then, on my drive home to make dinner for my wonderful Dave, I considered this – what is intelligence actually? What does it mean to be smart? Dammit, I’m smart. I can tell you lots of things about lots of things. So what if I can’t see a stratified squamous cell under a microscope no matter how hard I try? Even now – searching for the Google images – I can’t locate the columnar cells in the tissue samples (or the picture above) because I just don’t see it. I see a bunch of purple, some purple dots (which I know are nucleus, because they are so distinct), and a ton of odd-shaped blobs. Some lines. Don’t know what the lines are – could be the cell membranes, could be a hair.

Side note: two classes ago we were looking at sperm slides and I found what I thought was a sperm. Actually, it was a hair trapped in the cover slip. I thought it looked kind of funny, but I searched and searched and couldn’t find anything else, so I figured it must be that. As it turned out, I am a fucking idiot. Has anyone seen my village?

But anyway, I AM smart. I am very smart. I can tell you a lot of useless stuff and I can also tell you a bunch of important stuff. I know lots of things. I may not be comfortable talking about economics with my friend at work, but I can definitely tell you the purpose of a semi-colon and I can tell you what a standard deviation is in statistics. I just can’t translate the conceptual illustration with the real thing in a microscope.

When I told Dave the highlights of this (congratulations if you’re still reading this epic bitch-fest) he told me it was good that I wasn’t good at it. It’s good to try new things and have to try harder. I am pretty sure I did not receive that well – it is logical so I know I begrudgingly accepted his comment. I do know that I asked him if he had this trouble and he dodged the question and went back to making pies. I also know the other students in the class were able to find their cells pretty easily because I was listening to the chatter. At least I was alone – I had no lab partner so I didn’t have to be humiliated in front of someone else. But, I also didn’t have someone to share that confusion with, either. I was alone with no friend or face to share that burden. Les sigh.

In conclusion, Cs get degrees and I am going to scrape my way through lab. Also, I will probably spend a lot of Monday nights drinking red wine and trying not to hate myself. =)

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