Montessori method at work

by Lorien E. Menhennett

Catenin … adhesion junctions … cadherin … p120 … tyrosine … kaiso …

I stared blankly at Dr. David Wei, who was presenting the latest research on, well, um, I think it was about the role of a protein called p120 in the “adhesion” of cells – their ability to stick to one another. Yeah. I’m pretty sure that’s what it was about.

Olga had invited me to the weekly Thursday lab meeting. I was thrilled to be included. Rich Minshall (the lab director) introduced me to the other half-dozen or so people I hadn’t met yet, and asked me for a summary on what I’d learned so far. Everyone seemed impressed with the depth and breadth of what I’d accomplished in a mere three weeks. So far so good.

And then David began his presentation. Nothing against David – he’s an incredibly talented, intelligent anesthesiologist and budding research scientist. But he could have been speaking Greek as far as I was concerned. And the slides he was showing looked like hieroglyphics to me. I simply don’t know the language of laboratory science.

Slowly, as the 45-minute presentation went on, I began to catch on – a few words here, a concept there. By the end, I had a vague idea of his main idea. And I had picked up some new words along the way.

I’ve been in foreign language contexts before. In college, I studied abroad in South America (although I am nearly fluent in Spanish, so that isn’t a particularly good example). A better example: In high school, I went to China for a school trip. The words, spoken and written, all around me bore absolutely no resemblance to the language I had grown up with. It was humbling. To have to ask lots of questions, to have to learn from the ground up, to have a hard time saying “hello” because of the use of intonations (vocal inflections), which we don’t have in English.

My dad has told me over and over that the first two years of medical school are basically spent learning a new language: the language of medicine. I got a small taste of that Thursday. A flood of technical language, technical diagrams, the expectation of rapid absorption and understanding of new material. There will be no coddling, no hand-holding, no “let-me-spell-this-out-for-you.” Catch on, and catch on quickly, or you fall behind every more quickly.

Fortunately, I have a gift for languages. When it comes to grammar – whether it’s Spanish verb conjugation used in conversation, or Latin prefixes and suffixes used in medical terminology, I am quick to grasp the concepts. I also know how to memorize: vocabulary (words and phrases), linguistic rules, and exceptions to those rules. This is how I breezed through high school and college Spanish, and through a semester in Chile living with a Spanish-speaking family. This is also how I will learn to communicate in medi-speak.

And one of the greatest things about working in the lab right now is that it is proving to be sort of an immersion experience, which is, really, the best way to learn a language. I am exposed to terms, concepts, processes, substances, etc. that I have never encountered before. I hear about them over and over. Sometimes someone will tell me, specifically, what a particular thing means or does. Other times, I have to figure it out on my own, over time and through numerous exposures in different contexts.

Basically, it’s the Montessori method: experiential-based, curiosity-led learning at one’s own pace. And it’s joyous.