Kim Goodsell was not a scientist, but she wanted to understand the baffling constellation of disease symptoms that were affecting her. The doctors delivered partial diagnoses, that accounted for some of her problems, but not all. So she plunged into the scientific literature herself. The point of the linked article is that there is a wealth of genetic information out there, and that we might someday get to the point of tapping into the contributions of citizen scientists. But I thought this was the most interesting part:
She started by diving into PubMed—an online search engine for biomedical papers—hunting down everything she could on Charcot-Marie-Tooth. She hoped that her brief fling with a scientific education would carry her through. But with pre-med knowledge that had been gathering dust for 30 years and no formal training in genetics, Kim quickly ran headfirst into a wall of unfamiliar concepts and impenetrable jargon. “It was like reading Chinese,” she says.
But she persisted. She scratched around in Google until she found uploaded PDFs of the articles she wanted. She would read an abstract and Google every word she didn’t understand. When those searches snowballed into even more jargon, she’d Google that too. The expanding tree of gibberish seemed infinite—apoptosis, phenotypic, desmosome—until, one day, it wasn’t. “You get a feeling for what’s being said,” Kim says. “Pretty soon you start to learn the language.”
I know that feeling! I watch students struggle with it every year, too. There is a certain level of biological literacy that has to be met before one can grasp the more sophisticated concepts — and that once the door is opened, it becomes easier and easier to go deeper.
Someone who is strongly motivated and determined, like Kim Goodsell, can do it on their own, but I really feel that achieving that basic level of understanding is the goal of an undergraduate education. We prep students with enough information to get over the threshold (and also, maybe, some specific skills to get them started in professional schools), so that in an ideal world they can then charge off and keep learning on their own.
This isn’t just true of biology, either. Literature, art, history, philosophy, economics, psychology, etc., etc., etc. all have a set of fundamental concepts that are hurdles to getting started…but once you’re over them, you can soar.