Classes Ex-­Zamm-­Ined: Summer Biochemistry

by Lauren Zammerilla

Summer Classes. About a year ago, I firmly believed that these two words just didn’t belong together. Summer is supposed to be a time to relax, a time for my brain to recover from the endless synaptic processes, organic compounds and reaction mechanisms I had oppressively forced into it over the year. When it comes to the pre­-medical track, however, it seems that time to “relax” and “recover” is not allotted.

Advanced Placement credits from high school, along with careful scheduling during my first two years at Pitt, would have enabled me to graduate a year early if I took biochemistry over the summer. Logically, I chose to take the summer course — why spend another year as an undergraduate when I could finish the class in a mere six weeks? Looking back, this was a great decision — the class moved at a steady pace, the information was fascinating and the small class size made student­-professor interaction easy.

This summer, biochemistry was offered during the second six­-week session and met Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. Optional recitation sessions were for an hour after class. While it might seem grueling to the normal student who is used to classes that meet only twice, the frequency of biochemistry actually proved to be quite beneficial. Biochemistry is a class that builds on previous material. Therefore, having it everyday ensured that the information learned before was fresh in my mind.

In addition, when it came time to study for exams, I only had to recall information that had been learned a week or two earlier. A semester’s worth of information was crammed into the summer course, including a lot of memorization and understanding of different processes and cycles. The shortness of the summer class afforded little time to forget such information, ultimately making the class more manageable.

If you are interested in pursuing a career in health care or sciences, biochemistry is usually a requirement. Don’t let this scare you. Biochemistry is actually pretty interesting and allows you to combine knowledge learned in other science courses to get the “big picture.” Let’s start with general chemistry. Sure, you know that acids have a high hydronium ion concentration, pH less than 7, blah, blah, blah. As a freshman, you might be find little context to put this into.Well, that’s where biochemistry comes into the picture. Acid­base chemistry is a key component of biological systems, catalyzing various reactions.  Without acid­base catalysis, many processes would not take place within the time frame they need to,which could severely harm the organism.

Consider non­covalent interactions,another vague topic skimmed over in general chemistry. Add some biochemistry into the beaker, and poof, you’ll see why it’s so important. Non­covalent interactions drive protein folding, a process that is vital in organisms. Mutations that lead to improper protein folding are linked to neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease.

In organic chemistry, you may have learned how to draw alpha ketoglutarate, but you probably did not learn the compound’s significance in biological systems. Alpha ketoglutarate is a key intermediate of the citric acid cycle, which is essential to life and is part of the pathway that generates useable energy in living organisms. Alpha ketoglutarate also undergoes transamination— the mechanism you know thanks to organic chemistry — to become glutamate, which is an excitatory neurotransmitter.

As you can see, biochemistry pulls everything together. It’s rewarding to see those countless hours spent studying seemingly useless facts during past semesters actually pay off. New topics are also covered in biochemistry, but having a strong background in biology, chemistry and organic chemistry allows nothing to be exceedingly difficult.

I have never been an office hour person. Between other classes, volunteering,research and meetings, it seems that I am never able to attend and therefore cannot comment on their benefit during the normal school year. This summer, on the other hand, I embraced the office hour, and I believe that it greatly helped my performance in the class. While the class was small already, attending the hours allowed me to get to know my professor, Lydia Daniels, on a more personal level.

Additionally, reviewing the information after class ensured I fully understood it before moving onto a new concept the next day.

A unique aspect of the summer biochemistry course was a collaborative writing assignment discussing the diagnosis and treatment of Parkinson’s disease. During office hours, Professor Daniels answered questions about the paper and gave instructions on how to use PubMed, a database of science journals. I will now be able to use this resource efficiently in my future classes.

I would definitely recommend taking biochemistry over the summer. Although sometimes it’s harder to choose Hillman Library over the pool, it certainly has benefits in the long run. Biochemistry is a very intriguing course but it is nothing that cannot be handled during the summer. Coming right after spring semester’s organic chemistry II, the topics were still fresh in my mind and therefore could be easily applied in biochemistry.

If you are unable to take it in the summer, you should still enroll during the year. The course provides both a challenge and a sense of satisfaction, as it allows you to further understand how chemistry provides the basis for all biological processes. As a student interested in medicine, this class is of utmost importance — the knowledge of such biological processes is necessary to further understand the human body.