My Strangest Educational Experiences at Cal

Hey there! My name’s Violet and I’m excited to be writing for the Bear Talk Blog this semester.

I study physical geography and atmospheric science, and maybe its just me and my major, but I feel like I’ve done some pretty weird things for class. This post lists five strange things I’ve done for school, it coincidentally also doubles as a list of some of my favorite memories here. I can’t wait to add to it!

1. Licked rocks

Introductory Earth science courses at Berkeley include labs, several of which focus on mineralogy. In one of my lab sections I was once asked to identify a solid sample of Halite (solid NaCl), and given the option of licking it as a foolproof method of identification, I did. It was salty. read more

Cheerful Chimes of the Campanile Carillon

The first time I heard about the carillon four years ago, I was standing at the base of UC Berkeley’s beloved Campanile. Peering up, up, up at the 61 bells that loomed impressively from the top of our 307-ft tall bell and clock tower, the first word that came to mind was “Wow!” Ever since I’ve heard about this majestic instrument, I’ve wanted to learn how to play it. This semester, I am one of twelve lucky students in the Carillon DeCal, a class facilitated by two experienced carillon students. We will be having weekly private lessons, and at the end of the semester, I will be playing the bells for the entire campus to hear!

CarillonAs part of the application for one of the coveted spots in the class, I observed a noontime concert up close from the top of the tower. With joyful peals and triumphant chimes, it was the perfect way to ring in the first day of classes for spring semester. I really enjoyed the artistic 10-minute performance by professional carillonist Tiffany Ng. She played with incredible grace and agility while performing “Pealing Fire” by Libby Larsen and “Hymn Preludes for the Kirk” by Geert d’Hollander. There were long, clear tones, with pregnant pauses in between, as well as twinkling cascades of notes during more playful sections of “Pealing Fire.”

In addition to the beauty of the music, the physicality of playing the carillon struck me. I was captivated by the way Tiffany’s fists danced across the batons and how she braced herself with her arms and leaned into some of the lowest notes that she played with her feet. I can imagine it takes a lot of strength to play the carillon, as they’re attached to massive clappers above! Since carillon bells can weigh up to several tons, the clappers are the ones that move to strike the bells; the bells themselves do not move. UC Berkeley’s carillon spans five octaves, and the largest bell is the Great Bear Bell, which weighs 5.25 tons and rings on the hour. While 5.25 tons may seem like a very heavy bell, 20-ton and 100-ton bells exist in other places. Heavier bells produce more sonorous sounds, whereas the Campanile carillon bells have a brighter sound quality. The smallest Campanile bell weighs a modest 19 pounds.

On the first day of our Carillon DeCal class on February 3, we watched the 7:00pm Natural Frequencies Concert, a special concert in honor of the 100th Anniversary of the Campanile, played as a duet by carillonists Jeff Davis and Tiffany Ng. The light show made for an intriguing visual display, as well as an exciting acoustic performance. While a few of my classmates mentioned that the bells sounded like they were out of tune, we learned in a lecture by Jeff Davis that the Campanile carillon is one of the most in-tune carillons in the world. The tuning of a carillon is unique, and 5 different pitches resonate from one bell when it’s struck. The bells are arranged in chromatic sequence, and produce concordant harmony when many bells are sounded together.

This is an especially opportune year to learn to play the bells, in celebration of the Campanile’s 100th year. One of the best aspects of Berkeley is the opportunity to discover and try different things. As I am graduating this semester, I am hoping to maximize the breadth and depth of my experiences here, and am very excited for the opportunity to take the Carillon DeCal. Now comes the joy and challenge of picking which song to play for the end of the semester recital!

The Joy of Psychology

Did you know that dolphins sleep on one side of the brain at a time, and that the two hemispheres take turns sleeping while the other is awake to control swimming and breathing? Or that cells in biology labs where the lights are on all the time can get jet-lagged? (“I’m so tired… It’s been day for 3 months!”) Or that there’s a fairly strong relationship between happy mood and increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex? I was having an amazing day a couple days ago, and I thought to myself that my left prefrontal cortex must really be tickled with all that happiness.

When people ask how classes are going at UC Berkeley, I frequently find myself talking about psychology. Psychology is incredibly fascinating, and it’s fun talking about the brain, emotions, or social interactions. As psychology covers a wide breadth of processes, from memory and learning to emotional regulation to developmental psychopathology to cognitive disorders, I appreciate that UC Berkeley offers classes across a variety of domains.

Inferior temporal cortex
Inferior temporal cortexNeuropsychology_Neglect

The content of some of my psychology classes have made for vibrant dinner conversations. For example, in biological psychology this semester, we learned about the “Jennifer Aniston” neuron in the inferior temporal cortex that only fires in response to pictures of Jennifer Aniston. In neuropsychology, we learned about neglect, an intriguing phenomenon where patients with lesions in the right temporal parietal junction lose awareness of the left side of their world, and subsequently only pay attention to visual, auditory, and somatosensory information presented on their right side. They only draw on the right half of the page and some of them only eat food on the right side of the plate or shave the right half of their face. In a human emotion class I took last year, we learned that people who engaged in social sharing and wrote about emotionally significant issues showed improvements in immune function and were significantly happier than control participants three months later. We also learned that positive mopostitive-emotions-broadened-mindods enable us to think in more flexible, creative ways that enhance our perspectives, novel ideas, and learning.

Psychology events at UC Berkeley have proved equally interesting and rewarding. A couple weeks ago in November, the Department of Psychology organized a series of talks for “The Man and the Maze,” an event in honor of Edward Tolman, for whom the campus’s Psychology and Education building is named. Many notable psychologists spoke about their research and innovations in the field. I attended the featured talk by Edvard Moser, a 2014 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and listened to him share about his groundbreaking research on hippocampal and entorhinal representations of place and time. We’d discussed the Morris Water Maze task in my neuropsychology class a couple weeks earlier, and it was exciting then hearing Dr. Moser share about his most recent work on grid cells and speed cells. read more

Is Berkeley Too Competitive?

For campus ambassadors the month of April tends to be pretty hectic. With all the newly admitted students, prospective students on spring break and the international visitors it can be a little busy. One of our duties as ambassadors is to give interested parties tours of the campus (my favorite part of the job). Having given quite a few tours in the past week I noticed that I was often being asked a question that I normally had not encountered on previous tours.

Is Berkeley too cutthroat or competitive?

This question shocked me, especially with the ways it was phrased by the visitors. I heard surreal anecdotes, quotations of facts with no reliable source and even the ‘I know someone whose daughter’s friend went here and she said…’ comments. The reason I was so shocked was because I had never really encountered any of this aforementioned ‘competition’ at Berkeley in the two years I have been here.

I completely understand the concern people have for the presence of unhealthy competition. It can be unnecessarily stressful, psychologically damaging or even just plain old annoying. But Berkeley is not like that – at all. The courses I have taken have varied in the past two years: science courses, math classes and quite a few other social science/humanity classes. This broad spectrum has allowed me to encounter a lot of different students; people moving in all sorts of directions, from pre-med and pre-law to business and engineering majors. Yet no one I ever met ever went out of their way to compare his or her performance to other students. It’s almost a silent rule at Berkeley that we just do not ask people their grades. I have heard people say that the pre-med route or the business route are cut throat across the US but most of my friends belong to these groups and are probably the most friendly and helpful people I have met here. When I had to take a biology class for a prerequisite despite never actually having taken a Biology course, I was nervous. Yet I got nothing but help from my friends and classmates; whether it was helping me catch up on notes, explaining various enzymes or even just listening to me moan about how hard biology is to me.

But in some ways Berkeley is competitive. As a student here you will compete with yourself. Students at Berkeley constantly push themselves to work harder, get better grades and be more social. In short, it helps us evolve into much more efficient, and I would dare say, better individuals. I believe that on its own, this is one of the reasons we are such an awesome school. And an awesome school it is indeed, thus the classes might be, at times, out of a student’s comfort zone, but it is only with these challenges that we become so much better at the material. Even if, heaven forbid, some sort of stress or fatigue overcomes you, this campus and city have enough distractions to offer. The University itself will help you to the best of their ability (which is a lot). The University Health Services offer free sessions of academic, career and psychological counseling which are accessible to all Berkeley students regardless of the insurance plan they have. All our college advisors are more than happy to sit and help us and guide us during our years here. Most of the time you don’t even have to look too far as friends and other students are incredibly resourceful at times like these.

So in short: No, Berkeley is not a cutthroat environment by any means.

The Class You Should Not Not Take


Film 50: Film for Non-Majors.

No, calm down, I am not telling you to take one of those dreary classes that sounds fun but where you actually have to write a lot and give a lot of exams. At least not yet. See Film 50 is a series of lectures offered at the Pacific Film Archive Theater that explore the world of cinema. You can either take it as a 4 unit class with discussions and exams, or leisurely attend one or all the lectures/screenings. It is usually a weekly 3 hour block where the Professor or guest lecturer introduces the film, followed by a screening of the film and finally a discussion. There is generally a theme for the series and it can be extremely interesting to follow the lecture/screening that is only once a week. Anyone can attend the Screening/Lecture regardless of whether they are enrolled at UC Berkeley or simply an intrigued member of the public. The class basically consists of watching a movie and then discussing the feelings you have (and trust me with the excellent film collection they have, there will be feelings) with some very stimulating people. Sometimes the 3 hour lecture/screenings would seem too short and I would return to my dorm, torturing any poor floor-mate who happened to be within earshot, by going on and on about how moved or distraught I was.

Berkeley might not be the film production haven that UCLA or USC is, but we have some excellent faculty in our Film department. All the Professors and GSIs know their film and are very approachable. They are interesting individuals to talk to, about movies, or anything else, if you want to stay back after lecture for a bit. The best thing about these lectures is that most of the time the professor only acts as a moderator for discussions after the screening, so anyone and everyone can have a say. Since the lectures are open to the public, the crowd is as diverse as possible, with all age-ranges and types of people represented. Hearing these different opinions and takes on the film can be refreshing as well as broaden one’s own reaction to the particular film. For those worried that the class will be too technical, the professor makes sure that the lecture/screening never is, and this is great for casual viewers, who might not be particularly engrossed in the intricacies of film production.

In general, I feel the BAM/PFA is not given due importance by the students at UC Berkeley. We are extremely lucky to not only have one of the most awesome Modern Art museums owned by any university, but also to have an extensive film archive that still shows historically significant films in their original formats (that means =&0=& streamed on Netflix or ripped from a DVD). The original formatting can be 16mm format or even having a live orchestra perform alongside a silent classic. The films are not (all) hipster films either, rather lots of Hollywood classics by auteurs like Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen and even some current blockbusters. Film 50 is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how interesting the different showcases and screenings can be. There are also a ton of fascinating documentaries offered for those who would prefer something a tad bit more realistic. Basically there is a wealth of filmic resources at the PFA and I feel students do not realize this. Yet, one cannot really blame the students, I mean being a student at Berkeley isn’t exactly easy and managing a social life/playing League of Legends and keeping up a strong academic performance does not exactly offer us a lot of time to unwind and catch movies. The best way to make sure you can keep up this juggling act is to attend at least one Film 50 lecture per semester. This will allow you to not only catch a nice movie but also be exposed to the intricacies of film in a mere 3 hours. The truth is, I might recommend just one screening per semester but I know a majority of you will return to continue the series and some of you might just take the class for credit next semester. I guess what I am saying, and I never promised you I wouldn’t, is that you should take this class.