Thursday, July 20, 2006

Review of the 1st Year: My thoughts on MIT

So, here’s the update you’ve all been waiting for (drumroll please)….what do I think of MIT?

Was it the right place for me? Is it the right choice for others? Read on to find out…

When I was looking at colleges, I never would have thought I would end up at MIT. I had heard so many bad rumors about it: the campus was ugly, the people had bad social skills and didn’t party at all, all the students did was work, everyone was depressed because it was so tough. But after being persuaded by my parents to visit MIT on our East Coast college tour, I became in love with it. The campus wasn’t as ugly as I thought it would be (it’s not like Princeton, but each building’s architecture is very unique and there are quite a few green areas…plus you are right on the Charles river with the Boston skyline in the background!). The people were so friendly; we must have had at least two people stop and ask if we needed directions. I also talked with a few alumni and current students, and all of them said that MIT was an awesome place, and even though it was hard, it was not impossible to do well. After visiting, MIT became my first choice!

Then I got in, which was a very exciting occasion. So after all that wonderful history about my life, I will finally tell you what my first year was like. Here is a list of questions I asked MIT students, and now I will answer them myself.

How much sleep do you get on average (can you get 8 hours of sleep)?

Most of the time, I averaged 7-8 hours each night. Of course there was one or two nights each week where I got only 4 hours or so, but it really isn’t all that bad. If sleep is very important to you, you can get enough sleep, it’s all about organizing your time. This was actually one of my worst fears about going to MIT. I get headaches if I do not get enough sleep (sometimes this happens with 7 hours!), and I the only time I got headaches in college was on weekends, and I think I only got two minor ones the entire year! So if I survived my freshman year, I think you’ll do just fine. Another thing that helps is that most classes do not start until 9 or 10 in the morning, so you can sleep in until at least 8 and still have a ton of time to get ready in the morning. The people who get hardly any sleep are the ones who start their psets the night before they are due and do not pace themselves. So don’t do that!

How much time do you spend doing homework?

This varies a ton on the class. For HASS classes, I definitely did not spend as much time on homework as I was supposed to. I did most of the readings and did all the papers, and I don’t think I spent seven hours per week preparing for class. For some of my science classes, the homework would take a very long time (seven hours or so), but a lot of this was because it was late at night and I was tired, so I was very inefficient. I studied at least four hours a day after school and a few hours on weekends. I would say homework takes at least thirty hours each week. At the same time though, those four hours of studying were often interrupted by friends dropping by and such, and I survived somehow.

Do you have time to do anything else except study? If yes, what do you spend your free time doing?

Definitely! Although on weekdays I would mostly just study, I still had time for all the essentials, and then some. I had time to eat dinner, take a shower, talk to friends, go to study breaks, and exercise. On weekends, even though I would do homework during the day (and not very efficiently sometimes I might add), I still had time to watch movies with friends, go to parties, go out shopping every once in a while, play video games, and spend time with my boyfriend. And Boston is right across the river, so we would sometimes go out to dinner or walk around Boston a little bit. I also have lots of friends who participated in sports everyday. So you do have free time as long as you manage your time well.

Are the classes totally impossible, or can you actually do well in them?

The classes may seem impossible at times, but with some effort you can do well in them (my GPA is testimony to that). And when I say well I mean you can get a B or an A. Lots of times the test scores will seem very low (50s and 60s are very often the average), but the professors scale them to benefit everyone (there are no bell curves that force some people to fail). If you spend time on the class and are serious about doing well, you will be able to. Sure, some tests you might study your butt off and still do badly, but the next test around you will probably have adapted and then you’ll do better. If you don’t slack off, you can do very well here.

One thing I’d like to emphasize: MIT IS NOT CUTTHROAT! Sure, it’s competitive here, but since there are no honors, rankings, or anything like that, people aren’t afraid to help each other. I often work with friends on homework, and people generally seem to WANT to help you with your studies. The person you end up competing the most against is yourself.

What is your overall experience with professors (do you think they are good teachers?)

Just like high school, you have good professors and bad professors, and good TAs and bad TAs. I’ve seen a very wide range. Many of the teachers I had were quite good, very interesting and enthusiastic, organized, and obviously cared about the students. Others were just okay, and some were terrible. Luckily I only ran into one terrible person. Overall I am happy about the quality of teaching here. Another nice thing MIT does is that they have you fill out an evaluation for the TAs and professors, and they put the results online. I’m sure some professors totally ignore the suggestions students give them, but others probably do listen. And it’s great since you can see online which professors are must-haves and which are ones to avoid.

One question that is also asked a lot is about the humanities. Since MIT is known for its engineering and science programs, aren’t the humanities left out? Actually, in my experience, my humanities professors have been very good. I enjoyed my classes, and although HASS classes do not require as much work as your other classes, I’ve found the teachers do not grade easily. You need to write a good essay to get an A, and A’s are not just handed out on a silver platter to anyone. MIT is not just science and engineering, the administration is very focused on creating well-rounded scientists/engineers that are able to communicate well. MIT has some outstanding humanities majors, specifically Economics, Political Science, and Management. Supposedly our creative writing program is also well ranked (I took a creative writing class and enjoyed it immensely).

What are the worst things about MIT?

There’s a big workload, and sometimes you want to scream “IHTFP!” (I Hate This F****** Place, see So if you come here, be prepared to work. It doesn’t matter if you’re a science stud and think you’re all that, whether you got 1600 (or 2400) on your SATs, if you won the international science fair or the international science Olympiad, you still have to work hard. Sure, there are a few geniuses here that seem to pick up everything they hear, but those are very rare. All of my friends are very smart, but they still have to work their butts off. Sometimes the workload does get to you, and if it does, take a break, and just remember that YOU chose to come to MIT.

Also, the weather was a big adjustment. Luckily this winter wasn’t all that bad, but it was still cold to me. The snow is fun, but I would much rather be in California. So it’s something to consider.

Even though MIT is a pretty big name school, there are lots of people who have never heard of it. That isn’t really what is important to me, but sometimes it can get annoying. I get “Michigan?” quite a lot, and sometimes, I even have to explain that there is more than one type of engineering than “engineering.” MIT does still carry around some bad reputation for depressed students and whatnot, and I’ve had a ton of people ask me if I feel comfortable being a girl there (it’s almost 50:50 male:female ratio now by-the-way). But that really doesn’t matter because I know the people that have heard of MIT are the ones that are going to give me and job in the future, and that is what counts.

What are the best things about MIT?

So many things, where to start?

I love the people here: I think almost everyone here deserved to get in. Everyone is smart, friendly and fun. MIT students are very enthusiastic and passionate about what they do, and they all have a drive to succeed. I love my friends so much! We all support each other in whatever we do, whether it is going to a concert someone is performing in, giving surprise birthday parties, and helping each other with homework. The upperclassman try to help, too, even if they may not remember what you are studying. I love how people work together on problem sets, and that MIT is not cutthroat.

I don’t feel like the nerd or the geek anymore like I did in high school, because everyone here is interested in having intellectual conversations and talking about crazy physics ideas or going over a strange math proof. It’s nice to finally feel accepted. At the same time, it’s not all “geeks and nerds” here either (see my response about that below).

I love how MIT challenges you but doesn’t kill you. How you feel like you’ve accomplished something just by finishing a pset. I love how I’ve gotten much better at managing my time. I love how MIT teaches how to be a hard worker.

Another thing that is great about MIT is how the administration is always looking at how to improve things. As I said before, students can fill out surveys about their professors, and the results are posted online. MIT is also trying to constantly change the way things are done in the classroom. Sometimes these changes are for the better, and others sound good on paper but do not work well. But the point is that the administration does care. The TEAL format of my physics class was one of these changes (and you can argue it was not well executed, but there are also positive things about it). Right now MIT is looking to change its General Institute Requirements, and they even had a student committee to give input.

I love how the administration is very approachable. Teachers and TAs often lead review sessions before tests, hold office hours (and they don’t seem to think it’s a pain). Even before I was accepted, the admissions officers were not stuffy in the least, and they actually seemed to care about me as a person.

I love how I’ve been challenged in new ways, and I love seeing how I’m improving each day. I love how MIT teaches you how to solve problems so that you can solve anything. I love how MIT education does not emphasize memorization, but understanding the general concepts and then applying them to much more difficult situations.

I love how we have a unique sort of school spirit. Our “brass rat” school rings are the 2nd most recognized ring in the world besides the Super bowl ring, and any alumni will proudly show it to you and start talking about fond memories of pulling a prank, blowing up something, and how “that class was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.” We have nerd pride, it’s true, and we aren’t afraid to show it.

I love how MIT has a reputation for being a “bootcamp” for science and engineering. I know that when I come out of this place, I will be able to do anything. You can’t get the same level of respect from people when they find out you went to MIT anywhere else (maybe Caltech….but honestly, why would you go there? :-). I know I will be very well prepared for life after college. MIT will teach me how to be the best engineer and person I can possibly be.

I love how there are so many opportunities at MIT. There are so many things to do: you can start your own research, join a club (or twenty), participate in a sport, do community service (or start your own non-profit), join the student government and change school policies…the list goes on and on. If you want to do something at MIT, you probably can. The possibilities are endless.

I could continue on, but I’ll spare you the text.

There is a rumor that most MIT students are depressed (the whole suicide rate thing), what are your comments on that?

To put this straight, MIT’s suicide rate is either the national average or below it (I’ve heard both). Either way, we are not ABOVE the average. Sure, MIT is stressful at times, but there is no need for people to become depressed. In fact, since a few years back when a student committed suicide and it was all over the papers, the faculty has taken depression very seriously. One time Annelise called the nurse about having a stomach ache, and when she mentioned something about being stressed out a little, they asked her all these questions about how she was feeling. Sometimes it can actually get a little annoying, but it’s nice to know that they do watch out for it. Our GRTs (the graduate students that look after us in the dorms), also come by often to see how we’re doing.

MIT wants you to succeed (and people do, we have a very high retention rate), and consequently there are lots of resources for help. Whether it be tutoring, office hours, talking to a GRT or psychologist, there is no reason to get depressed unless you let yourself. I love MIT, I’m happy there, and so are my friends. Of course we complain about the coursework, of course we get frustrated at times, but we still can’t imagine ourselves anywhere else.

So, how many nerds are there really?

This really depends upon how you define a nerd/geek. I consider myself a nerd. I don’t dress up in suspenders every day and talk in a high pitched voice, but I do enjoy learning things. Almost everyone here likes intellectual conversations, and we have lots of jokes about science and math, but there are surprisingly few people that have no social skills. I was surprised at how many “normal” people there were at MIT. Everyone is smart, but most people do not act “geeky.” But most of us do enjoy a good Star Trek episode or Star Wars marathon (excluding the prequels….at least for me :-).

Why should you go to MIT? Is it the right place for everyone?

You should go to MIT if you love math and science and learning in general. If you’ve ever felt alone in your high school for your love of Star Wars, physics, and other intellectual hobbies, then this is the place for you. If you were bored in high school and want a challenge, MIT is for you. If you want to go to the best school in the world for science and engineering, MIT is for you. And, if you want to meet some of the brightest kids in the world, MIT is for you.

If you slacked off in high school because you were really smart and could get straight A’s without any effort, and want the same thing to happen in college, you might not want to come here. If you want to party all the time in college, don’t come here. Geniuses who didn’t need to put any effort into high school often find MIT to be very difficult because they don’t know how to work hard. If you come here, be prepared to put in the time and effort. I don’t say that to discourage you from looking at MIT, it’s just something that people need to know. You will need to work hard, but that’s not all you’ll be doing. You’re going to be learning a ton of cool things, meeting awesome people, participating in amazing activities, and having fun in general. MIT isn’t a place where people study all the time. Sure, it takes up a lot of our time, but college isn’t college without other things too. You can have a balanced life at MIT as long as you are organized.

You probably should not come to MIT if you absolutely detest science. Although MIT does have some world-class humanities programs (economics, political science, and management in particular), you might feel a little left out of all the science jokes. At the same time, there are tons of niches for non-science and math people. So the choice is up to you.

If you think you are the best thing since milk and cookies, MIT is definitely not the place for you. We are very friendly and down-to-earth people (you have to be to survive here, since you'll be relying a lot on others to succeed). Of course we have a few people who think they are "all that", but almost everyone I’ve met at MIT doesn’t have a high opinion of his/herself. Let’s put it this way: don’t expect to be at the top of your class anymore. At the same time though (and as I’ve repeated a billion times), there are many ways to shine here, and it is not impossible to do well.

I love MIT, and I am so glad I came here. I can’t see myself anywhere else.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

4th of July in Boston

Being away from Gus from a month has been like going with out water. Okay, so maybe not that horrible, but I do miss him a lot! I guess it feels like losing your watch and not being able to have coffee when you have it every morning. Maybe that’s also a bad analogy, but I feel like something’s missing all the time, and I have this weird craving in my stomach, like I’m addicted to something and I’m not sure what (but a good addiction, mind you).

Luckily, I was able to go back to Boston and visit Gus (he’s doing research in the Media Lab). And even better, it was on the 4th of July weekend!!!! I took the redeye flight out of San Jose and arrived in Boston at 5:30 in the morning. Gus met me at South Station (he was so excited to see me he stayed up all night :-), and then we walked back to Simmons. It was so great to see him! We had both been counting down the days before we would see each other. It seemed to take forever until it was finally June 30th.

We walked around in Boston a little bit, saw Superman Returns (good movie, by-the-way), ate lunch along the river, played Nintendo (I brought back some of my Nintendo 64 games for him, including The Legend of Zelda Majora's Mask, so he was very happy, and we played Banjo Kazooie and then Gus showed me some old school Nintendo, like the original Legend of Zelda and Star Tropics), watched some crazy movies at the dorm, exercised on the treadmill, and had a romantic dinner (which included candles!!!). Aww my boyfriend is so sweet. Don't worry, I won’t bore you with all lovey-dovey details, but I will say this: I don’t think I’ve ever been so relaxed. I had the time of my life, and I will always remember it.

And how could I forget to talk about the fireworks?! Thousands of people must have shown up across the Charles River. MIT was flooded with people, and the Harvard Bridge was completely packed. Gus and I were on the MIT side of the river, and we had a spectacular view of the fireworks. They lit off so many it seemed like a large golden cloud had been formed. I’ve never seen anything like it! Boston is an awesome place to go for the 4th of July because its history is a major part of America’s independence. Here is a pic of Gus and I and my lame attempt at catching some of the fireworks. Unfortunately I didn't take too many good pictures on this trip:

Now I’m back in California :-(, and I miss Gus again. I’m counting down the days until school starts and I get to see him!

Hope everyone had a great 4th of July!

Agilent Internship

I’m now about three weeks or so into my Agilent Internship. My parents own a small townhouse up in the Bay Area (my dad was always going back and forth for work), so it has come in handy for me because it only takes twenty minutes to get to work. I also enjoy the peace and quiet, although at times I do get lonely, which is when I call Gus. On the weekends I come home to visit my parents.

My work at Agilent has been very interesting so far, and I’ve learned a lot. We still haven’t started on the actual experiment yet, but everything is finally starting to come along. Agilent just moved into the Santa Clara site a few months ago, and they are still remodeling the buildings, so it took a long time for everything to get set up. Our machines appear to be in working order now.

The great thing about this internship is that I came in just as Viorica, my boss, was starting this new project. So I can pretend that I know just as much as she does….or something like that. We’re studying enzymes called Matrix Metalloproteinases (MMPs), which are in the matrix where cells are located. MMPs do lots of things, from eating away at collagen or breaking up other parts of your body. If MMPs go out of hand, recent research suggests that they play a role in arthritis, cancer, and many other diseases. Essentially, they are an important batch of proteins that are worth looking at. Viorica and I are going to develop a method to detect MMPs with an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICP-MS). This particular machine allows you to determine the concentration of metal ions in a sample (which in our case will be blood serum), and MMPs are have a center of calcium and zinc. Want to learn how one works? It’s quite cool actually. Visit this link:

At the moment we have been gathering a bunch of research articles to see what other people have done before us. No one has ever used an ICP-MS before to measure MMPs, so it’s rather unique. Soon though, we’ll start the real experiment!

I’m glad that I am doing an internship, it keeps me busy, keeps my mind working, and it’s fun earning money! I highly suggest you do something over the summer after your first year of college.

Family time! Bridesmaids Are Awesome

A week after I saw my cousin Christopher graduate from high school, I went back to Texas again for his brother, Kyle’s, wedding. I’ve known Kyle’s wife for a few years now, so she already seemed a part of the family because the two of them were always together.

The wedding went so perfectly. Our dresses were pretty, Katie looked gorgeous, Kyle looked handsome, and our baby cousins Logan and Lucy (5 years and 3 years respectively), performed their duties as a flower girl and ring bearer adorably. It was so wonderful to see the family again, we are all very close. We always play a mean game of Pictionary (the best game ever created!) when we get together. The great thing about Pictionary is that you have to guess what someone is drawing, and since people think differently, there are a ton of amusing drawings. One of my favorites was Christopher’s drawing of “Scent of a Woman,” which consisted of a girl that had smells radiating from her body (including armpits). We were never able to guess it :-). Here is a picture of me wearing my bridesmaid dress. I will upload more once I get the pictures from my dad.