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Big Dreams, Small Mind by Ben O. '19

The troubles of being in school and doing research for too long.

Hiiiiiiiiiiiii 好久不见朋友s I missed you guys. I really really really did (except for you… you know who you are…)

For those of you who don’t know, I spent the last year of my life in Shanghai studying Chinese at Fudan University. I am currently working on a number of blog posts that will be coming out on things like being a black person in China, language learning, my changes in perception of various aspects of life, living in an international dorm with very few other people coming from the U.S, etc. These will be coming soon, I promise, but these posts have a lot of moving parts and I really want to give you guys everything I can, as far as the past year goes. Until then, I am making this post about something that has really been bothering me ever since I have been home – that is, creativity.

First, a quick background just so you guys know where I am coming from. I am a course 20 (biological engineering), and I am in my 3rd year at MIT and my 4th year in college. My passion in life is cancer research – day in day out until the day I die, that is what I want to work on and what I have almost always wanted to work on. For those of you that have kept up with my blogs, you are all aware of my most prized possession- my cancer binder (now with an s, it’s a little family of binders now ^_^). In it lives all my papers, questions, and most importantly new ideas. However, over the last, say two years or so, I have seen a dramatic decrease in the new ideas section of the binder. I think if I am being completely honest a big reason for that decline is in fact my time at MIT.

Now I don’t mean to say that MIT is decreasing my ability to be creative, but I am aware that the information MIT has provided me with has started to take a toll on my ability to think outside the box. How I see it, is this: if you are completely ignorant of what’s in the ocean and all you see is a big body of water, there really isn’t anything stopping you from jumping in. On the other hand, if you know about all the deadly toxins and animals in the ocean you are farrrrr less likely to jump in. When I started my binder I had very little to no research experience, so ideas could be anything: sharpening a t-cell to pierce cancer cells, using single antibodies to pull massive t-cells to cancer, nanotech that caused cancer to stick to itself so it was all in a singular location. My ideas were all over the place because they could be- I didn’t know how much materials cost, the limits of gene editing, or the dangers of toxicity. There were no practical limitations on my imagination.

However, at this point I have been doing research for about 5 years, and I have been studying biology as my major for about 3. I am far more aware of the numerous walls that would instantaneously trash most of the ideas I had back when I was in high school and middle school. Ideas seem to be dead on arrival because I know how many problems an idea might face when it comes to practicality. On top of that, academia as a whole is very specialized, so something much smaller and more practical seems to be preferred in academia over ideas that seem really big but have an insane number of pitfalls.

I think as researchers and scientists we have all been working in our respective fields for so long, that many of us have forgotten what it is like to consider something that seems ludicrous. I’ve had these thoughts because MIT is currently working on a bio makers space, an area where anyone can go and work on their own personal project in a lab funded by MIT. The idea is quite new at MIT, but I got to talk to the head of the project, who seems very hopeful that a lot can come from a space where original ideas can be explored without fear- and I 100% agree. I feel like nothing would be cooler than a public lab where I can walk in with an idea and just try it. Unlike a lot of other fields, due to the high cost of doing bio research, there aren’t too many times or places people in biology can try out their own random idea and just see what happens. I think this is what makes it an amazing resource that MIT could offer.

I say all this because learning about this open bio space took me back to my crazy ideas and a time when research felt big and creative and soooo free- rather than trying to eliminate the dimerization of some extremely specific protein complex in a single beta cell line of mice. I mean yes, those things are important, but I did not enter research to make a small change, I came to change the entire game, and I feel like I cannot do that while trying to stay inside my own intellectual box.

I was very upset with myself when I was asked if I had any ideas for projects in the maker space and I came up with almost nothing. At one point in time I would have vomited ideas on top of ideas on top of ideas, and at this point all I could think of was this linker that’s being annoying in a CAR-T I am working on. I miss the old me that did not know about all the oil spills and jellyfish that lurked in the ocean, the old me that just jumped straight into the water and fearlessly explored its depths. I have decided to actively push myself to think out of the box this year and come up with some really cool ideas for the maker space, and honestly I encourage you to do the same… who knows what you will come up with???