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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

Classes, musicals, teaching, research, sports, and wisdom tooth surgery. by Anna H. '14

I think I can I think I can I think I can I think I can...

Disclaimer: I’m sorry if this post is a little incoherent. Narcotics do funny things to your brain.


On Friday, I got all four of my wisdom teeth taken out. Five minutes before the surgery, I lay in the dentist chair and looked at the window, trying to concentrate on something other than the IV sticking into my arm. I noticed a particularly lovely cherry blossom tree. Two squirrels.

One oral surgeon. He whooshed into the room with a cheery “hello!”, pulling on a pair of gloves. He looked bizarrely like the father of one of my best friends from High School, which freaked me out a bit. “How are you doing?”

Well, I thought, it’s the first day of my spring break, I have an IV sticking out of my arm, I will soon be able to eat nothing but baby food, and I have more work to do between now and next Sunday than I have ever had in one week, ever. 

“Great!” I replied, flashing him my toothiest smile (to communicate HEY! I HAVE NICE TEETH. DON’T MESS THEM UP.) With that, a nurse pulled a little cap over my face, explaining that I would be receiving nitrous oxide: laughing gas. This would, apparently, help to keep me calm and happy.

I have no recollection of being warned that the sedative was on its way. I remember starting to giggle – and then my eyes were closed and I was in a bizarre half-conscious state. Events unfolded at about ten times normal speed. I was totally aware that I was in surgery. I could hear the surgeon and the nurses talking, although it sounded like their conversation was being played on fast-forward. It felt like my teeth were rearranging themselves inside my mouth, and I remember thinking “wow, this is fascinating!” At the same time, I dreamed that I was running through a series of tunnels and that people I knew were holding doors open to ease my passage.

And then someone asked me how I was doing. I opened my eyes, saw four identical copies of one nurse, and shut them again. The room spun for a while. Eventually, I stopped seeing quadruple and the room seemed still enough, so I rolled out of the chair and staggered into the waiting area with two ice packs strapped to my face.


Since then, I’ve been on a combination of Percocet and Ibuprofen, and am proud to say that today I graduated to eating an entire stick of string cheese. It’s just as well, because I need fuel for the TRULY OBSCENE AMOUNT OF WORK I HAVE TO DO OVER SPRING BREAK. This is a nice introduction to what I have going on this semester. Hold onto your hats (or your teeth – whichever are more likely to detach themselves from your body) –

8.04 Problem Set

8.04 is Quantum Mechanics I, usually taken by sophomore physics majors. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, quantum tunneling, Dirac notation, probability distributions…and an exceptional teaching staff.

The professor: Allan Adams. A legend. It honestly seems like there is nowhere he would rather be than in our lecture hall, filling chalkboard after chalkboard with wavefunctions. I quote: “My job is to convince you that the SINGLE MOST INTERESTING THING you could do upon leaving lecture is the problem set.” I also quote: “fourteen invisible monkeys.” He replies to every question with “that’s a great question!” and never makes you feel stupid.

My TA (recitation instructor): Adrian Liu. My TA. An astrophysicist and a post-doc who has won pretty much every teaching award available at MIT. He gets up at 6am because he “likes to swim before work”…I’m not sure if he realizes that a significant fraction of his students are doing pretty well if they get up before class starts. His explanations are clear, and if they’re not clear, he delivers them again in a different way. At the end of each session, he has us fill out these little anonymous feedback forms, and that evening writes up detailed answers to all of our questions. His office hours are packed and one of my friends reported that he never seems to take longer than 20 minutes to answer an e-mail. This guy is incredibly busy, but his recitation sections are high on his priority list :)

8.044 Problem Set

8.044 is Statistical Physics: an introduction to probability and statistical mechanics. It’s usually taken concurrently with 8.04 by sophomore physics majors. The professor is John McGreevy, who has a toy unicorn in his office (apparently it represents a magnetic monopole: there’s no good reason why it shouldn’t exist, but it doesn’t) and used to be in a rock band. I had a totally bizarre conversation with him earlier this week, about his research:

Me: “What’s your paper about?”
Prof. McGreevy: “Oh, it’s about these things called strange metals…” [strange metals exhibit strange behaviour above superconducting temperature, and his group is trying to come up with a mathematical model for them]
Me: “Oh! That’s funny. I thought I saw the words “event horizon” in there…I thought the paper was about black holes. Guess I was mistaken.”
Prof. McGreevy: “Oh, no, you’re right, the paper’s about black holes.”
Me: “HAHA!” [totally joking] “right. You model metals after multidimensional black holes or something? LOL!”
Prof. McGreevy: “…yup.”
Before I could stop myself:
He laughed.

8.282 Problem Set

8.282 is Introduction to Astronomy: a survey of galaxies, stars, planets, all that good stuff. The professor is Anna Frebel, who arrived this year from Harvard. She’s also my UROP supervisor –

UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) 

With Anna Frebel, I’m studying metal-poor stars: because most of the heavier elements were produced in supernovae, metal-poor stars are usually the oldest stars in the universe. However, we have to distinguish between stars that are metal-poor because of their age, and stars that are metal-poor because they’ve been shedding off metal to a neighbor. Right now, we’re in phase one: I’m looking at stellar spectra and measuring the wavelength shift of hydrogen, sodium, calcium, and magnesium. Based on that, I calculate the radial velocity of the star. Calculate the radial velocity of the star! By looking at its spectra, which live on my computer. A real star. AHHHHH IT’S SO COOL.

16.68 Research Paper

16.68 is “Modern Space Science and Engineering”: a 6-unit seminar in the Aero/Astro department. One of the professors is Jeff Hoffman, an ex-astronaut. I confess that I spend a borderline-creepy amount of lecture time looking at him and thinking “WOAH. THAT GUY WAS IN SPACE.”

The class hosts a different lecturer every week, to present on topics ranging from neuroscience (sleep patterns and circadian rhythms, as relevant to astronauts) to chemical propulsion to GPS systems to extravehicular activity (EVA). This break, I have a big paper to write for the class. We were allowed to pick any topic we wanted, and I chose “papillary edemas”: basically, astronauts often suffer visual problems due to folding retinas. I have a book called “Neuroscience in Space” to use. Neuroscience in space. SPACE AND BRAINS! My two favorite things.

21L.703 Paper Revision(s)

21L.703 is “Studies in Drama: Stoppard and Company.” It’s a CI-M in the literature department, which means that it “teaches the specific forms of communication common to the field’s professional and academic culture”. In other words, we do a lot of oral and written work. In addition to essays, we take turns leading discussion sections and delivering presentations on topics relevant to the play at hand (ex. Karl Marx, feminism in Britain under Margaret Thatcher). The class is sort of a broad sweep of politics, history, and art, which I appreciate – one emerges feeling like a better human being.

Memorize my lines for the musical

Yeah, I’m doing another musical. See what can come from being a little spontaneous? This semester, the Musical Theatre Guild is putting on Urinetown. For those of you that are familiar with it, I’m playing Little Sally.

Lesson plan for an Introduction to Cosmology class

My friend Eric G. ’14 and I are teaching an Introduction to Cosmology class for High School kids through MIT’s Educational Studies Program: it lasts for two hours every Saturday over eight weeks. We’ve talked about redshifts, expansion, grand unification, fundamental forces, metrics and geodesics, but by far my favorite session was when we introduced them to Quantum Mechanics. One of them yelled “AHHH MY MIND IS BLOWN!!!!” It’s refreshing to introduce concepts to kids – concepts that might be old news to us – and watch their understanding of the world be totally transformed.

Schedule the Intramural Ultimate Frisbee season

MIT has a healthy active intramural sports program, which I should really write an entire blog post about at some point. This spring, options range from Ultimate Frisbee to tennis to bowling to octathon to waterpolo to unihoc. I’m the manager for the Ultimate Frisbee leagues (YAY ULTIMATE FRISBEE!) which means that I get all the captains on board with what they need to do, schedule games, and troubleshoot when things go wrong.

Figure out the most efficient way to respond to a gajillion small children

The MIT Museum runs a program called “The Curiosity Challenge.” In a nutshell, kids submit questions or essays or drawings expressing what they are curious about. I met with the lady who runs the program, and found out that none of the kids get answers to their fabulous questions (ex. why are wood fires red and gas fires blue? how many cells are in a panda? why do dogs chase cats? why do people make mistakes? if there is other life out there, would they call us aliens?)

I was horrified, and asked for the opportunity to compose responses. The MIT Museum staff delivered the entries to my dorm, and I now have three GIGANTIC bags sitting in my room, filled to the brim with submissions. There are easily five hundred of them. I’m a little intimidated, but am determined to make this happen. It’ll happen, whether it means I have to clump all the entries together into broader topics, or digitize all of them and get people to respond online.

It’ll happen, because it has to happen, because it would be a travesty for these kids to send their questions off and never receive responses. It’ll happen, just like all this other work will happen, because it has to. I will get this all done. I will also be able to eat solid food soon, because, let’s be honest, this whole diet-of-soup-and-apple-sauce thing is pretty lame.

Deep breaths. I got this.