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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

Maybe it’s okay to be this way by Anna H. '14

The return of Dumbledore, and a new professor friend

I’ve been reading popular science for a long time. It’s why I’m interested in science. It’s probably why I’m at MIT. I have tremendous appreciation for people like Brian Greene and Oliver Sacks, who are great communicators about their specialty, but am equally admiring of writers like David Quammen and Richard Preston, who aren’t scientists by training but have a knack for delving into scientific fields and then writing about them. If you’ve never read anything by Quammen or Preston, you must. I recommend The Flight of the Iguana and First Light, respectively; reading those books was like eating REALLY GOOD CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM, in that you skim off the TINIEST sliver at a time, in order to drag out the eating process as long as possible. You can do that without losing flavor because each sliver tastes SO FREAKING GOOD.

Since I read First Light, and found out that science writing is an actual profession, it has secretly been my dream job. You learn and write about any area of science that interests you – FOR A LIVING! You get to make connections with renowned scientists and share their stories with the public – FOR A LIVING! Sounds perfect to me: my favorite activities are writing and teaching, I love all areas of science and deeply resent the idea of having to specialize, and have a penchant for running around, introducing myself to professors, and asking about their work. A little more on this specialization resentment: I have read EVERY SINGLE CLASS DESCRIPTION for EVERY SINGLE DEPARTMENT AT MIT. Literally. At the beginning of the semester, when I finally stopped procrastinating on picking classes for the semester, I went online, made a list of 38 I wanted to take this fall, and gave up.

I had room for four.

This has made me feel like an imposter in the science research community. Most of my classmates seem pretty settled with their major; they know that they want to go to graduate school in X, or have been doing a UROP for 2+ years and are loving it.  Sure, a lot of them are conflicted, too, but it always seems like they’re conflicted between two different topics in X, rather than between eighty entirely distinct fields, like me. And then there are my professors, who have, as far as I can tell, been physics prodigies since birth. I’ve talked to a number of them, and it doesn’t seem like there was ever a big identity WHAT SHOULD I DO WITH MY LIFE? crisis. The path was pretty clear: love physics, be ridiculously good at it, become a physicist, profit.

I, on the other hand, was certain that I WASN’T going to become a physicist before this summer. I did a complete one-eighty. I was 90% set on becoming a neurologist, because

1) I figured that being interested in science + wanting to help people and change the world meant becoming a doctor, and
2) brains are both scientifically interesting, and directly relevant to society.

I figured that the importance of whether the Higgs boson exists or not, or the universe has an open or closed geometry, paled in comparison to whether we could cure neurological disorders. Then I spent a summer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and had a transforming research experience with a brilliant, very personable mentor. I became obsessed with pulsars. I gave talks at the local observatory, and figured that I could lead a joint research/outreach life – do research and outreach at a planetarium, like Neil deGrasse Tyson. I could be a scientist who changes the way science is taught…

Something that continued to disturb me: how can I be so different from my fellow physicists and rising physicists and still want to go into the same kind of profession? Maybe that means science research isn’t right for me? That I’m not the “type”? Almost everyone I know likes equation-manipulationg and science research more than creative writing. Some of them actually hate writing. It’s one of those things you “unfortunately” have to do as a scientist; it’s the icky part of the package. I’m the opposite: I am 100% sure that I wouldn’t become a scientist if it meant not writing or communicating ever again.

If all these successful physicists I know have never REALLY wanted to do anything else, or had much of a conflict about their career, maybe that means I’m not cut out to be a successful physicist?

My insecurities hit me again in full force after science journalism class last Thursday; I had spent an hour in rapture, as our professor read us a piece he wrote two decades ago about a neonatal physician who died of toxic shock syndrome, and walked out feeling more torn than ever. I began to fret that I would spend my ENTIRE LIFE conflicted, and as a result never actually accomplish anything. I freaked out, and did what I always do when I freak out: I walked to my special spot on Mem. Drive, by the river (where I used to rehearse for the musical, because no one would be able to hear me) and phoned a friend. Sam ’14 has been one of my best friends since CPW – since before I knew I was going to come to MIT. He is Godly At Physics In A Way I Can Never Hope To Be.

He walked over. We talked. I admit that I shed a few tears. He gave me a hug and a frame of reference with which to calibrate my out-of-control perspective. I calmed down. He then spent two hours giving me a crash course in the linear algebra one needs to know for 8.05 (Quantum II) since I’ve been dying in that class due to Insufficient Math Background. I found out afterwards that he had his own psets to finish. This seems to be the MIT way: punt your psets to help your friends. We help each other survive the inevitable tough times, here. It’s Sam’s birthday tomorrow, so here’s a shoutout – happy birthday, friend!

Sappiness aside, I got a good night’s sleep and felt much better in the morning (it was a rough, rough week) but still a little uncomfortable.

Enter Professor Dumbledore. If you didn’t read my other post about him, here’s the low-down: he’s a professor in the physics department who has been a fabulous “unofficial” mentor to me. I’ve never taken a class with him, done research under his supervision, anything like that – I’ve just talked to him.

A few days before the semester started, I made an appointment to visit Professor Dumbledore, and fill him in on my research experience at the NRAO. Towards the end of the conversation, he glanced at his watch and gave me one of the most cryptic set of instructions I have ever received:

Professor Dumbledore: Okay, Anna. I want you to go downstairs to the second floor.
Me: …second floor.
Dumbledore: To the Marlar Lounge.
Me: Marlar Lounge. Got it.
Dumbledore: There, you will find about forty astrophysics graduate students, snarfing down food.
Me: Forty grad students. Marlar Lounge. Okay.
Dumbledore: I want you to announce your presence –
Me: Announce my p-wait, what?
Dumbledore: -say that you’re interested in astrophysics, and ask if you can hang with them.
Dumbledore: But HURRY, because someone is about to start giving a talk. You have to go RIGHT NOW.
Me: I…what? Okay. BYE!
and without questioning, I ran out the door and into the elevator, hit “2”, and counted down the seconds left of my dignity.
I marched into the Marlar Lounge: sure enough, there were about 40 graduate students in there. They were NOT snarfing food – they were sitting in rows of chairs, while the speaker stood poised with a pointer, ready to begin his presentation. All of them turned to look at me. The terror that Dumbledore could just be messing with me materialized; I banished it. Riddikulus.
Me: Hello!
Graduate students: …
Me: I’m Anna. I’m an undergrad. I like astrophysics. Professor Dumbledore told me to ask if I can hang with you.
They burst out laughing.
Graduate students: Yes, of course! Welcome! Sit down, sit down.
I sat down. Turned out that the talk was about a radio astronomy project that an MIT group is doing at the same telescope I used this summer. My conclusion: Dumbledore is all-knowing and all-seeing.
Nowadays, the Marlar Lounge is a second home to me – I go there every week for the Astrophysics colloquium. Going to these events regularly is nice, because you see the same people over and over again; I sit at the front of the room with Dumbledore, my ex-astronomy professor, my UROP supervisor (who’s bff with my supervisor from the summer) and other very distinguished astrophysicists and astronomers (“very distinguished” and “on the astrophysics faculty at MIT” is sort of redundant.)
Yesterday, the colloquium was about RadioAstron: a telescope that was launched into space last year, to be used with telescopes on Earth to provide very high-resolution data. It’s the equivalent of examining bacteria from a mile away – in the radio part of the spectrum, of course, because radio astronomy is the best. As a radio astronomer-in-training, I wanted to get an expert’s opinion on the project. So, I went to Dumbledore, even though he’s technically not a radio astronomer. He gave me some thoughts but conceded that it wasn’t his specialty, and that he didn’t want to give me too biased of an opinion. As I waited for the elevator and he walked to his office, I heard him yell “ANNA!!!! ANNA!!!!!” and went running back.
Professor Dumbledore: Anna, come here. I want you to meet someone.
Me: ???
He walked me to an office down the hall.
Dumbledore: Anna, this is Josh Winn.
Josh Winn looked up from his desk.
Me: Hi, nice to meet you!
Dumbledore: Josh, I want you to meet my friend Anna. She’s a sophomore.
Me: Junior.
Dumbledore: Junior.
Dumbledore is allowed to forget things sometimes. The information is all in his pensieve(s), anyway.
Josh Winn: Hello!
Dumbledore: She’s going to be a force.
I contributed to the introductions with a mortified silence.
Dumbledore: She wants to know about RadioAstron, but I told her that it’s not really my specialty – so I’m going to leave her with you. Anna, get Josh’s opinion, then you calibrate it with mine.
Me: Sounds like a plan.
Dumbledore left, and shut the door.
Me: Err…hi. Sorry to barge in like this.
Josh Winn: No problem! *blah blah thoughts on RadioAstron that are not really important to this story*
Me: Oh, great. Thanks. So…actually, while I’m here…you probably don’t remember me, but back in my freshman year I arranged a meeting with you and we chatted about careers and interests.
Josh Winn: Oh!
Me: Yeah, it was a while ago. I was wondering if we could chat a bit now, if you don’t mind…
Josh Winn: Of course!
What followed blew my mind. Literally. I could feel bits of brain ricocheting against the inside of my skull. Turns out that Josh Winn:
1) was a physics major at MIT
2) loved all subjects – chem, bio, physics, everything – and particularly loved to write
3) wanted to help people, so (for other reasons as well) decided to go to medical school
4) thought that maybe he could get away with not having to specialize by becoming a science writer
5) the summer after graduating from college, took an internship writing science articles for the Economist in London
6) realized that medicine wasn’t for him, and that he missed physics research, so went to astronomy graduate school
7) continued as a freelance science writer for the Economist through graduate school
8) became a radio astronomer
9) left radio astronomy and is now doing research on exoplanets
Seriously. It was like hearing my life, then my future, recited back to me. The conversation is a bit of a blur; I was very sleep-deprived and a little unstable. I was so overwhelmed by the idea that someone ACTUALLY UNDERSTOOD ME that I nearly started crying. I remember interjecting with “WHAT?????? NO WAY!!!” and a few “ME TOO!!!!!”s and one very embarrassing (WHY DID I SAY THIS???) “OH MY GOD WE’RE LIKE THE SAME PERSON!” If Josh Winn diagnosed me with some sort of Serious Mental Problem, he didn’t say so, though. He made sure to stress that just because astronomy ended up being the right decision for him, it didn’t mean that it would be the right decision for me – that it was important to figure out what MY thing was. Turned out that medicine and science journalism weren’t for him. I asked why he decided against becoming a science writer, and he said it was because it was a bit too vicarious; you spend your time writing about amazing projects that OTHER people are doing.
Fair enough.
I asked for some advice on what to do now: he suggested that I write regularly, get in touch with Alan Lightman (I was pleased to be able to say that I already have – I hunted Prof. Lightman down at a thesis reading last spring, and he agreed to read some of my writing for me), and keep doing astrophysics research to give myself the best shot at getting into a good grad school (that’s the plan.) He emphasized that IT’S OKAY! to feel conflicted. It’s okay to have lots of interests.
He also told me that being able to write well, and LIKING to write, is a very rare and valuable commodity in the science world; he called it “a secret weapon.”
When I explained my guilt in wanting to become an astrophysicist – “I’m worried that I won’t be helping society!” – he said very simply that “there are a lot of ways to help people.” He’s right, I think. There are infinite ways to help the world and a finite number of days in which to do so. Maybe the best plan is to identify something one loves to do, then do it – all the while thinking of ways to connect it to the rest of the world. We might see problems solved from non-traditional, oblique angles that way.
Eventually, I thanked Josh Winn a billion times and told him that I would come back if I had another identity crisis. He laughed. I returned to the elevator, and thanked it from the bottom of my heart for not arriving before Dumbledore called my name.