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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

One new blog, three post-college thoughts by Anna H. '14

just popping by to say hello

Hello from Barcelona! I’m here for an astronomy conference. (You may be wondering: who is this girl and why is she talking about astronomy? Does she even go here? The answer is no, I don’t go here, BUT I used to. I graduated in June 2014. Now I do astronomy research at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany.)

Some news from me: I have a new blog now. Here it is.

and now, here are three thoughts from The Other Side of college: one on where I live, one on what I do on public transportation and in bed, and one on what I do at work.

on where I live –

It’s nice to feel like I live in a city, instead of feeling like I live on a campus. While I was at MIT, I found myself wondering how long it would take me and my fellow undergrads to notice if all of Boston and Cambridge vanished into thin air. So much of our lives revolved around activities, people, and buildings in those 170-ish acres: we not only studied there, we lived there, and I think that an accurate answer to “where do you live?” for many of us during those four years would have been “MIT,” rather than “Cambridge” or “the Boston area.”

My German friends in Heidelberg find this idea of “campus life” weird. “University” is where they go for lectures and exams. It’s like going to work. How could this “work” place also be “home”?

Now, I take the bus from home to work in the morning, up a hill, past a castle, into a forest. Then I take the bus “home,” back to town, back to my apartment. That bus doesn’t even run on the weekends, so I couldn’t get to work if I tried. “Work” and “life” are geographically distinct. This feels healthy.

(I’m not saying that I think MIT undergraduates should live off-campus. Obviously, our residential life culture is a rich component of being a student at MIT, and I’m glad that I lived on campus. But I think it’s healthy that this only lasted for four years.)

on what I do on public transportation and in bed –

Newsflash: I have time to read! I rarely read for fun while I was at MIT. I wish I had been brave enough to make a point to carve out time for that activity.

I finally read a gift from sophomore year (The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments – thanks, Sumin ’14!), finally followed up on a friend’s suggestion to read American Gods, finally confronted my aversion to Hemingway (I remember disliking his short stories when I read them in High School) by reading and loving For Whom the Bell Tolls, finally read Anna Karenina all the way through. I’ve read the first half at least three or four times, and always put it down for some reason or another. I was surprised; I remember, as a 14-17 year old, impatiently skimming the Levin sections hoping for more Anna-Count Vronsky romance. This time I found myself very interested in Levin and very impatient with all of the drama.

Two fellow MIT alums (Davie ’12, Daniel ’12) and I have always wanted to read the Inferno, so we put together a little book club. We have a Skype discussion once per week, covering six cantos at a time.

Inspired by a close friend of mine (who has an ENTIRE SHELF of Isaac Asimov books at home) I went on a science fiction binge. I started with Contact, then read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation triology, then the prequels and sequels. I also read The Robots of Dawn and The Naked Sun.

After I arrived in Germany, I felt very self-conscious about my role as a representative of the United States, so I read an American history book. Then, feeling self-conscious about my total ignorance of German literature, I e-mailed my cousin (who majored in Literature, studied German, and wrote her thesis on a German novel) asking for recommendations, and at a Cocktailabend (Cocktail evening) I passed around a notebook and asked my new German acquaintances to write down book suggestions for me. I read Marion Haushofer’s Die Wand and am now on my third Christa Wolf book; I started with Medea, then read The Quest for Christa T. (original German title: Nachdenken Über Christa T.) and am now almost finished with the heartbreaking Patterns of Childhood.

I also read a collection of Woody Allen’s “Complete Prose,” which was a birthday gift from a new German friend. Reading it on public transportation was very embarrassing because I kept having to set it down on my knee in order to put a hand over my mouth and stifle my laughter.

and finally, on what I do at work –

I’ve been thinking a lot about the skills that I use as a scientist, and how lucky I was to wind up doing research despite having a total misunderstanding of what it involved.

On a day-to-day basis, I spend most of my time programming, some of my time reading papers. On a week-to-week basis, I go to talks and participate in discussions at research meetings. And in the past couple of months, I’ve given two talks and worked on writing and editing papers.

I enjoy the communication and social aspects of science as much as I love the data manipulation. I expect communication skills to become increasingly important through my career, because I see that my advisors spend an enormous fraction of their time communicating: supervising students, giving talks, writing papers and grant proposals and telescope proposals, running and participating in meetings.

And yet, before I did science research for the first time, I had no idea that this was what research involved. I associated these skills – writing, critical reading and information synthesis, discussion, presentation – with the humanities. This is because of the enormous difference in skill sets involved in my so-called “humanities classes” and my so-called “science classes.” For example, my only discussion-based classes have been in English and Literature, and in High School the only presentations I gave were in History class. By contrast, my science classes involved memorizing information and following instructions.

Things were different at MIT. My science classes enabled me to learn what research involves, in large part because they were taught by scientists who incorporated some aspect of Real Research into their teaching. I ran around interviewing professors, and tried out research through UROPs and summer internships. And, once I knew I liked research, I was able to practice research-related communication skills in Junior Lab, which involved going through several iterations of conducting an experiment, writing a paper, and giving a talk.

But I was already at MIT, already had access to an overwhelming abundance of resources for becoming a scientist.

This is what disturbs me: I know so many people who decided against scientific careers BEFORE anybody told them what a scientific career actually involved, or before they had the resources to find out for themselves! When I think back to pre-college science class, and then I think of what my job as a scientist actually involves, I realize that they barely resemble each other. Frankly, my science classes were not my favorites. I loved my humanities classes and I loved my computer science class. I loved reading about science, outside the classroom. And then I went to college and learned that research is where the skills I love and the topics I’m interested in come together. But I saw friends turned away from science without ever finding out what it would have involved. This is deeply troubling to me.