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MIT student blogger Paul B. '11

One Extraordinary Week, Plus Ferrets by Paul B. '11

I suit up for surgery.

IAP makes everything at MIT more enjoyable. The past week has pretty much been a whirlwind of activity. For once I have absolutely no problem sets and no commitments other than my UROP – which gives me quite a bit of free time to socialize, relax, and simply enjoy everything that makes MIT…well, MIT. In this entry, I wanted to not only tell you a little bit more about my UROP, but also show you a small sampling of the crazy, fun, and/or ridiculous things I’ve been up to this past week. To wit, I…

  • Threw a late-night Diablo II LAN party with my fraternity brothers…twice.
  • Almost was run over by the No. 1 bus when it decided not to stop for me as I ran across the street to catch it.
  • Lost a cutthroat game of Settlers of Catan by one point, and only because the other players all ganged up on me. I was so close… (By the way, I just lost the game again. Shoot.)
  • Had a quick Starbucks break with Melissa ’11 (a.k.a. Piper).
  • Gave myself my first zsig.
  • Ate out at Uburger for a fun, delicious, and totally unhealthy dinner. I think my arteries are still clogged.
  • Bought some of my course books for next semester from the Coop. (Yes, I know that’s almost unforgivably nerdy, even for MIT. But it sure beats waiting in line when term actually starts.)
  • Chatted for quite a while with John Cloutier (a Skullhouse alum, former student-body president, and Jessie‘s “partner-in-crime“), who was back in Boston for the weekend.
  • Got destroyed in a game of Stratego. (I should take this opportunity to note that, no matter how good you are at any given game, at MIT, you will almost certainly find someone who will give you a run for your money.)
  • Updated my résumé and started working on this whole “summer internship” thing. Should be a fun process. ;-)
  • Got caught in the Boston Rain.
  • Met with the Simmons Hall Mystery Hunt team (codename: Smallish Momenta. I will give something awesome to the first person who can figure out the origin of our name) to coordinate details for the Hunt,which starts this Friday. Our #1 directive? Have fun! (Works for me.)
  • Celebrated my friend Caroline’s birthday with the most delicious cake I have ever eaten, which Caroline personally made for all of her friends. Seriously, this cake – chocolate with some mouth-watering vanilla frosting – was amazing; apparently it was a recipe passed down from Caroline’s great-grandmother. Few birthday girls would make her own cake; only Caroline could make one this delicious. =)
  • Played in an Assasssins’ Guild game, where I ended up trying to conquer the world with a crack squad of ninjas. Really, I’m not joking.
  • Unleashed a birthday explosion in Ben’s office.
  • And, most amazingly of all, I got to work with ferrets as part of my UROP.

You may be wondering, did Paul really just write that he worked with ferrets? Yes, you read me right: ferrets. They’re quite adorable creatures, although they also have a feisty streak a mile wide. I know this because, this past Wednesday, my lab performed surgery on a pair of ferrets we had been studying – and I got to watch.

A little background. I’m part of the Langer Lab, which is one of the largest labs on campus, encompassing various fields of research from chemical engineering, materials engineering, bioengineering, and everything in between. Although my specific lab group doesn’t really have an official name, most people just call us the “vocal fold group,” as our ultimate goal is to develop treatments for scarring that can sometimes occur in vocal cords (such as by fire exposure, throat cancer, or botched surgery). One of the ways we do this is by synthesizing various hydrogels. We then test the gels’ mechanical properties and, on occasion, test their effectiveness using animal models – that is, ferrets.

Let me apologize in advance to any animal rights people who may be offended by this post. I certainly agree that animals deserve the most humane treatment and care possible. That being said, animals really are valuable models for scientific research, and you have to draw the line somewhere. All in all, I don’t really want to turn this into a political blog, so if you really want to talk about animal rights or are curious about MIT’s animal testing policies, just drop me an email; I’m always happy to chat.

As you can guess, animal surgery is a pretty big deal, so I had to don full surgical gear just to observe the proceedings. I suited up from head-to-toe in a lab coat, booties, hairnet, gloves, and a face mask; and then I followed the rest of my lab group into the actual surgery room, which happened to be located in the basement of our lab building at MIT.

It was actually a rather surreal experience. Two dedicated surgical fellows performed the actual procedure, while the rest of us helped set everything up, recorded data, handed the surgeons instruments, and recorded video of the tests. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t have enough experience or expertise to be very helpful (though hopefully I’ll get there someday!), but I was nonetheless pretty efficient when it came to taking down notes or handing the surgeons whatever particular instrument they needed.

Although this past week has been awesome in so many different ways, and my lab has given me the opportunity to do some pretty cool things besides animal surgeries (such as growing my own cell culture and helping to run an ELISA), watching the surgical fellows work has definitely been the highlight of my UROP experience so far. I wish I had been able to take some photos, but unfortunately that would have violated several sterilization protocols, so I hope you can use your imagination to picture what it was like. Or better yet, when you come to MIT, get a UROP yourself and experience the wonders of scientific research firsthand! I know that sounds terribly cliché, but I’m quite serious: if when you come to MIT, you can and should avail yourself of all the tremendous research opportunities available to you. Whatever your interests and passions – from astrophysics to political science to computer science – there is a UROP for you. As an institution, MIT is incredibly dedicated to letting undergraduates participate in research in a meaningful way. The UROP program itself is one of the major reasons I chose MIT over any other school. Sure, other schools have research programs too – but none of them were quite like UROP.

Even though I’ve only been UROPing for a few months, I can say this with certainty: the program works. No matter how many hours I end up spending in the lab, or how many times I end up staying past five o’clock just to fix one tiny detail in my protocol or to finish a test we’re working on, I can think of no better way to spend my time.

Except blogging, maybe. =)

37 responses to “One Extraordinary Week, Plus Ferrets”

  1. Tanmay says:

    @ Aditi:

    You are really lucky indeed! smile

  2. Libin Daniel says:

    Aditi, you got a double roll.

  3. Swagnik says:

    What are the UROP opportunities in economics?

  4. Desmond says:

    Surgery!! I can imagine what it was like. I took part in a hysterectomy, at close range!!! You know all the white lab coat, mask, and a million sterilization rules.
    I’m sure you’re like, Are you serious?
    Well I didn’t actually do the cutting but,like Paul, was kind of a robot.
    “Clippers!” I give it, then check the saline level, blood pressure….
    It was awesome and, well, a little scary; seeing the surgeon put blade against skin and ultimately removing a cancerous body part.
    I hope to have greater and more interesting UROPs when I get to MIT.
    Hey thanks for the information you guys give.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Wow. That’s sooooo cool. I hope I get into MIT so I can do awesome stuff like that!

    And I just lost the game. :(

  6. Oasis says:

    I read your entry, as promised. smile

    And actually, I have something that I´ve been wanting to say to you for awhile, that´s somewhat relevant to the topic of this blog.

    I´ll let you know sometime. smile

    (My current location has now shifted to some random internet cafe in Madrid, haha)

  7. karen says:


    say it ain’t so, Paul :(

  8. Marc R says:

    <3 Diablo II.

    And I most certainly hope that no Maphacks were involved, Paul.

  9. Akshay says:

    A very informative post.
    And I totally agree with you MIT has the widest of research opportunities for every major. I also intend to there because of this reason. And interdisciplinary research tops.

    I would surely like to know how to get involved in UROP from the very beginning of academic term just like you did. I would definitely appreciate some tips from your side Paul smile

  10. Ana says:

    Just out of pure curiosity (i.e. I’m not trying to make a bone about animals testing or anything, no pun intended), why does your lab use ferrets as opposed to mice, rats, or rabbits? When I think “model organism,” for some reason, a ferret just doesn’t particularly come to mind. Random…but I was just wondering.

  11. Isshak says:

    Finally, something about your UROP !
    Ferrets, really ? What a coincidence..

    And I just lost the game…

  12. Piper says:

    Shoot, I lost.

    And hey, that’s me! And how come you get the awesome team in the guild game? “Otherkin” was the most boring one and I had to get it… Oh well, at least it wasn’t for the 10-day.

    I’m glad your UROP is going great!! =) I’m going for one next semester. BWAHAHAHA.

  13. Isshak says:

    paul, your blog is great, but you don’t answer on your facebook…you take too long…i’m hungry too

  14. Paul says:

    Sorry Isshak, part of the problem is that I’m busy doing all the things I blog about! ^_^ I’ll get back to you soon, I promise.

    Akshay – Thanks for your interest! I wanted to talk about how I got my UROP, but I realized that would have been a little much to fit into this entry. Sorry! I’ll be blogging about it soon though, so don’t worry.

  15. Star says:

    Great post, your UROP sounds neat. I WANNA UROP! And, of course, the typical MIT crazyness of everything else you do. AND, 3 spots on the main page! w00t w00t!

  16. Aditi says:

    wow! just wow. UROPing and IAP sounds incredible

    i want :(

    (hahahahaa i’m such a whiner)

    oh question. if someone was doing course 22 or something particle physics related , could they perhaps go to CERN as a part of their UROP ? :D

    also MIT should get a particle accelerator ( they dont have one do they?) Cornell has an electron storage ring :O

    MIT>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>Cornell :D

  17. @ Desmond: i can’t quite imagine what taking part in surgery would be like. I was a mini-pathology-assistant this summer and sat through an autopsy my first day on the job.
    dead bodies > live hysterectomies? possibly not.
    would i do it again? yeah.
    Paul i hopes for UROP liek yours!

  18. Edgar says:

    Aditi, I myself have wondered that. Imagine doing research at CERN! That would just be the ultimate charactersitc of an MIT education.

  19. Libin Daniel says:

    If Dan Brown is to believed, the CERN has the paricle accelerator that has D’s so huge that the spheres appear to be straight…8Km….Gosh!
    Yet, its a fiction..Right?
    CERN…..CERN..MIT hear us..CERN..

  20. Libin Daniel says:

    Hey Paul, Why don’t someone blog a bit about Aeronautical Engineering( Not Aerospace, although either is acceptable)? I would be glad to read bout a different Facade of MIT. Also, as I posted in Snively’s Blog…’Shoot’ up some pics or facts about the chapel.
    Thanks a ton for this scrap and the every shred of info you give us about MIT.

  21. Tanmay says:

    Hey Paul, I read somewhere sometime back that you were involved in research in your high school too. What you did earlier is helping you now in UROP(directly or indirectly)???

    And how do you guys get a chance to do research while in school? I wasn’t ‘lucky’ enough to find the source.

  22. Nate says:

    anyways Great post, but really ferrets, do they still stink in surgery or no? And on the subject of your groups name, Smallish momenta, well i know momenta is a physics term, so I wanna say its origin is Latin, and most likely something to do with astrophysics. I am probably really off on this ideal but worth a shot.

  23. Aditi says:

    @libin : the particle accelerator exists.

    its called a LHC ( large hadron collider) I think it becomes functional in may(right?). I want to see it. SoooooOO badly.

    oh and my physics teacher is an MIT alum (how lucky am I!). he did his Aeronautical Engineering at MIT.

  24. Karen says:

    @Kal: I would imagine that people hospitals have extremely strict protocols, but when I shadowed a vet at his clinic in 7th grade, I got to watch two spayings. A word of advice: the smell of blood is like nothing else you’ve ever smelled in your entire life. Prepare yourself.

    Paul, your UROP sounds absolutely fascinating – also ferrets are adorable but I’m rather partial to guinea pigs. I’m excited to hear about the progress that your lab makes! Also, what is this Diablo II videogame you speak so highly of, it seems as though my N64 won’t support it… smile

  25. Collin says:

    Aww, you should have had a Starcraft LAN…

  26. Tanmay says:

    @ Paul:

    Yes, that’ll be nice!

  27. Hawkins says:

    Awesomeness! Hey, yeah, let us know how you jumped into a UROP during your first semester! I’m looking to incorporate my sleep experiment into some research this time next year…

  28. Hank R. says:

    I just now bought most of my textbooks for next term off

    Also, I just lost the game too.

    Also, Diablo II? Going old school there. I haven’t played that game in years.

  29. Hank R. says:

    Also, where’s that Diablo III, Blizzard?

  30. Dominic says:

    oh haha, Simmons Hall Team…Smallish Momenta. ‘course. Nice.

  31. MTM says:

    Ah! So many board games to learn before I go to MIT. I need get my hands on Settlers of Catan. It comes very highly recommended.

  32. Paul says:

    Hal – Well done! Drop me a line with your contact info (my email is in the banner above) and I’ll work on getting you your prize.

    Ana – Great question! We use ferrets because they have rather large vocal cords for their size, but are still small enough rodents that we can keep and test a lot of them without too much trouble.

    Tanmay – The research I did during high school were vastly different than my UROP experience at MIT, but actually being in a lab definitely did help; although many MIT students have never done research before coming here, as well. But if you’re interested, I’ll try and talk a little about my high-school research when I formally blog the story of how I got my UROP. =)

    Swagnik – I’m not entirely abreast with all the research in economics (perhaps you could ask Mitra? ^_^), but MIT does have a very strong econ program, and some UROPs do have a very business-centric feel. Sorry I can’t be of more help, but there’s so much going on here I really can’t know everything! If you hunt around I’m sure you will find something awesome happening.

  33. Kal says:

    If one was to shadow a surgeon for a day, would he be allowed to watch a surgery in process?

    Smallish Momenta: ‘Simmons Hall Team’ anagram

  34. PS says:

    @Ana: I think ferrets are used because they’re bigger than mice, and you don’t need to have the precision of a Swiss-watch maker to operate. And with rabbits… dunno =/

    BTW, please be careful with the Bus next time D=.

  35. JR says:

    Hey Paul, can I guess? What do I win if I’m right? Free DDR lessons?

  36. JR says:

    Oh, shucks. Someone already got it.

  37. Caroline '11 says:

    Awwwwwwww!!!!! I’m glad you liked my cake. =)
    Too bad you missed Sweeney Todd, though…