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MIT student blogger Emad T. '14

Post-Thanksgiving Post-stuff and Foodstuffs by Emad T. '14

In which I'm reminded I have a life, and am thus eligible to give a Life Update

Since I last posted, I got one year older (waaaaay back in October). Also during that time, presumably because I’ve gotten older and wiser, I’ve learned a number of things:

At MIT, the week of my birthday has always been busy, because it’s always right around midterms.

Those not-quite-fun pset parties I’ve typically blogged about in the middle of October? And the exams I’ve had to study for? It wasn’t to make my birthday not fun; it was because that’s just how the cookie crumbled. That realization helped me beat myself up less over the idea of always doing at least a fair amount of work on my birthday, because now I know that it’s a sense of responsibility, not a crippling imbalance in work-life matters and how I deal with them, that’s at the root of it.

For what it’s worth, I enjoyed some Mediterranean for a birthday lunch at Vlora, right over in Copley Square. As it’s couched underneath a few other stores in the area, it’s hard to find, but very delicious! I’d recommend trying the feta and watermelon appetizers — it sounds like a weird combination, but it tastes good all the same.

My neurobio lab is expanding my brain unlike anything else.

9.12, or my Neurobiology Lab class, is arguably one of the most oh-god-I’ve-fallen-into-the-deep-end-of-knowledge classes I’ve ever taken. And that’s in both a good and a bad way.

At times, there’s quite a nice rush associated with it, like when a TA handed me an anesthetized mouse and had me conduct a perfusion to fix its brain, a surgical procedure that I internalized after waiting in line behind 5 or 6 students. There was also that time when one of our professors turned us loose on the internet to research our favorite microscopy method. Mine was digital holographic microscopy, which combines lasers, holographs, and general optical coolness – not all of which I completely understand – to render images in three dimensions. If you think there’s anything cooler than that, then I’m sorry, but you’re wrong.

At other times, it’s quite a lot to handle, and I almost don’t know how to get started with things. That same professor from the previous paragraph challenged our class to make cell membranes invisible for in vivo imaging. Thing is, we’ve gotten close to satisfying one part of that equation: Scale, developed over a year ago, uses glycerol, urea, and a detergent to turn membranes transparent. However, it’s too toxic to do live imaging. Should anyone in my class overcome that problem, a bunch of biologists and neuroscientists would probably want to talk to them, as it turns out that nobody at all has nailed this one. On just a cursory glance at these papers I’m using to orient myself, I can understand why: chemical tissue clearing doesn’t look easy.

So…MIT assigning students a problem that scientists the world over haven’t yet figured out yet? Yep. (Oy vey.)

Cooking is basically culinary chemistry. (And that gives me a new appreciation for it.)

(Well, I always sort of knew that, but only theoretically.)

A few weeks ago, I would’ve relied on draining my wallet to get myself a decent lunch, like Chipotle or something frozen that you can microwave. If I wanted to be thriftier, well, I could either make a sandwich (which gets boring after a while), or I could eat snacks or scout for free food or something. On the whole, my options are limited if I’m in a money-saving mood. That all changed when I started to pour more energy into cooking things more complicated than ramen or Pop-Tarts – which, sadly, I didn’t even always put in a toaster.

Given the right ingredients, I can now vary up what I eat by whipping up the following:

  • Scrambled eggs
  • Omelettes
  • Salads (I know, not incredibly hard by itself, but I did get pretty involved with preparing a dressing for a Waldorf salad I made for Thanksgiving dinner this week)
  • Pizzas (From scratch! Except with pizza bases, not just dough)
  • Soups

For this year’s Thanksgiving dinner, my entire family pitched in some portion of the meal. My mom, seizing on an opportunity to get me into the kitchen, asked me to come up with two things to prepare and to send a shopping list. I fired up my Epicurious app and picked out a Waldorf salad and a delicious Butternut Squash Soup, and then I forwarded along my list of needed ingredients.

When Thanksgiving Day came and it was time for me to whip up my dishes, I brought my Kindle to read off the recipes and stream some jazz from a music festival that was ostensibly going on somewhere in Iowa. The instructions for my dishes called for, among other things: cored Granny Smith apples, sliced radishes and red onions, grated lemon rinds and mayonnaise, a handful of cranberries, a puree of butternut squash, nutmeg, marjoram, cinnamon, broth, and cream. It was a medley of different flavors for some good fall-time grub. What I didn’t expect was me flowing into it quickly, getting lost in the music, the dicing of vegetables, the whirring of the blender…

In the process of making all of the food, I started to think about how the process mirrored the protocols of 5.310, an organic chemistry lab I took last spring, and 9.12. Had you asked me before about following protocols to make cool stuff happen, I’d definitely know that cooking and lab work are analogous in that regard. But it’s different to do it, and to thus to have some notion related to and affirmed by an experience in real time. Also, prior to then, it still seemed different on some level, because you can’t eat a lot of the chemicals you work with in 5.310, and the HEK cells that I transfect almost every other week in lab don’t sound too tasty.

Even still, I always thought that science and chemistry were cool. And I knew on some level that cooking was basically that. So why didn’t I get into the habit of cooking for myself or for others before? Honestly, I have no idea. Inertia, I guess? (I can be pretty lazy sometimes.)

But at least I got around to it. That’s why, this year, on top of the family, friends, and relative fortune I’ve run into this far in life, I’m also thankful for having stumbled upon a new way to break out of food-related ruts. This isn’t to say that me and Chipotle are hitting some tough times — that could never happen — but if my wallet ever needs a break, I can eat like someone in the real world!

Well, kind of. But I’m getting there.