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MIT student blogger Paul B. '11

Riddles, Research, and Nerds with Power Tools by Paul B. '11

My week.

So it’s been almost exactly a week since I last put together a blog entry, and the past seven days have been quite hectic indeed. Even though it’s IAP, the MIT tradition of “work hard, play hard” absolutely still applies, although I suppose the definition of work is a little more flexible now than it is during the actual term. Which is a very good thing, in my humble opinion. I’ve spent the past week solving puzzles for Mystery Hunt, playing with cell culture for my UROP, and building stuff at my fraternity.

And since I can’t really pick which one I most want to tell you about, I decided to blog about all of them.


Part the First: Riddles

As you may have almost certainly heard, last weekend was Mystery Hunt – MIT’s annual puzzle-palooza, which ran from Friday at noon until about 8 pm on Sunday. Many of the dorms and other living groups field teams, so it was natural for me to join the official Simmons Hall team, which has played the Hunt since Simmons opened in 2002. In addition to a slew of Simmons residents, the team also includes quite a few alumni (including Matt), a handful of students from other living groups, and many random friends. This year, the team was named Smallish Momenta (an anagram of “Simmons Hall Team”) and included over 80 people.

Mystery Hunt traditionally begins in Lobby 7 at noon on Friday with a big “kickoff” event, which serves the dual purpose of bringing all the teams together and introducing the theme of the year’s Hunt. Unfortunately, I actually missed the kickoff due to my UROP, but nonetheless ended up figuring out that the theme was basically a murder mystery. The esteemed Dr. Otto Awkward had been killed in cold blood, and it was up to us to crack the case – which we could do only by tracking down each of the contacts listed in Dr. Awkward’s “Little Black Book.” Sort of hokey, I know, but it worked. Incidentally, Dr. Awkward was the name of the team that won last year’s Hunt and, therefore, the authors of this year’s Hunt. (Winning Mystery Hunt nets you precisely two rewards: bragging rights, and the privilege of writing next year’s Hunt.)

After finishing up with research, I fairly ran over to Simmons Hall, where our headquarters was located, and started pitching in. For about the next 48 hours, I was basically either solving puzzles, banging my head against the wall, or sleeping. (Oh, and I ate a bit too.) The puzzles I worked on required me to do a lot of crazy things, including (but not limited to) looking up T-shirts on Threadless; factoring numbers into a crossword-esque array, except that all of the numbers and factors were in base 16; looking up star distances; performing reverse Caesar shifts; researching various TV shows and famous books; and even looking up poker odds. Suffice to say, it was completely ridiculous in a way that could only ever happen at MIT.

In addition to helping out with a bunch of traditional pen-and-paper puzzles, I also helped out with two “special” puzzles that involved performing specific tasks around campus. For “Race Around the Block,” three friends and I needed to follow a very detailed and specific set of instructions that ultimately had us trekking up, around, and even under the main buildings of campus. One catch was that we had to split into two groups, and both groups had to coordinate with one another to actually solve the puzzle. Ironically, our biggest hurdle was simply figuring out where to start, since the puzzle instructed one of the teams to start where you can see “one city three times on a red line.” After about two hours of searching, we finally realized that this referred to a timeline of the world’s most important cities in Building 9, on which “Constantinople” appeared thrice. It then took us another four hours or so to actually solve the puzzle…but it was definitely worth it.

For “That’ll Tichu to Mess With Us,” another friend and I had to learn how to play Tichu, a Chinese card game that combines elements of bridge and poker, and then win a hand against the organizers of the Hunt. Although it took us a while to win (apparently, learning a card game simply by reading its Wikipedia article isn’t always a good strategy – who’d have thought?), ultimately we got the better of the Tichu Masters and came away with another answer for our team.

Happily, even though this year’s set of puzzles turned out to be one of the more difficult Hunts in recent memory (according to upperclassmen, anyway), my team’s momentum was anything but smallish. Altogether, we solved 42 regular puzzles (out of over 129!) and one meta-puzzle. Although that wasn’t anywhere near enough to get us close to winning, we all had a ton of fun, which is really the most important part.

Speaking of fun, one of the most enjoyable parts of Mystery Hunt is the ridiculous things that my fellow hunters end up saying while trying to solve puzzles. Here are some of my favorites from the weekend:

Constantly heard throughout the weekend: “Why would you do this to me?”

“It looks straight…forward.”

Josiah ’09: “I haven’t had enough coffee ’til I get the shakes!”

“Are there any robots MIT is famous for? It also needs to be named after a tectonic plate.”
*awkward silence*
Me: …tectonic plates have names?

At one point our printer started malfunctioning, so I got Will ’10 to try and fix it for me. As he walked over, it immediately started working perfectly and spat out the puzzle I was trying to print. As Will said, “I frightened it into submission.”

One puzzle featured the cast of Sesame Street deep in discussion about the Mystery Hunt. Unfortunately, no one had any idea how to solve the puzzle, prompting someone to proclaim proudly, “I want a T-shirt that says ‘stumped by a muppet.'”

Another puzzle involved writing a ridiculous “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” novel for the organizers. As my friend JR explained to me, “We are looking for aid in writing a mystery most foul!”

Me: “Are there any common abbreviations beginning with SA?”
Anagha ’08: “Sure, the sinoatrial node.”
Me: “…come again?”

“Is anyone doing the Animal Lovers puzzle?”
Keith ‘G: “Animal lovers over here!”
Matt: “If you want to do it with animal lovers…”
Me: “That’s going on my blog.” (Sorry Matt!)


Part the Second: Research

As I’ve already mentioned in previous entries, my UROP is in the Langer Lab, where I’ve been putting in roughly 40 hours of work a week for the past two weeks. And I’m even getting academic credit for doing so, which is a nice side benefit to go along with all of the practical laboratory skills I’m picking up. So far, I’ve spent most of my time working with cell culture in a sterile environment (that is, a chemical hood). In addition to mastering basic aseptic techniques, I’ve also learned all about how to properly care for cells – mixing growth media, replacing old media, and splitting cells that have grown too rapidly. A few days ago, I was taught how to count cells, which basically involves diluting a sample of cells onto a special, overpriced microscope slide called a hemacytometer. Counting cells actually wasn’t as difficult as I had expected it to be: it’s really just a matter of knowing the procedure and having the right equipment.

In addition to cell culture, I’ve also been making a variety of hydrogel scaffolds, which can then be used to carry cells for repairing tissue. Once again, it’s all about knowing the technique and having the right materials. The first major step in making a hydrogel is weighing out all the various materials in order to make solutions of the proper concentration. I then mix the solutions, add a photoinitiator and stick it under an ultraviolet lamp for about three minutes, which activates the photoinitiator and causes the two solutions to basically knit together and form a clear, watery, gel-like substance – hence the name hydrogel. The final step is to pass the hydrogel through a series of syringes and successively smaller syringes, a process known as “shearing,” which turns the gel into a more-or-less solid, injectable substance. Although it sounds straightforward, you can ruin an entire gel with just one mistake or slip of your hand, so I try to be as careful as I can.

One final tidbit – my particular lab group is part of an active collaboration with the Voice Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, which means that every now and then I get to visit our facilities at MGH (only a few T stops away, Boston Rain notwithstanding). Even more exciting, I’ve started filing the paperwork for getting my own MGH ID card! I know it’s not really a huge deal in the long run, but it still feels pretty awesome.


Part the Third: Nerds with Power Tools

A little over four months ago, I experienced two literally life-changing events on the exact same day. On Friday, September 7, 2007, Ben Jones hired me as an MIT admissions blogger, and the brothers of Phi Kappa Sigma invited me to join their fraternity. Even now, I couldn’t tell you which is more important to me, except that they are both integral parts of who I am, and who I will become.

In most fraternities, new members join the house as “pledges” – probationary members who haven’t yet been initiated into the fraternity, but who have nonetheless committed to becoming full brothers. And really, it’s the word commitment that matters the most about being a pledge. As the old scripture goes, to whom much is given, much is expected – and just as my newfound brothers have given an incredible amount of their time, dedication, and energy to me and my fellow pledges, they have high expectations of us, too. Whether it’s learning about the history of the Greek system, memorizing the names of Phi Kappa Sigma’s founders, or simply getting to know the brothers, every part of the pledge program has a purpose. Throughout the past four months, the other ten pledges and I have been constantly surprised, not only by what the brothers have done for us, but we have managed to do as a pledge class.

And that brings me to the real subject of this part of my entry. Each year during IAP, the current pledge class designs and builds something lasting for our house, as a way of both giving back to the older brothers, and “giving forward” to future members of the fraternity. Since Friday, my fellow pledges and I have been hard at work on a project of proportions greater than anything else we have ever attempted, individually or as a group: completely renovating and remodeling the raised “stage” portion of our basement to turn it into the house’s very own private lounge. I know that may not sound like much on paper, but when I say completely, I really mean completely. Not only did we repaint the walls and window frame, replace the old carpet with tile, curtain the windows, erect a wall for privacy and safety, rebuild the old stairs, construct and upholster two amazingly comfortable benches, and build a pair of custom-fit tables – we did it all in just seven days.

Personally, the whole experience has been pretty dramatic and, dare I say it, inspiring. Out of the piles of sawdust and debris, we’ve managed to create something truly spectacular, something I know the entire house will benefit from for many years to come. In the process, I like to think we’ve learned a lot about each other and, perhaps even more importantly, our own capabilities. Basically, never underestimate what eleven MIT nerds with power tools can do.

Although the project definitely required the full efforts of all eleven pledges, I do want to take this opportunity to dedicate this entry to my pledge brother Tyrel ’11, without whom the lounge never would have seen the light of day. Early in the year, we chose Tyrel to be the go-to guy for this project, and he’s gone above and beyond what any of us expected. From working later and starting earlier than anyone else, to getting support for our ideas from the brothers, to always knowing exactly what supplies we needed and precisely how to put things together, Tyrel was clearly the driving force behind this whole endeavor. Words aren’t worth much, but they’re what I have to give; and I can honestly say that Tyrel deserves all my gratitude and more.

Pictures of the lounge will be coming shortly, so you can judge our efforts for yourself. We’re showcasing our work to the brothers in just a few hours, so wish us luck!

23 responses to “Riddles, Research, and Nerds with Power Tools”

  1. Anonymous says:

    thanks for the post. i really like reading these.

  2. oh, forgot to say:

    IAP mystery hunt seems SO cool. another reason i hope to go there next year

  3. Shannon says:

    I knew exactly what you were talking about in your entire first paragraph talking about your UROP, and now I feel awesome.

    And the animal lovers scene is absolutely priceless. I literally laughed out loud.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I went to MIT for the weekend to hunt with Manic Sages (second place!) and I spent HOURS on the Threadless puzzle– I loved it! It’s exciting that someone else, ehem, experienced it too. Unfortunately, my team ended up backsolving it… :(

  5. Lauren says:

    Ooh!! Who’s the anonymous above? I was on Manic Sages too! I helped out with the muppet puzzle mentioned above – it was so exciting when we actually got it!

    Anyway, great post! So, what made you choose to join a fraternity? What do you think are the benefits of the “Greek” system as opposed to just regular dorms? (sorry if you’ve posted about this before… I’ll check the archives)

  6. A.T says:

    “Basically, never underestimate what eleven MIT nerds with power tools can do.”

    Why don’t we say MIT leaders instead of nerds?

  7. Anon says:

    Do u get paid to blog?

  8. Hannah says:

    Lauren– I’m Anonymous (sorry, I forgot to add a name earlier.) Did I meet you this weekend?

  9. Fred says:

    “Do u get paid to blog?”

  10. Shruthi says:

    Wow.. IAP is so much fun! ~Sigh~ I do hope I get in :D

  11. Akshay says:

    A very cool week even though you were quite busy I am happy you pulled up everything in time. Thanks for writing about your UROP. It helps me to understand that if you begin early you get the previlege of learning the lab requirements in your freshman year and then you can go ahead with your intense work in the subsequent years. And I think it applies to every lab on campus, doesn’t it?

    And I want to ask if Tyrel is a Civil Engineering Major as you wrote about constructing a wall and a lot of things that is a part of Civil Engineering Major. And I do appreciate his hard work. I can imagine how good it feels to do something for the future prospects while being admired by your senior members of the frat. Hats off to you and your team of ten other hard working MIT students(nerd is just not the right word for me to describe you people, sorry).

  12. Reg says:

    I love playing Big 2, the variant of Tichu, according to Wiki raspberry The rules are much easier to understand and more fun imo.

  13. Paul says:

    Lauren – Great questions. I’ll make sure to answer them in another entry. But in short, the main reason I joined a fraternity is because I was drawn to the brothers I met during Orientation and Rush Week. Cliche as it may sound, they were people I could look up to, whom I would be proud to live with and work alongside.

    The dorms are great, and even as a fraternity member it’s simply not fair for me to say that one way of living is objectively better than the other. I still have a lot of friends from all across campus, and they’re perfectly happy with where they are.

    A.T. – A very good point, but calling my fellow pledges “nerds” was very much tongue-in-cheek. While leaders is a good suggestion – and not an inaccurate one – MIT is one of the few places where, in my estimation, you could call the entire student body nerds and no one would really be offended. Also, leaders has too many syllables. wink

    Akshay – Good question; Tyrel is actually going to be Course 2 (Mechanical Engineering).

  14. Akshay says:

    You know Paul the first time I read the blog I thought that Tyrel is a Mech Engineering Major but then when I reconsidered things I thought construction and everything would come under Civil Engingeering Major. I think my first guess which I didn’t tell was correct. All I can say sometimes instinct is sometimes correct than the logical thinking and this has happened with me a lot.

  15. Piper says:

    A triple crown of posting =P

  16. JR says:

    one city three times on a red line

    Tons of fun : )

  17. Taylor says:

    A threadless puzzle?!!? Awesome. I love threadless!

  18. Clara '10 says:

    @ Akshay: While I understand your thought process in guessing Tyrel’s major, I think you’re overlooking one of the fundamental characteristics of an MIT student: we’re good at a lot of things, and the major we’ve chosen to pursue is just one of our many interests. I’d say at least a third of the students I know have the basic skills to build a wall and redesign a room, whether they’re majoring in MechE, EECS, management, or even philosophy; in fact, our activities outside of class are more often the activities we really enjoy but have NOT chosen to study full-time.

  19. That’s really great.
    I so wish I’ll be in MIT someday.I want it so badly.

  20. E. Rosser says:

    Sweet. And the initiative award goes to…
    Looking forward to lounge photos!
    In the words of the Fab Four: “Please, Please Me!”

  21. Nathan says:

    I’m glad that you found Race Around the Block worth it. When you guys called HQ about the starting point, I honestly wasn’t sure how much to say since it hadn’t been that long since the puzzle had been released and teams had already started calling in the answer. I was glad when you guys finally called in the answer.

  22. Mrs. I says:

    Hi Paul,
    I just heard about your blog from Mrs. Kern. I haven’t read them all yet but enough to know you are having a great experience back east at MIT. I just returned from a Superbowl Party where the NY Giants beat the New England Patriots. Even though I now live in South Bend, IN, I grew up in upstate NY and am happy. I am also happy for you and plan to read your blogs at a more decent hour for a former teacher who is retired.