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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

Short Answers to Big Questions by Anna H. '14

Stolen from the MIT Housing Panel.

First, I have three very exciting pieces of news to share with you:

1) Google’s homepage.

2) My favorite constellation is the APOD (Astronomy Picture Of the Day)! According to the Greeks, the Pleides were the seven daughters (the constellation is also called “The Seven Sisters”) of Atlas and Pleione. To the best of my knowledge, no one really knows where the name Pleides came from, so it seems legitimate to pick the possibility that I like the most: plein means to sail, so the Pleides are sailing. Before you argue with that, go spend a few hours lying outside, and let yourself rotate under the stars.

On a good night in Boston, I see an armless Orion, and the butt and tail of Ursa Major. One star of Casseiopia could represent the goddess’ knee, or her head. I like the Pleides because each star is an entire mythical person. The fourth brightest star, for example, is Maia: the oldest sailing sister. She gave birth to Hermes after being raped (surprise surprise) by Zeus. She is also, in case you’re interested, a B8 III blue giant with a prominent mercury absorption line. I’m sure each of Casseiopeia’s body parts has a story to tell, too, but there is a much higher density of mythological life stories in the Pleides than in any other part of the sky. My computer at the NRAO this summer was named maia; it felt like destiny.

3) It is beautiful outside. 76ºF (24ºC, for those of you who are like me) and cloudless. It’s the kind of day that indulges every one of your senses.

Now, to the actual content of this post.

About a month ago, Chris e-mailed me about a “Student Housing Panel.’ Apparently, there were a lot of new arrivals to the admissions office, and they needed to be brought up to speed about student life at MIT. Since I know a few things about being an MIT student, I was invited to sit on a panel and answer some questions.

I had no idea what the questions were going to be. I imagined a fact request, like “what is the housing process like for your dormitory?” or “what is the difference between 8.01 and 8.012?” — but instead had to improvise answers to (paraphrased):

1) What is your name / year / hometown / high school / major / residence?
2) Why did you choose MIT?
3) What’s your favorite thing about MIT?
4) Have you ever had a UROP? If so, what was the experience like?
5) Why did you choose your dorm/living group and how has it shaped you?
6) What are your biggest regrets from your years at MIT?
7) What activities are you involved with, and how have they shaped you?

Admittedly, (1) was pretty straightforward, but the rest — woah. Deep questions. Unfortunately I didn’t have a notebook with me, so I whipped out a sheet of paper (this article, which my mom sent to me) and began to scribble on the back. When it was my turn to speak, responses came babbling out of me, although I’m not sure what exactly I said. I just hadn’t had to articulate answers to those questions before. I’m glad someone forced me to: I think that they’re important ideas to have in my toolkit of Answers To Questions That Someone Might Ask Me Someday. Now that I’ve had a little more time to reflect, here are more concise, confident answers.

1) Anna Ho. Class of 2014. Hometown: it’s complicated. I was born in Singapore, and moved to England when I was nine and a half, where I picked up an American accent. American School in London (hence the accent). Physics. French House, a living group in New House.

2) To be perfectly honest, I don’t know. So, I’ll speculate, the same way a historian might speculate about a subject’s motivations, based on context and minimal historical records (I don’t think I left anything in writing stating the reasons why.) I remember feeling conflicted, because I wanted to emerge from college a well-rounded individual; I was concerned that an MIT education would leave me humanities-less. I remember really admiring everyone I met from MIT, and admiring all of the bloggers on the admissions site. I wanted to be like them. I loved everyone I met during CPW, even though my tonsils rivalled golf balls in volume, and the person I spent the most time with over that weekend remains one of my best friends. I also remember perceiving a lack of pretention about MIT: no one seemed to care how you dressed, what color your hair was, where you came from, who your parents were, how athletic you were. Everyone just wanted to do, and talk about, interesting things. I remember having a lot of respect for what people admired in each other: you would be praised for putting a car on the roof of a building, or for being really excited about your research, or for taking time out of your busy day to be a supportive friend. I remember a conversation back in London, with my writing seminar teacher; when I told him that I was considering going to MIT, he said: “oh, MIT! They have a great writing department! Did you know that?”

Ultimately, I think I picked MIT because, after reading about past MIT students for years (since 8th grade) and meeting current and future ones, I decided that I wanted to be an MIT student. I wanted to be good at the things MIT students admired each other for. I looked up to every individual on that campus, and maybe that made me think going there would turn me into the best person I could be.

But that’s just an educated guess. Another possibility is that I just made a gut instinct decision. And that’s worked out fine!

3) The answer almost everyone gives is “the people,” so I’m going to talk about a couple of other things.

The energy. You walk down the hallway, and everyone is walking quickly, with purpose. You catch snippets of excited conversations about projects and stories and wish you had time to listen to all of them.

MIT changes us. During orientation, I meet freshmen who are just off the boat from high school, where their identity was The Smart Kid. They are keen to impress. They arrive, and insecurity floods in: everyone around you is OUTSTANDING so you feel very ordinary, and scramble to become distinct. At first, you don’t know how you want to distinguish yourself. You talk loudly about a pset score, or about how late you were up studying, or jump to correct people on little insignificant techncialities (spoiler alert: none of these things are particularly impressive.)

For some reason, it took me a while to get that admiring others and feeling proud of myself are NOT mutually exclusive. It took me a while to learn that I stand out in ways independent of where I would fall on an IQ or GPA spectrum. I’ve learned, for example, that I am very good at infecting others with my excitement for a topic, and that I have a knack for public speaking. One of my friends, on the other hand, is not fond of public speaking at all, yet has incredible to-die-for self-discipline. She exercises all the time, does her grocery shopping regularly (WOW), eats very healthily (WOW), and sleeps well. I’ve seen her study for a test every day for a week, or every week for months. I would never say that she’s the “smartest person I know,” but I’ve also learned that that’s a meaningless compliment, when everyone is intelligence in such a vast array of ways. I was very attached to The Smart Kid title in High School (it’s addictive) and being stripped of that title on MIT campus can be a painful, painful process. But here, I’ve had the incentive – the need, really – to distinguish myself in healthier, more productive ways, and I think that that’s made me much better-equipped to enter the world.

I also like how much innate respect MIT students have for each other. When I meet someone, I assume that he or she is very competent, kind, and has my best interests at heart. I know that this person has pursued passions in an exceptional way – or, frankly, they wouldn’t be here – and I am excited right off the bat to learn what that story is.

I like how much responsibility MIT students take for – and give to – each other. The spirit here is that we’re all very intelligent competent people, who care very much about our unique campus culture, and therefore we want a big say in administrative changes. We have a HUGE role in managing our housing system: within our dorms, we basically run CPW and FYRE and rooming lotteries. In French House, we even feed each other, through our daily (minus Saturday) cooking system. We take care of each other, here.

4) Yes, and mixed. My first UROP was freshman year; I worked in Saxelab, after introducing myself to the PI following a BCS colloquium. I interviewed for the position, then worked with two post-docs for a few months on a project studying the eye movements of autistic subjects while they watch complex social scenes. It was totally fascinating in theory, but the day-to-day work was tedious; I combed through videos, trying to find appropriate scenes for the study. I didn’t learn a whole lot about the brain. In retrospect, I wish I had started the project over IAP or over the summer, so that I could have devoted more time to it. Exposure to the lab did give me a sense for what behavioral study work is like, though, and I learned that I wanted to try something else.

Next up: summer after freshman year, I did a computational biology-esque UROP with a grad student in the mechanical engineering department (he was quite the polymath.) Again, that was really interesting — but I didn’t click particularly well with the mentor and in the end it didn’t really go anywhere. So, again, another good learning experience, but meh.

Everything changed when I did an REU that I absolutely loved. This was really my transformative research experience – for some people, that takes place through a UROP on campus instead.

5) The “how it has shaped me” is much easier than the “why I picked it.” How I ended up living here isn’t a very romantic story. I didn’t get much of a chance to explore the dorms: I was sick with tonsillitis during CPW, and on crutches during REX. I had studied French all my life and had spent a lot of time in France, so was definitely drawn to the cultural aspect, without really knowing what I was in for. Either way, somehow I ended up here, and really could not be happier about it!

Now: how it’s shaped me.

At home, my major responsibility was to myself: work hard and develop a set of interests, while Mom and Dad take care of necessities. I stayed far away from student government activities, although I did run a few clubs. My robotics team was probably where I developed my strongest sense of responsibility for others, but at the same time there were always adult mentors who REALLY ran things: organized trips, encouraged us to go out and find funding, etc.

French House runs itself. We manage our own budget, debate at house meetings how and when to spend our money. We buy our own kitchen equipment, cook meals for each other, split up the cleaning chores. We plan, organize, run freshmen orientation activities, and ditto social events like dinners and parties. In French House, I’ve learned how to feel responsible for my family: things literally would not happen here – we would not have dinners, we would not have kitchen equipment, our living space would not be clean – if we stopped taking care of it, and each other. Almost all of the upperclassman members of the house have some kind of house government position: this year, I’m an orientation chair and sports chair, for example.

I’m glad that I didn’t pick a living group by trying to find the group of people most similar to me. If I did, I wouldn’t have ended up in French House. Sure, it’s important to live with people you feel comfortable with, but learning to live with people who are different from you is also important — and something you will rarely have the opportunity to do, after college. We have a huge diversity of residents here: a range of majors, interests, hobbies, habits, personality types, and as a result, I’ve been inspired in ways that I would otherwise never have been, and become best friends with people I would otherwise never have met. >

6) Regrets. This is a really hard question, because any regret can be cast as an important life lesson. I do regret not holding onto more my friendships: there are people I talked to a lot freshmen year, who I now wave to in the infinite every now and then. I regret not making a point to exercise regularly. Fortunately, the long walk to New House and the hike up the stairs to French House has kept me reasonably in-shape, but I wish I had made a point of establishing an exercise habit. Other than that, I can’t think of anything I really wish I had or hadn’t done: I definitely made a lot of mistakes, but I think they all needed to be made.

7) This could be a novella. I won’t provide a laundry list. Instead, I’ll focus on two that have had totally unexpected but transforming outcomes:

-Musical Theater. I’ve performed in two musicals at MIT, and the performer’s confidence I’ve gained as a result has made me a MUCH better teacher and public speaker. These are skills that I’ve used since to give talks on my research to the public, an activity that ultimately shifted my career path from doctor to astrophysicist public outreach-er.

-Dorm Government. I stayed far, far away from dorm government during High School. I sort of just didn’t want to know, I think, and felt like I had better things to do. Here at MIT, I’ve gotten very heavily involved with politics: I’m the president of my dorm, serve as a student rep to the CUP, and have developed a very strong feeling of responsibility for my community as a result. I’ve been through some rough patches, but have become so much more adept at navigating the waters of decision-making and consulting and knowing when to ask for advice and when to just make a decision. My spine is much tougher, I’ve learned to stand up and fight, how to respond to emergencies. I’ve also gotten to know a much wider cross-section of the campus community. I’ve learned that at the end of the day, we’re all MIT students, and which dorm we live in should not limit the radius of our circle of friendships.

It’s been stressful, not going to lie – but a total privilege, and I’m now much more aware of my personal strengths and weaknesses.. And hopefully a much better leader. After my term is over, and I have more time to reflect on the experience as a closed system, I’ll write a more detailed post about it.

When the panel was over, my head was left buzzing with how much of a roller-coaster college has been. What an amazingly high density of learning and changing we do in these four years. And what a weird feeling, to think that I will bow out of this universe in under two semesters.