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MIT student blogger Yan Z. '12

This title is irrelevant by Yan Z. '12

In which I discuss two important aspects of undergraduate life: scientific research and climbing stairs.

For a gaspingly radiant millisecond after I received my acceptance letter to MIT, I glimpsed a beautiful future in which all of life’s hardships and stupidities were swept away from my little corner of the universe. It was a blurry moment of vague, smudgy happiness that I couldn’t quite shape into words, but I’m pretty sure that I was imagining a world without avocados that cost $1.59 each, or FOX television, or staircases, or other similarly great pains of the human experience. Anyway, here comes the sentence you’ve all been waiting for: life is full of disillusionment, even after you pack your suitcases to the acceptable airline limit and ship yourself to the college of your dreams. Writing this would make me about as redundant as the last 293-give-or-take-280 Redwall books (which all had the same plot, in case you didn’t notice by the time you finished 8th grade), if not for the unhappy fact that I climbed 253 flights of stairs in two hours on Friday night.

That’s 12 times up the tallest building in Cambridge. Continuously.

“Gee, that sounds like a bad idea,” you say. In actuality, it’s a tolerable idea up to the fourth floor, at which point it starts to become a pain-in-the-knee idea, progressing to a I-hate-the-world-and-think-I’m-going-to-die idea around floor 11, and finally settling to a maybe-this-isn’t-so-bad idea by the time you get to floor 18, just in time for you to reach the top, stumble onto the elevator, convince yourself that it’s a good idea, and start all over again.

Innocuously titled The Green Building Challenge, this annual tradition is part of MIT’s Bad Ideas Competition, which features the special kind of ideas that are not good ones. On the day of the Green Building Challenge, you convince your most expendable friends* to join your team in racing up the tallest building in Cambridge as many times as possible in four hours. The winning team gets the honor of bragging that they had nothing better to do on a Friday night, along with increased risk of heart failure and stroke.

*Thanks, Phil.

Random Hall’s team won with 411 trips total (8631 flights of stairs!) and an average of around 24 climbs per person. I revealed my inner wuss by leaving halfway into the competition in order to get more than 4 hours of sleep, but the rest of my vertically-challenged team trudged on in surmounting their vertical challenges. Maria ’11 became my personal hero after scoring a leg-shattering personal record of 42 runs in 4 hours, which is probably like 10 miles of stair-climbing by my infallible guestimation. If Maria and gravity got into a fist fight, my bets would be on Maria.

The moral of the story is that I had a delicious Thai seafood curry the next night, and everyone (namely, me) lived happily ever after.

On the downside, the sight of stairs makes me foam at the mouth nowadays.

Anyway, besides riding elevators with newfound gusto, I’ve been UROPing away my youth this January. Like “Europe” but without the soccer obsessions and ancient monarchies and weird dance music, UROP is a research program at MIT that actually has nothing to do with Europe (psych!) unless you UROP in Europe, in which case you’ll have to write an informative blog entry titled “yoUR OPpurtunity to UROP in eUROPe.” Ever since I thought of that title, I’ve been trying to find a research project in Europe for the sole purpose of blogging about it.

Research is the heart and soul of MIT, the cr√®me filling in our Oreo of academic excellence and progressive leadership. It’s common for students to work on research projects for pay or for credit as early as their first semester, although most of my friends started during IAP or Spring term. If there’s something that particularly interests you (of course there is), chances are that one of MIT’s lab groups is researching the same subject, be it water on Mars, nanotech applications to cancer, cell phones and social dynamics, nuclear reactor testing, really hard math problems, or video game design*. Scoring a research position is by far one of the best ways to explore majors while getting hands-on experience in science and engineering (outside of watching Bill Nye reruns, of course).

*In all seriousness, one of my friends sits around and plays video games as part of her “research.”

I will now reveal to you the coveted secrets of landing a research project:

1.Stop reading my blog, open a new tab, go over to the UROP site and scroll through the project openings. Admittedly, most people seem to find UROPs not through the online list but either through friends who’ve worked in the same lab or by bugging professors who also do research (which is basically all professors here, plus janitors who are named Matt Damon). For instance, I enjoyed Introduction to Solid State Chemistry last term; therefore, I pseudo-stalked Professor Sadoway for a week. One day, when he was finally free after class, I jumped out from one of the columns by the Building 10 balcony and was all like, “Yo, Professor Sadoway, can I have a UROP?” and Professor Sadoway was like, “Email me your research interests,” and so I went home and wrote a long, heartfelt manifesto about my life’s goal of designing solid-state polymer batteries. I emailed it to Sadoway along with a brief resume (“Blogger Since August 2008”) and promptly received a reply which I almost deleted because I initially thought it was from Donald Guy ’12 instead of Donald Sadoway.

2.. . . and Sadoway was like, “I’ll check around for UROP openings in my group,” and I was all, “That’s chill. Lecture was cool on Friday!” And then I waited for a month before I got a response from another researcher in his group who was willing to take on a UROP student during IAP/Spring term, and I was all like “Cool! UROP!”

3.. . . after which I casually interviewed with my lab supervisor, filled out a non-trivial amount of paperwork online (pardon the mixed terminology), typed up a research proposal based on the details provided, submitted my UROP application, got it approved by the Materials Science Department and UROP office, and took a four-hour lab safety training course about the 293849 ways that hydrogen fluoride can kill you.

Basically, this entire blog section about UROP was an excuse to post the following screenshots from my online safety training session:

(Lesson: If your clothes don’t stick to you, you shouldn’t wear them to lab.)

Clearly, this guy’s pants didn’t stick to him.

And then his sleeves fell off.

4.After completing my profoundly difficult and non-hilarious lab training, I was ready to begin working for pay. From 2 PM until sometime between 5 PM and 8 PM on weekdays, I’ve been building batteries, making graphs, analyzing data, sorting chemicals, harvesting polymer, and wearing gloves that are too big.

There you have it, the story of how I went from being a poor undergraduate student to being a poor undergraduate student with a UROP. Now please excuse me while I go make sure my sleeves are glued on correctly.

Bonus Chinese New Year Special: A five-dollar feast of Dim Sum in Chinatown on Sunday, photographed for your culinary edification and whatnot.

We commenced with tender nubs of spiced pork, straight on the bone.

Followed by translucent dumplings, filled with cubes of potatoes and other unidentified vegetables in cubic form, inflected with the merest hint of nuttiness.

Next was a quartet of shaomai, bubbling with greasy pork.

Personal favorite: Sweet, saucy morsels of roast pork nestled in a thick, fluffy bun.

Tofu skins, wrapped around something that I can’t quite remember.

Noodle dough snuggled around fried crullers, all topped with cilantro and a sweet soy-like sauce.

Unabashedly non-Chinese sponge cake: a light, buttery nod to the Americanization of Asia.

A delicate finale of egg custard tarts, the customary chaser to a copious brunch in Chinatown.

Beats cereal any day.

42 responses to “This title is irrelevant”

  1. Jared '10 says:

    Yan! FYI – the Green Building isn’t the tallest building in Cambridge anymore! smile It most certainly was when it was built, though!

  2. Yan says:

    @ Anonymous:

    Um, let me look that up. /Irony

    @ Dylan:

    January is a weird interim period at MIT when you’re not required to take classes or do work or even wake up before 5 pm. I’m only taking one class, which gives me more time to spend in lab.

    @ Akhila & Varun:


    @ Jared:

    Oops, I guess I didn’t pay attention on that part of the tour. Thanks for the correction.

  3. Zeke '13 says:

    hahaha, FOX…great post! Stairs can be cruel. And how do you pseudo-stalk someone :S :S

  4. Julio ('14?) says:

    Hi Yan. Normally, are all of MIT’s buildings and facilities open during night time? Or was it just that “the tallest building in Cambridge” remained open for that occasion? Or are they just open to the MIT community?


  5. Julio ('14?) says:

    @Zeke ’13

    This cat seems to know how to pseudo-stalk people.

  6. Yan says:

    @ Julio:

    Most buildings are closed at night, but you can get in if you swipe your MIT ID.

    My roommate actually showed me the cat video a few weeks ago. Pretty good approximation of pseudo-stalking, I suppose.

  7. Dylan V says:

    Oh, I see. But do you UROP when classes are in session regularly? What are typical hours for that?

    I’m just trying to figure out how I would integrate some form of income into my probably-intense schedule (that is, IF I get into MIT and IF it is financially doable for my family). Thanks!

  8. Yan says:

    @ Dylan:

    Most people UROP 6-10 hours per week during the semester. There’s also plenty of other ways to earn money (being a desk worker, working as a tech caller, tutoring, etc.) . . . I’d say that the vast majority of students have some source of personal income.

  9. Matt A. says:

    So many things to comment on, but I should just pick one. I’m going with this one.

    Bill Nye the Science Guy!!!!!!!!

  10. Shannon says:

    Fun fact: you and I have the same favorite dim sum food. So good.

  11. Yan says:

    @ Shannon:

    Fun secret: if you go to the C-Mart right next to Empire Garden, you can buy microwaveable pork buns and stuff them in your freezer- I think it’s $5.99 for 10 or $2.19 for 4.

  12. anon says:

    oh man, 蛋塔!! Those would be my personal faves. smile

  13. Goutam says:

    I’m embarrassed to have read at least five of the Redwall books. At least I’m safe in knowing that my brother read around fifty.

  14. jimmy '13 says:

    hey Yan, I know this must sound cliché, but i think you are the most awesome-est blogger eva!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I can’t wait till I meet you next september……..all this meant in a totally non-creepy-stalker kinda way……..

  15. Anonymous says:

    (In regards to lab clothing) what is PPE?

  16. Dylan V says:

    May I ask how in the world an MIT student finds time to work 3-6 hours a day on weekdays?!?

    Aren’t you too fried after classes and work to sit down and do any assignments?

  17. akhila says:

    Hi Yan,

    That was a wonderful blog. I want to know more about UROP and how to get one. By the way, I hope you enjoyed the stairs competition. Enjoy your last days of IAP.

  18. Narce says:

    The title wasn’t really irrelevant, since it at least took the time to inform us that it was irrelevant. Doesn’t that technically support its own relevancy?

    I’m sorry to say that I’ve never been a fan of egg custard, but everything else looked COMPLETELY DELICIOUS!! (well, all the food. I’m not a cannibal, much less an eater of stick-figures)

  19. Anonymous says:

    Best blog post ever, yet again

  20. Varun says:

    Wow! The research topics look absolutely cool. Few of the best are available only for US citizens – understandably though. I was just wondering what sort of research goes on at MIT and here’s the answer – UROP! Thanks Yan!

  21. Ruth '13 says:

    Wow, ’14ers commenting on the blogs. That is way weirder for me than it should be, considering that I was definitely reading the blogs this time last year. Now that I think of it, that’s weird too.

  22. Rebecca says:

    lol, I read so many Redwall books when I was younger! most pple dont know what i’m talking about when I mention them, though- maybe ’cause they arent awesome enough to get into MIT…. =D

  23. nanofreak says:

    it was my dream since freshman year to use nanotechnology to help treat cancer. I found a nanomedicine (my passion forever) lab at a few other universities but I didn’t know about MIT- now I know I want to apply there! THANK YOU!!

  24. Julio ('14?) says:

    @ Ruth ’13:

    Well, it seems that the MIT bug stung me a year earlier XD. But hey, all of us eager to learn the science we love get obsessed with MIT during some time in our lives :D.

  25. Kevin says:

    I’m planning to go to eUROPe this summer…

    …and have just finished the redwall book “Loamhedge” (seriously, it’s like the guy wrote one book and just changed names & settings for the rest – genius)

    Anyways, I did have a point to this post. But since I no longer remember the question I had in mind after typing to this point, I figure I’ll post it anyways lest these words be lost forever in cyberspace (like government documents).

    ps. You take the best food pictures. I always get hungry after reading your blog.
    pss. 新年快乐

  26. Oasis '11 says:

    omg omg omg!!

    I took screenshots of the lab training too last year when I did it! I intended to write about it but I just remembered it after seeing this.

    I think the saddest part is not only is this lab training real – but it’s also the fact that it’s MIT -_-

  27. Adam says:

    That safety training site was hilarious, haha! Though I’m having a hard time accepting that it was real. Funny post.

  28. Yan says:

    To be regrettably honest, I’ve read all of the Redwall books published up to 2003 or so. Probably 3928 hours of my life are in retrospect a giant blur of talking otters eating British food and recovering pieces of lost weaponry.

  29. Narce says:

    Yeah, wow Ruth, I’ve dreamed of going to MIT since 7th grade, but there is no way I read any admissions blogs until the beginning of last semester.

    Still ecstatic about joining you and everyone next year… every day remaining in high school is a day I’m not attending MIT.

  30. Narce says:

    I’ve read 8 Brian Jacques books, 5 of which were Redwall (wait, he’s written at least 3 books not in that series?! WHAT?!).

    Only one of those actually alluded to another one I had read previously… which means that I read them SERIOUSLY out of order. This was in elementary school.

  31. anon says:


    yepyep, so true about it being MIT, since I did online safety training for one of my state university’s labs, and I never had to drag pictures to demonstrate that we’re competent at not wearing shorts and sandals to the lab.

    …although I did wear shorts and sandals to the lab, and I conveniently broke a huge glass beaker that day. Somehow I have survived to tell the tale.

  32. Narce says:

    Those rules are for dangerous chemical spills not broken glass. Broken glass only cuts you and might let you get tetanus if you’re not up-to-date with your shots.

    Wait, if you go to a university that isn’t MIT already, why are you here? Have friends that are bloggers?

  33. Anonymous says:

    Is he not wearing pants in the “correct” lab attire?

  34. Chris '16 says:

    Anonymous, I believe that they were both incorrect PPE permutations. It sort of looks like that lab attire exercise was foolproof.

    Thanks for getting me hungry Yan, nobody can resist those hearty sippets of dumpling and succulent bits of roasted pork :D.

  35. Narce says:

    ’16? aren’t you being a little too diligent? (or are you in the 1st-year class and already dedicated to getting your PhD there? XD)

  36. lol says:

    Wow, ’16?
    What are you, a freshman? roflmao
    jk bro, its good to think bout college now especially a competitive one like MIT.

  37. Chris '16 says:

    Well, diligence is the mother of good fortune.

    1st-year class, heh I wish. I’m just getting overly-anticipated on out of reach expectations – and I was thinking of ScD rather than PhD XD.

  38. anon says:


    I don’t go to university, I just worked at the lab for research. Class of ’13 for the win!

  39. Yan says:

    @ Anon, regarding pants:

    If only.

  40. Narce says:

    Wow, Chris… to even be coming to the admissions blogs as a freshman in high school!

    I dunno, though, diligence is really useful once you’re attending MIT, but I have to admit that history has shown me that the most diligent people don’t always win. Especially as a freshman in high school, can’t you be… having more wild fun? I dreamed since the 7th grade but I didn’t even think about applying until my junior year. Though all* of my fun activities were admittedly centered around my future application “>.>

    *not manga/video games

  41. Chris '16 says:

    Narce, I believe I have taken the same path you did, how come it’s always 7th grade? Or 6th, I can’t remember. You’d think that we could have spent our time more usefully. But no, it seems that science has called us forth to fulfill our dreams :D

  42. Anon says:

    PPE is Personal Protective Equipment of course