Sunday, May 1, 2022

Wrapping up my second semester of college + life update

    Do you ever feel, like a plastic bag, drifting through the wind, wanting to start again? Because I do. This semester has taken its toll on me quite a bit, and I really can't wait for it to be over. Let's examine what went wrong this semester!

1. I took too many STEM courses

After I had a not so great experience with a humanities course last semester, I wanted to know what it felt like to not hear the words "you have essay due in..." for a couple of months. This was a noble idea in concept, but it meant that I was going to be taking some of the weediest weeder courses in place of History/English/Bullshit Class 101. This semester, I took Calculus II, Intro to Data Structures, General Chemistry I, and the second sequence of Intro to Biology. 

  • Calculus II has actually been a pretty good course. My professor explains the concepts pretty well and is eager to help students. Problem is, the exams are on the difficult side– and the grading is rather sadistic. For instance, on one exam, I forgot to put my answers (which were clearly shown on the paper) on a specific part of the exam, and the graders gave me 0 credit for it. I had to fight for myself to be fairly graded at all, which is messed up IMO. 7/10 class overall, pretty difficult but has its fun aspects.
  • CS bored me to death this semester. I had the same CS professor that I had this semester, but this time around the quality of his teaching was far worse (he had never taught this course before, so makes sense). Fortunately, lectures were optional, so after struggling to focus two lectures in, I never went back. The projects for this class have been really annoying; the instructions are too wordy and sort of cryptic, so I've wasted tons of time chasing trivial things. Office hours have been very helpful though! The nice thing about college is that the course revolves less around one person, the teacher/professor, and supplemental help is pretty accessible. 4/10 class, taught badly but since the course is required for upper lever classes I sort of understand why I have to take it.
  • General chemistry is the worst STEM class I've ever taken. The content is so eclectic and badly taught... this course was a pathetic attempt at an introduction to chemistry. My professor was supposed to be the best at teaching intro chem, but they were terrible at it. There's no intuition that's developed for chemistry in intro chem; it's all memorization and plug n' chug. For every "pattern" or "formula" I learned, there were always numerous exceptions that needed to be known for it (that's just how chemistry works, I know... but I feel like needing to memorize exceptions is a huge waste of time on top of learning the concept). Also, the homework software for this class was ancient and incredibly frustrating to use as well... I spent way too much time trying to format my answers in just the right way so it wouldn't mark everything wrong. 2/10 class, would not recommend. I understand that the incentives for research faculty are not to teach intro chem excellently, but I feel like there should be a baseline of quality that doesn't exist right now.
  • Biology was solidly meh this semester. My professor was an alright lecturer, but I felt like the lectures lacked some of the pizzaz that my instructor from last semester had. This semester's biology course was less molecular/cell based and more into "look at this graph and decipher it", so I didn't find it all that interesting. 6/10, not bad.

Not going to lie, taking these courses all at once was a pretty bad idea in hindsight. I stressed myself out completely unnecessarily, and it's the first order reason why my semester was shitty.

2. I was kind of a shut in

This semester, I lived in a single, which means I didn't really have much incentive to leave my room. Need to study? I could just study at my desk. Sleep? The bed's right there. The bathroom on my floor is like two doors down for my room, meaning I could pretty much spend the entire day besides for classes in my room.

Having a single is nice–I don't miss having to deal with a roommate at all–but it definitely gets lonely. Nobody's there to push you out of your room, so if you're me, that means your willpower is constantly kind of low. Sure, I went out with friends ever so often for dinner, but there were several patches through the semester where I hadn't interacted with really anyone for days at a time. Ironically, I felt the least lonely only when I initiated hanging out with people. 

3. I didn't know how to use the ambient time I had

In my post about my first semester of college, I praised the large amount of "ambient" time I had– the time between classes, review sessions, eating food, etc. Despite its merits, having ambient time can be kind of a curse. I've come to learn that I'm pretty bad at context switching, so when I have free time in between doing X thing and Y thing, I default to... doing nothing. Kind of a sucky thing I need to get over.

Okay, so did anything good happen to you at all this semester, Alex?!

Glad you asked. Yes, actually!

At the start of this semester, I put out transfer applications to a bunch of universities. I will probably make a blogpost about why I'm transferring out of UMass at some later point, but I can briefly give a synopsis here:

  • I came to UMass solely for the quality of its CS program.
  • I realized I don't want to be a CS major anymore, and I don't want to spend my entire undergraduate experience working towards becoming a programmer, since that's not what I'm interested in doing after college.
Alas, transfer decisions started rolling out in March, and I find out I got into the University of Michigan around that time. 

UMich holds a special place in my heart. It was the only Really Good University I wasn't outright rejected from when I applied to colleges last year, and I'm very fond of their Glenn Center for Aging. They have some excellent science happening there (UMich has one of the only labs in the country running experiments for the ITP, the testing program for geroprotective medicine run by the NIH), and the research topics they're studying (caloric restriction, geroprotective drugs, and now regeneration) are, IMO, more relevant and important than what other universities' aging centers study.

In my last blogpost, I mentioned that I talked to Richard Miller, the director of UMich's Glenn Center. Since then, I've been talking with an incoming at PI at Michigan, Dr. Longhua Guo. He's planning on studying aging and regeneration in leopard geckos and planaria, and he's invited me to join his lab as an undergraduate researcher. I'm pretty confident I'm going to accept this offer, which I'm very excited about!!

What's next in store for me

Contingent on me doing OK on my final exams (fingers crossed), I'll probably be attending the University of Michigan this fall and doing some really cool research under Dr. Guo!! I'm incredibly grateful for this opportunity to study a topic that's so interesting to me at such a great university.

This summer is probably going to be a mixed bag of things. I need to take some summer courses, so a chunk of my time will be spent on that– but I will probably get to researching and writing again soon enough since I miss it a lot.

I also plan to wrap up some loose ends. When I graduated early from high school, I didn't really get to experience saying goodbye to most people. One friend joked to me I did "an Irish exit" out of high school. Since Covid was much worse last year, none of my friends or family got to hang out with me much last year before I went off to college. Heck, I haven't seen my grandparents in person for an extended period of time in years. And now that I'm likely going off to college even further away from New York, it'll be even more bittersweet.

I also need to learn how to drive. I never got around to doing that.

Things I'm kinda anxious about for the future

  • Debt. The University of Michigan offered my family $0 in financial aid, so attending UMich will definitely be more stressful for me in some ways since doing research isn't the most lucrative thing while I'm in the red.
  • Burn out. I've been pretty burned out here at UMass from this semester, and I hope it doesn't continue over to Michigan. Definitely going to try to take a lighter course load next semester so I'm not swamped with work.
  • Loneliness and losing touch with people :( 
    • Transferring universities is notoriously difficult on people's social lives, so I'm kind of worried I'll be lonelier in a new place.
  • Black swan events. Super Covid. Death of a family member. Political turmoil. Aren't these always things to worry about? 
Sorry for the depressing note to end on, it's just for future reference for me to look back at! I'm pretty excited about the future, but I want to be cautiously optimistic about things of course.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Hello, Boston

Last week, I spent my spring break exploring Boston.

Well, sort of. I actually spent most of it in Brookline, which is a suburban city 15 minutes away from Boston by car. My friend and his family hospitably offered me their cozy guest room for the week. It was really cozy. Anyway, here's how the week went:

MONDAY

I got a haircut.

Beacon Street has some very pretty buildings, like this one behind me :)

This is more important than you may think! Last month, a cruel and treacherous barber shaved off all of my hair without any consent (I told him to trim the sides a bit– he just went "unh huh" and then promptly buzzed it all off 😫), so getting this haircut was very vindicating for me. OK, the more I write about this the dumber it sounds, so I'm going to stop now. That was Monday!

TUESDAY

This was a big day for me. In the morning, I was fortunate to meet with one of my favorite scientists, Dr. Michael Levin. It was a really amazing experience talking with him in person, and I'm so glad he had any time at all to talk with me about his work. Topics we covered included the limits of regeneration, use cases for artificial life like Lenia, and upcoming work of his that I'm very excited about! Overall, 10/10 experience. Would (love to) do again.

Okay, critical thinking question. What do you do if you are in Medford and want to get to Boston by train, and you have no idea where the train station is? Oh, that's right... you Uber. 

I did a lot of Ubering this week. It racks up a lot in $ spent over time, but each Uber ride themselves was surprisingly inexpensive? A 30ish minute drive usually cost around $20, which seems pretty fair.

Theo's Cozy Corner on Salem Street

Back to Tuesday– I met up with a really great Online Friend that I've interacted with on Twitter for a while. We had a great conversation at this cute brunch place which gave us enormous plates of breakfast food for like $10 (which is pretty fair considering the volume of food but man I could only eat like half of it). Turns out we share a lot of mutuals in common! And we both have a strange fascination with Elizabeth Holmes, hm.

If you're reading this C, hi from the past!!!! It was really nice to meet you in person, and I hope we do it again sometime :))

WEDNESDAY

Talked to the Director of the Glenn Center of Aging at the University of Michigan, Dr. Richard Miller. He is a wonderful man full of insights. Briefly, here are some things we went over:

  • We talked about the merits of the Snell mouse strain compared to GH deficient mice. Snell mice are deficient in thyroid hormones in addition to GH/IGF, which makes them stunted if I remember correctly. In the early 2000s, his lab conceived the Snell mouse, which is a strain of mice that are incredibly long lived. They live close to 4 years, while average Mus musculus mice live only around 2 years in the wild.
  • His thoughts on aging clocks (he thinks they're too noisy in their current state); I was pleasantly surprised to learn he was working with aging clocks though, since he seemed pretty skeptical of them.
  • He disavowed the usefulness of senolytics, which was not super surprising to me since they're somewhat controversial in their benefit. He went as far as to say though that they don't even work at destroying senescent cells, which threw me for a bit of a loop!
Talking to him was a pleasant change of pace for me. Since there is so much hype and overdramatization of some therapies and theories by the longevity community (and even some well respected scientists), I was glad to hear his levelheaded reasoning to why X doesn't make any sense or Y is actually better than others claim.

A fuzzy photo of the Boston skyline in the direction of Cambridge


Wednesday night was interesting– I met up with yet another Online Mutual. This was also a pretty interesting experience, since everyone there was at least half a decade older than me. Nonetheless, they treated me with full respect, despite my youth and inexperience. These people I met were mostly in the effective altruism/rationality space, which was interesting to me since I usually only know those kinds of people through my dad. Everyone was very friendly!

Things got a bit weird though when everybody started talking about psychedelics. Now don't get me wrong– I'm open to pretty much any conversation– but this was a bit jarring of an experience for me, since the hardest drug I've ever done is advil. So hearing about someone's 36 hour trip was pretty eerie lol.

THURSDAY

I went on a donut run with my friend in Boston :)

The Green Line is pretty. Heck, all of Boston transport >> New York in terms of sheer aesthetics

It was drizzling pretty hard Thursday, but it was also pretty warm which was great. I would take rainy and warm over dry and cold any day.
The aforementioned donut I got– it looked way more appetizing in person I promise


FRIDAY

Friday was pretty chill. I played EU4 and got crushed as the Papal States because I don't know how to manage military units to save my life.

In the evening, I went to a fusion restaurant with some college friends. It was the kind of restaurant where you have a grill the food yourself– I had never been to one before so I was taken by surprise by how fun it was! And it's a great idea for a restaurant tbh, since, as my friend put it, "they don't have to cook the food but can charge the same prices for offering the Experience of making the food yourself" !

After the restaurant, my friends and I drove to an icecream place called J.P. Licks which sells the most expensive icecream ever. $7 for a singular cone kind of expensive. It was still tasty though of course.



The weather was also really pristine on Friday. It was consistently high 60s - low 70s which felt so gentle. This past winter has been unforgivingly cold, so I'm extra grateful for any warm weather that comes my way. Other people seemed to have shared that sentiment too... so many people were out on the street looking content and enjoying the good weather. I didn't want it to end!

Things I liked about Boston

  • The architecture. Boston's buildings are shorter than New York's looming skyscrapers, which makes you feel more in control, I guess? Everything also felt like it had more historicity than New York, too– probably because Boston has more historical buildings sprinkled around than New York.
  • The people. Everyone I met that lived in the Boston area was so friendly. My friend warned me that most Bostonian strangers are kind of aloof, but I didn't really experience that. When I was lost, people gave me directions. Uber drivers helped me find the best place to get a haircut (true story). Neighbors were warm, too.
  • Did I mention the architecture? Well, in addition to the architecture, the setup of the city itself was very nice. It felt almost European in some parts– with lots of cobblestone streets and old stone buildings. The towns/cities around Boston also have their own personalities too. New York has this too with the boroughs, but it felt a little more pronounced here.

Overall, it was a really great experience to be in Boston. It's definitely a contender for becoming one of the places I go after college! I hope to be back soon.









Wednesday, January 26, 2022

A Steelman for Biden

Biden, Biden, Biden. Joe Biden. Love him or hate him, he's in the news all the time now (probably because he has the most important job in the world).

At the date of this post, Biden is not a very popular president. His approval rating is comparable to the Trump era:

And it seems like Republicans will take back Congress soon enough

Build Back Better

A common Democrat line of attack I've seen in the past few months of having eyeballs is that Biden hasn't been able to pass the Build Back Better Bill. 

What people don't know is that:

1) Half of it has been passed already and 

2) the two most important and immediate "aspects" of it– COVID relief and infrastructure– have already been passed by Congress.

Economy

People like to make fun of Biden for causing the incredibly anomalous rate of inflation plaguing the U.S. economy right now. 

But a lot of that blame I feel is misplaced– inflation is happening in part because of the supply chain crisis, consumers having more money to spend, and maybe (just a hunch), the Fed printing trillions of dollars since the start of the pandemic. In fact, inflation doesn't seem to just be a U.S. problem: inflation is plaguing diverse economies across the globe (though part of this is in reaction to U.S. inflation, fair enough).

A bit of hypocrisy I see is that people think Biden is at fault for *all* of this– he's not. When the economy was doing great under Trump, people were quick to retort that the economic state of a president is mostly the fault of the prior president. Why shouldn't that be the case here?

COVID

Biden was supposed to be the president who ended COVID, and the public has had that expectation slowly shred to pieces as the pandemic moseys on. I think this is a bit unjustified– there are so many variables to juggle in a pandemic that you can't guess which one will have the best downstream effects in a years' time. Haven't you seen yourself the "how X country beat COVID" articles one month, only to see them in the news half a year later with skyrocketing cases? (see: Taiwan, Germany, South Korea, etc)

A lot of the blame should fall on the CDC actually, who are the biggest losers of this pandemic (along with the cowardly WHO that ignores the existence of entire countries because of politics). The CDC woefully failed the U.S. early in the pandemic, and even now. If Biden were in tune with this, he would direct oversight to beat the CDC bureaucracy into better shape (Beat Back Better? lol). COVID was never just a pandemic preparedness or funding issue– it was a CDC competency issue. And now we're all suffering because of that.

Military

Biden's military decisions have definitely come under scrutiny too for various reasons. I think this is honestly his biggest crux. He humiliated America's image of military competence in Afghanistan (grossly underestimating the Taliban's speed of takeover), and is now fumbling with the Russia-Ukraine conflict. There is not much to redeem here. I will say though that Biden's actions in Afghanistan were in a way what the American people wanted– to bring our boys back home once and for all. And he did that! I am also encouraged by Biden's nonresistance to the Space Force, which I think will grow into a very important area of defense for the stars and stripes.

Image

Biden's image is probably what will keep him unpopular. His character is not really enjoyed by the American public. He's less controversial than Trump for sure, but he's not the most inspiring figure. He's approaching his eighties, can't really control his speech (which in all fairness is due to a lifetime stutter, not necessarily his age). He kind of resembles Magneto. And last but not least, he's a career politician who barely won his primary by a plurality and election by mere thousands of votes.

Conclusion(?)

Don't hate the playa, hate the game. Biden was elected on a vague promise that he could "beat Trump"... whatever that means. Vote people in who aren't spite votes of the other guy. Candidates who have empirical data to support their policy ideas are the best– we should be looking for them and getting them to do their jobs asap!

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Dr. Levin and Mr. Hyde

"A flatworm, a cancer cell, and a lump of intelligent frog skin walk into a bar. The bartender asks, what's the deal? The flatworm chirps: Why, we're all model organisms in the works of the scientist Dr. Michael Levin!"

(the bartender then promptly starts to dissociate and have a panic attack)

Saturday, December 18, 2021

A conversation with the reaper

 You’re sitting down on damp grass in the morning sun. You look ahead at your bare, dirty feet and sigh. It’s late springtime (maybe May?), and the chickadees, doves, and warblers are having an intellectual debate in the trees. A warm plane of daylight, given permission to shine by a slowly retreating cloud, moves to touch your leg (the ultraviolet light penetrating the outermost layers of your bare skin, damaging your DNA as you enjoy the great outdoors).  

You scratch your scalp as you stare out into the great big clearing you’re in. You are waiting, patiently, for something. For someone, actually. You’re not sure who, but you know you won’t be alone much longer.

Minutes pass, then hours. The cool air of the morning turns into a chill noon breeze. You’re growing impatient, and tired. Finally, your consciousness slips, and you turn your head to the ground, the soft grass cushioning your body.

In your dream, you are lying down just as you are now. But there is an animal next to you, lying on its side. It’s a dog, you think. She is sound asleep--her stomach slowly rising and falling--her breath gentle and rhythmic (like the sound of a waterfall when she exhales). Not a muscle in her long body is tense, but she doesn’t appear weighed down by gravity. Her mouth is agape, tongue lolling  in her sleep. You prop yourself up with your elbow and lean over to kiss her on her head. You study how the sunlight hits her smooth black hair, when all of a sudden, you hear a rapid whooshing sound from above. Just in time as you look up, you spot it-- a large green apple (perhaps 100 feet above), rapidly in free fall, headed straight to collide with the dog. You tense up, study its trajectory, and prepare to catch it. It sails into your hands. It’s even bigger than you thought. You take a bite.

Your eyes open. The apple is red, and the beast is gone. You’re so cold you’re shivering. You know He’s behind you.

Turning around slowly, you cautiously take a peak at the figure. His face is in an expression between disgust and… smugness? He has very chiseled features, and pale eyes. His light brown hair is combed to one side. He’s got the “I work at Goldman Sachs” look-- the sleeves of his light blue dress shirt are rolled up halfheartedly, his khaki shorts draped legs (business casual) are kicked out lazily on a recliner chair.

You can already tell that you’re going to do a lot of the talking here. He motions you to the stiff wickerwood chair planted next to his. You get up, groaning, and trek over to your uncomfortable seat.

“I know you but I don’t.”

He ignores you, his affect unchanged. He’s looking out at the clearing just like you were many hours ago.

“What do you want?”

“I want to negotiate,” he says in a resonant baritone.

Your brows scrunch up in confusion for just a second, then it clicks. You look at him again. Now he’s fully smirking. You’re at a loss for words.

“I want a deadline.”

You feel the rage build up inside. Since the inception of life, there’s been Him. Everything ever birthed in this world has been ended by him.

“No. No way. I would never want to work with you. You stand against everything that is good. You don’t bring anything into this world. All you do is take away!” Your voice stays calm despite your passion.

He laughs a bit, surprisingly in a bit of a humble way. He shakes his head a bit and looks back at you.

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me, so I can understand why you think you’re right...” A moment of contemplation for what next to say. 

“...but I’m here for a reason. There is a reason for what I do.”

You don’t answer immediately, because you don’t know how to answer back. But then you do.

“All good things must come to an end, youthinks?”

Back to that condescending smile. “Not only that, but the second law of thermodynamics makes me inevitable. I’m also inescapable, infallible, incurable-- the list goes on. All life must rot; all life must die; all things must perish. It’s just the rules.” 

Your turn to laugh.

“So what do you want me to do? If you are so infallible, why are you threatened by me?”

He sighs. “You don’t get to play God. Live your little life and be happy with what you have. Forget about me, even. But let me do my job.”

“A hundred billion human lives have been lost to your whims. Countless consciousnesses snuffed out, for what? You are my personal apocalypse. A scourge that few fear in concept, but that all suffer from in reality. But you can be finished, just like how you finish us. You too will age, rot, and die, because you underestimate the power of human will.”

He studies you very closely. Maybe for a minute. His eyes are beams of cold, calculated, deterministic void. Then he extends his hand out to shake yours.

Instead, you put the apple in his hand, and it turns green again. He takes a big bite and gets up. He walks out of the clearing. Out of sight, out of mind, out of spirit. You laugh and think to yourself what a peculiar life you have.


Sunday, November 21, 2021

Takeaways + highlights from first semester of college

Don't get too excited, I haven't gotten absolutely smashed drinking Whiteclaw upside down. 

I did have a lot of fun though meeting new people! People are what make college, I've found. If you surround yourself with the wrong people, life will suck. The people I've met here come from all over-- Nigeria, Vietnam, Mumbai, New Mexico, Los Angeles, Moscow, and Lebanon (I particularly like international students because they are some of the more hardworking people I've met here). 

  • A caveat about people: it's still pretty difficult for me to find "intellectual" friends- as in, people who can hold intelligent conversation and are really driven to *do things*. I originally thought it was the product of my environment (being surrounded by confused freshmen in a not-really-prestigious state school), but I've learned that I'm maybe judging people too harshly. Most people, all the way up to the Ivy League, stumble through life myopically. Even the smartest people can lack foresight and directed ambition! Perhaps what's startling for me is that the people I see in my self selected bubble online have their lives figured out (and to be fair, they lean mostly in their mid-late twenties compared to late teens lol). And to be clear, I'm not saying I'm better than my college mates-- I have no idea what next Tuesday or 5 years from now will bring-- but I pride myself in being very future minded which is something I've lacked to see in classmates.
  • Clubs in college, like in high school, are gimmicky and poorly run. Most clubs are recreational, and I've heard the pre-professional ones (like business frats...) are kind of a cult. Needless to say: clubs are a waste of time, focus on building yourself to get the highest ROI
  • I realized I much prefer living alone than living with a roommate. It's more a problem with me than other people tbh- I am a very light sleeper and I also need a place where I have privacy
  • I am much less stressed out with the spaced out schedule college provides. I only have around 2-3 classes a day compared to the 8-10 classes high school crams in a day. Because things are more generously spaced out, I'm never *too* stressed and the content I learn in a day is much easier to digest
  • Professors are hit or miss:
    • I really love my biology professor-- he's the kind of teacher you'd want to take classes with again and again! I thought that an introductory biology course would be too basic to enjoy, but it's honestly a flawless course IMO. We've learned about everything from cell signaling cascades to CRISPR (not just an overview in passing, but how it actually works in vivo!) to recombinant plasmids and promoter regions. Taking this course has absolutely reinforced my love of biology.
    • The introductory sequence for CS is kind of crap here. It's mostly an Intro to Java Syntax course more than anything-- which makes it particularly dull. Writing code in Java is like walking on hot coals with all the fucking brackets and semicolons. I also particularly dislike the emphasis of OOP-- not everyone in CS (cough cough, me) wants to become a software engineer! I wish there was more emphasis on data science, statistics, and AI earlier on in the CS curriculum in college.
    • From what I've seen, math professors are make-or-break for absolutely foundational knowledge. I'm taking Calc I right now, and I'm painfully aware of this fact. Luckily for me, I have a very geeky grad student with a CS background, so I'm actually enjoying the course-- but for others in calculus courses, I've heard everything from raving reviews of professors to seething hatred and misery. I insist on using RateMyProfessor for all of my math professors lol
    • If not necessary, I will never take a liberal arts course again. I have to take one right now for honors' college requirements and its totally a lost cause. The problem with liberal arts, I've found, is that it's way too interdisciplinary. We learn everything from the Cave Allegory to over scrutinizing Silent Spring and doing metta meditation. Not to mention that the political environment here leans very far to the left, which makes every class a blast to be in as someone who doesn't hate the word "capitalism" !
  • Joining a lab here was a very smooth and easy experience. I looked for labs doing research tangentially related to aging, sent out a few emails, and got responses relatively quickly (in HS I sent out ~100 emails with an abysmal response rate over the period of months). I honestly think I stuck gold with the group I joined-- they're doing really amazing research, both computational and wet lab based! From what I've seen, the PI is a very friendly and nerdy guy, and the grad student I'm working with appears diligent and knowledgable. Things are still early and I'm just getting settled in-- but I'm very excited to watch where this goes :D

With all that being said, I am pretty satisfied with how university life is turning out. I'm making friends, keeping up with school, and still have my eyes on the prize of getting into biotech. I'd rate this semester a 7/10 so far.

Thanks for reading :)


Monday, August 23, 2021

The summer of 2021, wrapped

 In the Year of Our Lord two thousand and twenty one, a great summer was had!

As move in day looms at the end of this week, I think it's a good time for me to reminisce about how this summer turned out.

Part One: late June, early July

Summer started a day early for me. I skipped out on the last day of school to play Minecraft. Two days later, I unceremoniously graduated from high school. By its brick and mortar walls, I felt no shame when I picked up my diploma early in order to avoid commencement. When I decided to graduate this year, my plan was to slide out without making noise, and that's exactly what I did. I don't regret it one bit.

This time was kind of a lull in the summer. I gamed a lot, listened to podcasts, read a Murakami book (Kafka On the Shore!), and went to New Hampshire when the weather was very icky.

I also got very sick with norovirus and vommited my brains out! It was a dreadful experience. Protip: if you are ever meeting little kids (I did when I traveled up to New Hampshire), know if they have recently been sick!! It's a good measure to prevent a weekend of absolute death.

Part Two: Mid July

At this point of the summer, I immersed myself in work, sorta. In late June, I started a continuation of my work at the lab I volunteered at the summer before. This summer, I took a more computational role-- instead of reading papers and putting data together to form a narrative, I worked on how to more efficiently generate that data. I translated old Matlab code that took forever to run in the MathWorks IDE into shiny new Python that blitzes through in a Google Colab notebook.

I also read a lot about longevity, including Jose Ricon's Longevity FAQ as well as his post on epigenetic reprogramming. I found his summary of the field to be really excellent and understandable enough for a layman like me to understand. He gives a good overview of current drugs that have life-extension abilities and how they work (long story short: usually by making cells think they are starving to more efficiently conserve energy).

The Minecraft saga also continued hehe. I can never escape Skywars.

Part Two: late July

I started visiting the lab in person for the first time. Commuting to NYC is kind of a hassle, but I think it was worth it. I finally got to hang out with my mentor and see actual *science* experiments happen live! Lab mice are very cute in person; much better than the grainy video quality I was used to seeing of them.

DeepMind also released AlphaFold to the whole world at this point of the summer. It's truly an amazing feat-- one that nobody expected to happen for years to come-- but it looks like Christmas came early! I started writing a blogpost explainer on it, but I was quickly outmatched by people much smarter than me giving their 2 cents on it, so I kind of abandoned that idea.

Something fun I did at this point of the summer was to go down a list of the top 21st century movies to date (I used the BBC's list) and just watch them all. I watched The Florida Project, The Grand Budapest Hotel, In The Mood For Love, There Will Be Blood, Moonlight, The End of the Road, and Lost In Translation. All of them were great movies! Each of them was very different from one another, and good in their own unique ways. I think I liked Moonlight the best; it was a really thought provoking and heartbreaking bildungsroman, one that dealt with unrequited feelings and solitude. Runner ups include The Florida Project (with an amazing role played by Willem Dafoe, a seriously underrated actor IMO) and In The Mood For Love with its beautiful cinematography.

I also had my first interaction with someone I met from the internet! It went pretty well, I think. A friend and I met up with them in NYC to eat some overpriced Italian food and meander around Central Park. They were kind of what I expected a smart internet person to be like: a bit awkward, very very bright, and a great amount of stories and knowledge to share. I will definitely meet up with more internet people in the future!

Part Three: August

August has been my favorite month so far this summer. I've met up with hometown friends a lot, went on a spontaneous Wikipedia editing spree, and done a lot of coding!! To start, I became lazy enough with my lab work that I automated a copy-and-pasting spreadsheet task that usually took weeks to complete into an hour's long worth of effort. 

Meeting up with old HS friends was interesting. They are mostly the same, fortunately! Covid didn't change everything besides their heights. 

I also finished up my lab work in a satisfying way. Over the summer, there were ups and downs of productivity in the lab, but I think I've played a good part in helping speed things up so the lab can do more sciencing :)

Last but not least, in late August, I started working on an app with my best friend. It's been a blast so far-- starting off struggling with learning completely new programming frameworks (React Native, Firebase, etc) to having an MVP all in a week has been a really rewarding experience. This is where I am now. It's a shame though that I will have to scale back working on it because of college :/

Epilogue

This has been a really cool summer! Yes, most of it was spent at home, but that's A-OK with me. I'm a bit of a homebody after all. Here's to a great second half of the year!!


Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Applying to college in the weirdest year

In the weirdest year ever, I'm graduating high school a year early. And I'm doing it on purpose. 

Before I continue, I'd like to acknowledge the privilege that I have had growing up:

1) I live in the 21st century in a good community in a developed country.

2) I was raised by two parents who invested in my future and helped me develop as a person.

3) According to many, I enjoy certain social advantages due to my physical makeup/identity.

Despite these things, I have found it difficult to feel happy, productive, and successful receiving the education I am getting at the public high school I attend. Specifically, I am deeply uncomfortable with the pressure that competitive high schools make. Ambitious students in the New York-DC-San Francisco metropolitan areas face ever growing zero sum games that end up helping nobody and which make everybody feel worse off. 

I felt an intense malaise as I progressed through high school. I may have done well in my courses, made friends, and joined clubs that I was interested in-- but the way I was going about things made me very unhappy. In my school, all the most motivated students have the ephemeral urge to "look the best"-- meaning to do what's best for college. Such actions include:

1) maxing out on AP, honors classes to the point where many students don't have lunch periods during the day

2) joining/founding clubs that disintegrate as soon as key members graduate

3) making interesting classes genuinely unenjoyable by asking questions about upcoming exams; kissing up to those teachers to waste class time

4) forming toxic cliques who taunt/shun away outsiders; cutting corners/cheating with said cliques

5) taking the SAT/ACT an inordinate amount of times, reinforcing a culture around standardized testing everyone secretly hates

I've found that teachers in competitive high schools also indulge in many seriously selfish, lazy, and hypocritical behaviors-- whether it be by synchronously planning exams with other courses in the same week, calling out students on late work when they grade work at a snail's pace, or flat out refusing to answer questions by students.

With all of this in mind, I found myself incredibly disillusioned by mid sophomore year. I had done all I could to go above and beyond-- skipping requirements to enroll in classes, auditing classes for fun, and even changing foreign languages after freshman year (something rarely done in my school apparently). Still, I felt unsatisfied and my future seemed aimless... what was all this scholastic pressure building up to? Why did I feel like I couldn't do anything I was really interested in when I got home? What was I interested in anyway?!

Right after my 16th birthday, the coronavirus flicked off the light switch of the world... and with that, my life changed completely. In the chaos of early online learning, I had little to no schoolwork and no exams. and as a result, I woke up at a healthy hour, sometimes even earlier when I did for school; I had free time that organically became time used for passion projects; I began to have a somewhat normal social life that didn't intertwine with school. 

It was really like night and day. In 2020, I felt so much happier, healthier, and more productive. And naturally, it made me think... could it always be like this?

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COVID-19 has drastically changed the playing field for college admissions. It has been turned upside down in many ways-- most notably with how most schools chose to be "test optional" for the 2020-2021 year. This shucking of the SAT and ACT caused a shift in epic proportions of who did and didn't apply to college-- wealthier kids with worse scores felt more confident to take on the best schools, while many poorer kids didn't apply at all this season due to pandemic financial stresses. At scale, most elite schools faced upwards of orders of magnitude the amount of applicants, while less regarded state schools struggled to find new students.

When I saw that this year was going to be test optional, the gears started to whir in my head. Perhaps it was possible that I could graduate early, and save a whole year of my life from high school suffering?

It was a quick thought process, one that soon calcified into an affirmation, chanting loudly in my head. I could graduate this year. I could leave by next June.

From there, I leapt into action. I created a Common App account, wrote essay supplements, and researched schools. It came so naturally. 

With the time I had, I knew I could exercise the best practices I had learned online-- polishing my essays, extracurricular descriptions, and finding the best people to write recommendation letters. All I had to to was make it official!

When I called my guidance counselor, I prepared myself for hesitancy. In my school, nobody ever graduates early, no less a STEM kid. It's conventionally known to be suicide for any chance at the elite schools. In the heat of the moment, I didn't care about that. And so, after a few awkward phone calls, I became a senior instead of a junior. Magic!

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I took the application process from a very utilitarian perspective. Any schools that provided a great education in computer science were on the table. Already, that dwindled down my options from ~4,000 to 50. 

Next, I looked at how well I had a shot at each of those schools. I aimed to choose around 4 I had a good chance of being accepted at, several I could possibly get into, and a few private school moonshots. My list ended up being:

-My 3 flagship state schools (SUNYs)

-University of Colorado- Boulder

-University of Wisconsin- Madison

-University of Maryland- College Park

-University of Michigan

-University of Massachusetts Amherst

-Georgia Tech

-Columbia University

-MIT

-Carnegie Mellon University

-Harvey Mudd College

-Carleton College (never wanted to go, but the application was free!!)

All in all, it was a pretty solid list. Notice how many of the schools initially listed have rather high acceptance rates-- despite excellent CS programs (some in the top 30 in the country!) 

When looking at which colleges my classmates apply to, I am unimpressed by how few of these types of schools they give regard to. Instead, they have sole focus for the top-- without even knowing where to go after that. It's perfectly ironic to me that many of these kids exert Herculean efforts to get into schools like Harvard and Caltech, but have no idea what they want to do with their lives. Many of them fail in their effort too. Competition is truly for losers.

In the end, as expected, I was laughed at by all the elite privates-- rejection, rejection, rejection. However, as you snake up the list, things started to look more optimistic. Many great public schools, to my delight, accepted me! I was taken in with open arms by the schools that truly mattered to me.

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The reason I wrote this post was to show how it doesn't matter how much selectivity your school has. I committed to a school with a 60%+ acceptance rate, and one that accepted around a 1/3 of CS applicants. That's a far cry from "elite", but in the end that doesn't matter.

Nobody at elite colleges treads around, resting on their laurels that they got into a good school at 17. Instead, the rat race for fewer and fewer prestigious spots becomes rattier. The point is: Look into yourself and see what you really want. If it truly is to get into an elite college, you need to do some soul searching. If it is not, you're on the right track-- find which colleges can help you pursue that the best. You'll be shocked at how many don't have a glittery Ivy League label attached to it.

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TL;DR: When I saw how this year was going to play out, I took initiative to make the best of it. And it worked out great!