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.

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