Saturday, April 29, 2023

Another year of college– what's happened?

It's been roughly an entire year since I've delivered an update about my life to the three people who read this blog. 

Last year, I was a freshman computer science at UMass Amherst, eager to move out of the middle of nowhere (metaphorically and geographically) to somewhere more primed to my interest in aging research. That place happened to be the University of Michigan, and this post is about my first year as a student there.

Expectation meets reality

The excitement of transferring to a college as strong as Michigan practically controlled my every thought pattern and decision last summer– right up until the day I arrived on campus. I took a summer course to get ahead in my anticipated degree of choice (at the time, it was... statistics); watched shaky 4k videos of random Ann Arbor residents traversing the beautiful campus in the summer; and needlessly bought merchandise my dad warned me I'd get sick of wearing (he was wrong about that at least. I'm writing this in a Michigan zip up lol).

On top of that, I made it clear to myself that The Lab that I was joining last fall was going to be my top priority. I did my due diligence of learning everything I could about the model organism we were studying, and downloaded the analysis software we were going to use weeks in advance of the start of the semester. I scrolled the research group's page daily, eager to meet my future lab mates and my PI. At one point, I remember spending an hour rambling to a high school friend at how excited I was to "finally get my life started" by working in a lab; for real this time.


Needless to say, my expectations– nay, fantasies– about Michigan and research were extremely overblown, and I should have known better. 

The first month or so of my sophomore year was hot pink with romanticism. The campus was so pretty! The worms I was studying were so cute! My English professor was so funny!

But gradually, imperfections started to emerge in this new world I was living in. As autumn swiftly enveloped the campus, my aspirations for a fresh beginning in this unfamiliar town and state became more complex and less clearly defined.

I spent many hours in the lab those first few months, learning the ropes of animal care and bantering with my labmates and occasionally the PI. All the while, I was neglecting the typical things a person should be doing in college– making friends, joining clubs, applying for internships. even attending classes became secondary priority to Doing Lab Stuff. And in the lab, I noticed I wasn't even learning much about anything related to our actual research.

The gradual increase in negative feelings towards school escalated dramatically when the reality of my faltering lab skills collided with my once-cherished fantasy of being a lab whiz. I was barely getting by in a notoriously poorly taught statistics course when, unexpectedly, I became aware of my severe neglect – I failed the first exam in a rather spectacular manner.

This fucked me up a lot mentally: I knew I deep down didn't care much about grades, but failing was a whole new level of incompetence for me. As an overcorrection for this mistake, I decided to devote many waking hours to this stupid stats course... in turn bringing the little progress I was making in the lab to a near screeching halt. 

Come the end of the fall semester, I was defeated. A semester's worth of devotion to this lab I thought would bring me great satisfaction and purpose left me feeling dull and deeply lacking in other aspects of life.

Newton's Third Law

My winter semester was intended to be the antithesis of the fall semester. Instead of devoting myself to a lab, a pesky course, and the whims of others– I wanted to dedicate all my effort to being scrappy and entrepreneurial– to bootstrap a business or a project from the bottom up. In other words, I wanted to make money!

I quickly learned this was not a straightforward task. For an unskilled young person such as myself, I knew that the paths one could take to Get Rich were notoriously narrow. That didn't stop me from exploring some bizarre ideas in rapid succession:
  • TikTok science content creation: I made a few TikTok videos seeing if I could convey some of my nerdy interests in a fun way. As I researched content creation more, I realized it was an extremely oversaturated and competitive space where people compete for pennies and dimes. So I got bored of this pretty quickly. It was also hard finding quiet places on campus to record videos!
  • D2C SaaS software for aspiring writers: I saw firsthand from friends and family how arduous and complicated it is to send out one's pieces of writing for competitions and publication. I did a fair amount of research about the space– and did some guerrilla market research with random users on Reddit (which is a pretty good way of validating how viable a product is, by the way). About a week or two in, I became bored with the idea, and also came to the conclusion that there were other interests at play that made the industry of publishing super complicated (cough, agencies). 
  • Automating medical coding with LLMs: Of the ideas listed here, this was probably my best. At some point, I had learned about medical coding– the process of turning a doctor's scribbling of a patient's Dx, Tx, and Rx into a legible "code" that insurance companies could use for billing purposes. Noticing how medical coding is essentially a natural language translation task, I did a deep dive into seeing how viable it would be to fine tune a language model to do a lot of the work that actual medical coders do (yes, it's an entire profession). After about a week of trying to hamfist medical dictionary text into a GPT-3 model, I became frustrated with the idea. Despite my abandonment of it, I'm still convinced that this idea will make someone very rich. Will that person be me? Nah.
  • Nootropic energy drink: In January, I became closer to a stereotypical Science Bro than I have ever been before: I started trying out nootropics. One I became particularly fascinated with was modafinil– a stimulant that causes prolonged wakefulness and dubiously, focus. Through strange rabbit holes late at night, I came to the conclusion that it is technically legal to put modafinil (or more precisely, a prodrug of it called adrafinil) into consumer products, like an energy drink. Just as I was about to consider manufacturing such a concoction myself– I stumbled upon a pre seed startup doing the same thing! I quickly got in touch with the founders of the little company (a handful of clueless college students, whaddya know) and talked about business with them. Two days into joining their company slack, I found communicating with them challenging and their behavior to be kind of repulsive. So not much was accomplished here.
It's fair to say I went a little overboard with how many things I had tried to pursue. This all happened within around two months, by the way– which amuses me in hindsight. I tried working on some of these with another go getter Michigan student, and left the poor guy with whiplash at how often I was changing up my master business plan. 

After running out of steam pursuing these silly ventures, I kind of shut down a bit. During this rush of ideas, I still failed to homestead a life in Michigan: I continued to refuse joining any clubs or really participating in my few classes. It quickly became a very lonely existence. Many valuable hours were spent idling in my apartment, itching for adventure or someone to talk to. 

And that leads to now. I'm just about to finish this semester, unfulfilled once again with how I've spent my time this past year.

Painful lessons I've learned this year

  • You can't enjoy life while you're always forward facing. This is probably the most important thing I've learned this year the hard way– life is simply not enjoyable when your entire existence is based on working towards some abstract future. Working on these "projects" in such Sisyphean fashion made me realize this– sacrificing your social life for muddled ambition causes a negative feedback loop in life satisfaction. My n=1 justification for doing this is embarrassing, really: I thought that if Zuckerberg could have done it my age, why couldn't I? However, after reading an actually realistic book about Facebook's beginnings, I'm convinced that its success was no more than a fluke– it was literally a side project of Zuck's which had enormously fat tail luck that played into its success.
    • Not having regular social interaction with people (at its worst, I hung out with friends only once or twice a week for several weeks at a time this semester) leads to serious glumness, which in turn makes you unproductive, which makes you even glummer. I don't recommend doing this. In brief, listen to this guy, not me from a year ago.
  • Don't get carrot-on-a-stick'd. What I mean by that is that when you're young and excited about something (in my case, aging research), it's easy to get taken advantage of by others (who are not necessarily malevolent in their intentions by the way) when you want to "get into the business" as quickly as you possibly can. I don't want to point fingers too directly– a lot of my gripes wrt this are partially caused by my own shortcomings– but it's always good to look at new opportunities with a healthy dose of skepticism. 
    • A good heuristic to know if you're getting carrot-on-a-stick'd is if 1) this opportunity will or won't earn you a satisfactory amount of money and 2) if around a month or two in, you feel like you're learning anything. 1) is super important, because if 2) doesn't pan out (it doesn't always, unfortunately), you will not only feel like shit, but you will be poor and feel like shit. So be careful with unpaid work: it's a lot easier to burn out.
  • Synthetic friendship != real friendship. This took me an unbelievably long time to realize, but Twitter is a terrible place to develop meaningful relationships. For too long, my justification for using it was: "I'll keep up with the cutting edge of science and I'll expand my network!!" But after three years of using it hours and hours a day, neither of these panned out nearly as much I wanted them to. Worse, I started using it this past year as a crutch for social interaction more than ever before. 
    • I won't lie (and I prophetically predicted this in my last post), being a transfer student and meeting people is fucking hard. It's hard to be intentional about making friends through clubs and the like– instead, they just happen naturally. The true friends I've made at Michigan (and in the past at UMass) so far were made serendipitously through classes and random encounters, not by trying to seek out the most optimally Interesting people. In fact, I'd met a few people who met those checkmarks of being really interesting in real life this past year: I just didn't relate to them enough to consistently maintain a friendship.
    • Twitter is the antithesis of meeting people serendipitously– on there, you slowly encircle yourself in a bubble of regulars that you interact with. This past month, I became so disillusioned with this little world I had become so pointlessly absorbed into that I decided to quit cold turkey; and frankly, this is one of the most freeing things I've done in a while, and as predicted, nobody's even noticed ;)
  • You can't be an ideas guy forever. I've come to learn that I fit a nasty stereotype: the dreaded "ideas guy"– someone with tons of seemingly Great Ideas but is totally lacking in executing them. It's a curse, really: every time I come up with an idea, I jump straight to the ends while ignoring the means.
    • My best guess is that it's mostly an affliction in young and naïve people like me. I (sincerely) hope that as I get older, I'll be able to be more intentional about executing projects effectively. And that takes facing some difficult realities– like the fact that I won't ever be good at everything, and that most times what it takes to be successful is bunkering down and really learning about something head to toe. I'm not arguing for myopically studying a topic without motivation like in traditional schooling– in fact, I think that's worse than being an Ideas Guy for one's soul– but knowing "how things work" in fine detail and developing hard skills are monumentally important in order to make impactful progress on something.
  • It sucks to be cynical. Throughout this year, I've gone through a few bouts of minor depression, and let me tell you: it feels terrible to not enjoy life. Things literally become gray (the lack of sunlight in Ann Arbor hasn't helped much... ugh), and you feel like you're in limbo between being alive and dead. This circles back to my first point– when you're not caring for yourself in the near term, you're basically not living. And this dejection I feel when being at this level of cynicism at this young of an age doesn't even seem warranted– there's no way I've rightfully earned it so soon. It may feel a bit good at first to feel Sad and Lonely for the hell of it, but it quickly becomes an invasive force in your life. On the margin, it is cheaper to feel magnanimously sad than magnanimously happy– which makes it enticing if you're simply seeking a strong emotional state like I was, but choosing happiness is obviously the better choice for crying out loud.
    • In that same vein, please do not listen to Phoebe Bridgers anymore, future Alex. She literally profits off of selling sadness to emotionally immature youth. Yuck.

Dusting off, licking wounds, standing up eight

It's difficult to say that I'm confidently "optimistic" about life right now. But it wouldn't be fun to end this post off on a cautious and negative note like the last one, would it? I'm only 19 years old, what do I know about living a good life?! I don't even know how to drive a car! I've never had a real job! 

This semester, I took a deep learning course that I really enjoyed. I find the analogy of gaining life experiene to training an ML model kind of apt. In life, we optimize for success, happiness, and love. And through many trials and failures, we train our weights and update the way we go about things; slowly improving inch by inch. Not too far off from backpropogation or gradient descent, I'd say!

I think an important theme for this upcoming year will be to tether my expectations to reality, and to break down the monstrously complicated problem of human aging and disease into small, actionable tasks that I am capable of accomplishing. No, there won't be one lab that I could join to instantly "solve" aging, nor will there be an indirect way to make insane boatloads of money to fund others to work on this problem. Progress will be made in many little piecemeal baby steps, and over the course of years– not months. This sort of uncomfortable truth is hard for me to grapple– especially with the young techie ethos of "move fast and break things" etched into my mind– but it's something I'm learning to accept.

One of the few highlights of this past year was working on and submitting an ITP application. It was a totally spontaneous thing to do, but was surprisingly really fun and not all that hard a thing to finish. If I could work on (and complete) projects like that more regularly in the coming year– I'd consider that a win.

A piece of writing that's given me a lot of solace recently is Sam Altman's guide on how to be successful. I feel like a lot of the advice there seems straightforward at first, but unlike a lot of advice, his presentation is excellently clear and simple. I've found it more and more intuitive the more I've read it. Give it a look!

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