Reflection: My Undergraduate Experiences at MIT

Commencement is a few days away, so I don't have too much more time on campus. I've finished all four years of my undergraduate education. It has been a really wild and amazing ride, and now that things are marginally quieter, I think I could use a little reflection on those 4 years (or, at least, the highlights, learning experiences, and more recent parts that I remember). I am no poet, so a lot of this may sound repetitive, awkward, or stilted; believe me when I say this is really how I feel. Follow the jump to read more.

Amazing doesn't even begin to describe the people I have met here, and that goes doubly for the people I have had the honor and privilege of calling my friends (you know who you are) over the last few years. They have showed me so many different ways that science, engineering, and this world are so cool — ways that I would have never been able to discover alone. They have supported me through times good and bad, through sunshine and snow (literally), and everything in between. In many ways, I feel like I have learned quite a bit more from my friends, peers, and classmates than I have from professors even just in terms of academics (and much more so beyond that). They have opened my view of many things, academic or otherwise, to angles that I would have never fathomed before coming here. This was my first experience being in such close contact with people whose passions for STEM fields and other things pervaded their lives and who were going through more schooling because they wanted to do so, not because they were legally obligated to do so. I can't thank them enough for all they have done to shape and support me, and while I will certainly make every effort to keep in touch with my friends after commencement, I will dearly miss the ability to do simple things like swing by someone's room to shoot the breeze, ask a stupid question, or make impromptu plans for a movie.

MIT's motto is "mens et manus" meaning "mind and hand", and I think I have been able to satisfy myself in that regard. Not so long ago, I might have written that as "I hope" rather than "I think", as I might have wanted some external validation. But going through MIT made me realize the relative unimportance of external validation compared to internal validation. Of course, this is not to say that external validation is not important at all. For one, if I really believed that to the fullest extent, I don't foresee myself being a successful researcher. For another, with regard to my friends and peers that I mentioned earlier, those people have been beyond invaluable in supporting interesting ideas (while showing where others could use more thought), sympathizing with my feelings (while also keeping me grounded and rational), and celebrating successes (while also showing me the bigger picture when failure hit); clearly, then, those cannot be discounted. What I'm getting at more is that in freshman year, I was very focused on maintaining good grades and was seeing it as an external marker of success. By about the middle to end of sophomore year, however, I came to realize that grades are just a measure of how well I have learned and understood the material, and learning is my main goal anyway; hence, if I had learned the material to my satisfaction, I would hopefully get a grade reflective of that, so the external validation just became a reflection of internal validation.

Moreover, although I was doing pretty well in classes even in freshman year, I was always in awe of my friends who had come in already doing awesome stuff, like International Physics Olympiad, ISEF, or other things like that. More than that, given that most of my accomplishments in high school were not quite at that level, I felt a little inadequate in comparison, and a few times the thought of whether I really should have been admitted crossed my mind. But by sophomore year, I started a UROP in photonics, and I didn't know anyone else doing anything quite like that; at the same time, my friends were starting their own unique research and other experiences. So while I am even more in awe of my friends' and peers' accomplishments, from sophomore year I realized that it isn't really meaningful to try to make apples-to-apples comparisons between what I was doing and what my friends were doing. Of course, even this has its limits; if my friends are applying for a prestigious graduate fellowship, I would certainly give that a shot too. That said, as college progressed, past accomplishments mattered progressively less compared to accomplishments within college, and everyone that I've met has something really cool going for them. It has truly been an amazing thing to be part of, and I am happy beyond measure that I could in fact been a part of that. More than that, I am constantly amazed by how humble everyone is in the midst of all of this; I suspect that being around people who are doing so many cool things is a humbling experience for many people here, because it certainly was for me.

Speaking of specialization, when I came into MIT, I knew I wanted to do physics; that has remained true. More specifically, I thought I wanted to do astrophysics; that completely turned around upon getting my photonics UROP in the end of sophomore year. That UROP only happened because I showed a little experience in working with optics equipment and LEDs in my two internships at NIST, and the second of those internships happened only because of the first (as they were in the same division). After discovering photonics, my interest quickly shifted there, and those interests solidified and broadened upon taking 8.044 — Statistical Physics I. Since junior year, I have been pretty set on doing research in photonics, quantum optics, or Casimir physics, and more recently, I've been toying with the idea of throwing in the physics of complex systems and networks with Casimir physics; I certainly haven't thought about doing astrophysics in a long time, because that just isn't where my interests lie anymore. It's funny how these things work out.

I have been really grateful for the opportunities that MIT has given me not just to learn more science and contribute (in however small a way) to new science, but also to share my passion for science with others. I have been able to represent the Physics Department at various events and expositions. I was on the executive board of the MIT Society of Physics Students from the beginning of sophomore year to just a few weeks ago (when the new board for next year was elected). I have been able to make videos for the MIT-K12 initiative. I have been able to informally tutor people here, and formally tutor them through two services (outside of MIT, but still while I was a student here). I would be thrilled if I could get even a few people to consider pursuing a STEM field when they hadn't before.

Last, but most definitely not least, I have been truly grateful for the people who were able to accommodate my special needs. I may have briefly mentioned before [on this blog] that I have a disability that largely confines me to a wheelchair. Before coming to MIT, I was largely dependent on help from my family to go places. Since coming here, I have been able to live independently and get around by myself. This was really the first time that I could, for example, go to a movie with friends at the drop of a dime (i.e. without planning far in advance how I might get there). That has been an unbelievably gratifying experience for me, and I feel good that this living situation can work for me in the future too (i.e. that I won't have to be perpetually dependent on others). That's all I feel comfortable saying in that regard on this blog; beyond that, I hope that my opportunities for getting around will only expand further in graduate school.

I think this is a good place to wrap up this post. I am truly thankful for all the ways MIT and the people in it that I have associated with have allowed me to grow as a student, as a scientist, and as a person. I am quite excited to be moving on toward full-time research as a graduate student in the Princeton University Department of Electrical Engineering; I hope to be working in photonics, quantum optics, or Casimir physics. I also look forward to getting to know better the cool people that I met at their visit weekend, as those are the folks that I will be spending the next 5-6 years with. At the same time, I will dearly miss the awesome friends that I have made at MIT; that said, given that these friendships were forged in the boiling hot lava of the MIT undergraduate experience, I believe they can withstand the tests of even large spacetime separations. Before graduate school, I will be spending most of my summer at home, with a few weeks devoted to traveling. Before that, though, I have a few more precious days left here, so I'm going to make the most of that time!