Blog 202 (…crazy, I know :))

Hey readers :).

It’s been a fun week and half, with lots of happy events interspersed. This is definitely a “moments” kind of post, so I’ll just get started describing all the little realizations and successes :).

First: my youngest sister got into Wellesley College. I attended Wellesley, my middle sister Leslie is currently at Wellesley, and my youngest sister will be attended Wellesley. None of this was originally in the cards, but Nicole is ecstatic (as is my mom), and I am so, so happy for her. Wellesley is the most excellent of homes, and I think will take care of us until we die.

I’ve always thought Nicole was the best fit for Wellesley on the front of it, though everyone finds what they need there, and Leslie and I each found our own paths. Nicole definitely had the best application essay, and it was so enlightening to read it, because like I’m emphasizing here it was about us as sisters. Specifically, what it’s like being the youngest with two successful older sisters. It gave me an entirely new perspective on youngest children in general and she perceives Leslie and me in particular.

Because dang, I would hate to have to live up to an older sister at Cambridge and another gifted older sister who breathes math and hard science, in a family where math and science is the highest form of study you can achieve. It’s actually really hard for me to wrap my head around having an “older sister” at Cambridge, because it’s my life and I always feel everything is normal, but Nicole’s a writer and that was a beautiful essay. She wrote about the struggle of self-definition when many of the paths had already been explored; a struggle made more difficult by the inevitable internal comparison whenever she had to begin something Leslie and I had tried. The increasing difficulty in finding something uniquely hers, and the expectation to excel to the best of both Leslie and my efforts on everything else.

And yet, she’s following us to Wellesley :). I love personal statements—every time I’ve read one of my friend’s application essays, it gives me so much more insight into their worlds than weeks of talking. I had some sort of vague empathy whenever Nicole talked about having two older sisters, but it’s different being the oldest, and I don’t really have a good experience to compare it to. I had no idea she considered this such a defining feature of her life, and it was so important to hear it in her words, consider it not as a weak comparison to my own experiences but as a rich description and perspective in itself. I didn’t have the opportunity to read the final essay, in which I urged Nicole to describe Why Wellesley when she was writing about knowing when to choose the same path Leslie and I walked and when to choose her own. Why follow your older sisters to the same college, even when you’re unlikely to overlap? I know Nicole has always described it as very convenient having teachers with a good opinion of you from the outset. It certainly is easier attending a college that you’ve already visited and heard about, especially since Leslie will overlap with Nicole at the same time. I can’t really imagine wanting it, but then I’ve always had to forge the path, and fundamentally, I have to remember that we’re all different people. Birth order may shape that development, but we all see the world differently, and I would love to know what Nicole saw in her visits, that drew her to this college independent of anything to do with us. I know she loved the alum she interviewed with. Perhaps she’ll love the same things Leslie and I love about the school. I think, though, that this is the last time I’ll get to introduce Nicole at Wellesley in the context of “Monica, Leslie, and Nicole all attending”. She’ll find what she loves there, and it’ll be unique, and our thoughts will be shared and different and our own through our own lenses of perspective, as they always have :).

Second thought: I’m done with grad school essays. Hallelujah, that’s been an adventure! I still have some follow-up emails to do, and then interviews will be thing in the spring, but I am very pleased that’s done. I was talking to my best friend Tiffany about the process of submitting, and she agreed it’s always bizarrely terrifying and then oddly underwhelming—like, oh, I just submitted that essay, and now I’m supposed to go to bed even though I’m buzzed on adrenaline?

It goes to show that happiness is more a state of mind than tied to specific events—events certainly do make me happy, but it’s pretty useless going around life waiting for significant milestones to happen. I was talking to my parents about this earlier this month about the rest of my life being pretty similar to what I’m doing now. And the thing is, that means I should be pretty happy about what my life is now, because it’s not going to get significantly different or better in the future. I’ll still be me, doing approximately the same things, worrying about approximately the same issues, enjoying similar things. I do love it :). Passing the still river at night, wandering in the crowds on Sundays, chatting with my labmates, writing a blog for you to read. Conversations, living in Cambridge, ankle boots, biking, rowing. It’s amazing to be alive, to have the opportunity to work like I do, to worry like I do, to enjoy like I do, and I’m fiercely glad I get to live it.

I’ve been doing brunch mostly every week with people, right? This week was just me and Vasiliy, Stephanie’s husband. We had an excellent talk about computational cognitive science, my parents’ opinions about science, work, and occasional non-science miscellanea. Vasiliy trained as a mathematician, and he’s a software engineer now. We were there for two hours, eating scones, and it’s just that we—or he and my parents, and because I’ve absorbed most of my parents’ ideas through osmosis, he and I—agreed on practically everything. It’s something I find frequently with my labmates as well. There’s just something so consistent about people trained as scientists—everyone has this infinitely practical mindset, where the frequent answer is: “no, that’s silly” or “obviously, what they have to do is…” And everyone agrees, and there’s no arguing, or if there’s arguing it’s logical with no threat involved and everyone thoughtfully considering. I haven’t had to say “let’s agree to disagree” yet, haven’t had to worry about any unresolved argument. It’s just so easy, and me and an older-thirties man could sit there discussing a mutual interest with no awkwardness at any point, and without having to talk about ourselves at all since we were talking about ideas, and it’s kind of amazing. Amazing in one respect because we have computational cognitive science as a mutual interest, amazing in another in that he’d be happy to sit there and spend a pleasant afternoon, and amazing in a third because either it’s the personality or the training but there is definitely something that unites all scientists. The conclusion from people I’ve asked is that the cause is probably both personality and training—if you follow the Myers-Briggs personality types, the “scientist” personality has a 1% frequency in women and 3% in males in the US—and then we’re trained to question everything and think logically, so the innate tendencies only get stronger :).

So different to be away from Wellesley, when being this practical is something strange and not the norm. It’s always easier to be with people who think the same way you do, and sometimes I get to thinking that this is the right way. You’ll probably find my conclusion about this strange, but this is actually where I’m thankful to the internet, specifically the ease of news access and social media. My online community generally holds similar viewpoints to my own as I had to meet them all in real life first. But there’s enough variability, and enough people who care about issues wider than I naturally seek out, that I get a sense that there are different opinions besides those in my own, erudite, infinitely-practical world :).

Funny moment: when I found myself wondering if I knew anyone who was studying psychology at UPenn so I could ask them about professors. I was listing the people I knew at UPenn—nope, Chemistry major, nope, biomedical engineering—and regretting that I didn’t have a connection from a conference like at Princeton, when I caught myself acting like I actually was casually developing and using a network.

You know in college when they’re all about telling you how to learn how to network, and I necessarily got stressed about it because that’s what I do when I’m not particularly good at something? Turns out it just happens with time and attention, as so many things do.

I still can’t believe I have two undergrad friends at UPenn and met one of the professors (who remembers me!) at a conference. And that I called up a friend to ask about Stanford psychology professors and a post-doc from Princeton read my essay there. I’m becoming like a real scientist now. Mind blown.

Here’s another weird thing: I’m popular in novice rowing. I haven’t been this popular since 10th grade space camp, when I was wildly popular in my group for unknown reasons. In 10th grade I also got selected out of the entire 600-strong population to attend a leadership camp, which I have not lived up to since I have not taken on any leadership positions before or since (what are people seeing in me?! Curious minds want to know). I was trying to figure out the similarities between space camp and rowing (… and what makes it different from every other group or activity that I’ve been a part of) and I can come up with a few ideas, but I’m still kind of baffled.

  1. Making an effort to get to know everyone as an individual.

I like one-on-one conversations. I like them even better when I feel like I’m an equal with everyone around me, have similar interests with everyone around me, and am surrounded by busy, fairly intense people with academic goals who generally aren’t the drinking and partying type. (Being the drinking and partying type doesn’t exclude you from being a fairly intense person with academic goals, by the way; it just makes me mildly insecure due to my own lack of drinking and partying.)

Come to think of it, space-camp-people and people-who-row-for-the-first-time-in-Cambridge are rather similar in that respect, and I generally find I have no trouble, and in fact enjoy, befriending this type of person.

  1. Being fairly good at whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing

I find this is helpful anywhere. As my mother says, if you’re good at something, people will let you get away with being pretty weird. As I understood it in high school, this was one of her main motivations for me to be good at swimming (the other reason was to get into college), which I think was one of her slightly more off-beat nuggets of wisdom, but the original point still stands.

  1. Being highly energetic and enthusiastic?

People like this one. I like this one. Exercising en-masse makes me really happy and jumpy and excitable and it’s not really explainable. I’m pretty high-energy to begin with and designated workout time pushes it into overdrive (as does exciting space times, obviously).

In summary, I think it’s probably a combination of the above factors, with the most important ones being enthusiasm and friendly with people I’m comfortable with. My parents always told me (man, I do draw on them a lot, don’t I?) that it was just the particular group that made it happen, and when I found the right group, it would happen again. It’s so funny to me that this rare group comes along so occasionally for me, that I have this latent superpower that only awakes for these very particular collections of people. It’s going to be gone next semester, when we join the senior rowers and I get intimidated and shy again around people who are much better than me. Ah, popularity. You fickle beast that I never shall properly get the hang of :).

(P.s. I promptly started having dreams about being told to tone it down and generally act more reserved. Which is a general life philosophy that has greatly increased my apparent maturity level since middle school and has generally made me more easily likeable. I hadn’t realized it was a life philosophy until it started popping up unconsciously though. So much of my current behavior is reactionary responses to what I think I was like in middle school :)).

I’m running participants this week in lab! I am not using my brain at all; instead I am filling in spreadsheets and talking to people in two minute segments and hovering a lot near the testing rooms. But besides the lack of thinking, I do love it. I’m doing long-term testing, where people come in every day for six days, and I talk to them in two-minute segments six times an hour.

I knew I’d like it, and I do like it. It’s precisely what I enjoy—one-on-one conversations with interesting people, with prep time in between discussions so that I can think about what I want to say (if I’m not busy logging entries), and mandatory time for discussion. The format of the two minute segments is a bit awkward, I’ll admit—it’s hard to come back to what you were talking about before the break—but I just made two new friends via bringing them in as participants. There are plenty I don’t click with, of course, but two friends sounds pretty darn awesome to me.

I hope I get to do human neuroimaging studies in the future. I’ve wanted to do that for a long time, and I know I’ll enjoy the participants just as much then. It’s also immensely fun to have access to peoples’ scores and performance (… which I probably shouldn’t be announcing, but it is) and to have people coming in to run a study that I helped create and will be in charge of afterwards. A sense of ownership, I think, and also power—and my favorite form of power, which is knowledge.

If I ever do get power-heady though (…what does that even look like in a scientist? Refusing to teach people because you want to know everything? Seems weird) feel free to do the appropriate taking me down a peg :).

One of my roommates mentioned that she thought I was an extrovert.

I replied: Yeah, it’s a common misperception. I come across as very outgoing.

Her: no, I meant I thought all Americans were extroverts.

…Whhaaa? I replied to her that it’s actually about half and half, and then we had a discussion on what extroversion and introversion means in the context of different personality tests, which is a discussion I love having and will continue having many times in the future. But I was thinking about it later, and it’s actually not at all surprising she thought Americans were extroverts. Because we’re all trained to come across as so—and because she’s not from a “Westernized” country, like most of the people here, this expectation of being an omnivert isn’t so ingrained that it seems as unquestionably obvious as it is to me.

This is where the real learning-about-your-own-culture happens, I think. When someone mentions something, and it’s something you’ve never even thought to question, and it reveals a fundamental social attitude that has greatly defined how you’ve grown up.

I have found myself in the company of two similar PIs (principal investigators). My current supervisor, Prof. Zoe Kourtzi, and my previous supervisor, Prof. Bevil Conway, both kindly wrote recommendation letters for me to Cambridge. Their emails after my reminder to submit:

all done

good luck!



done! good luck



When I’m a professor kindly writing letters for my students (;P), I’m going to have to think long and hard about my policy about capitalization—I’m already gone for explanation points and I know I’m just going to put them on both the necessary clauses.

(Joking aside, I’m extremely grateful to Prof. Kourtzi, Prof. Conway, my other recommenders, and all of the professors who have helped me through this grad school process. They have been absolutely incredible supports, have taught me so much, and have given so much time and energy to my development. I wouldn’t be anywhere without them :).)

One of my lab mates messed up a few days ago, and that made me realize how relentless competent everyone is usually. Why is everyone relentless competent? It’s excellent and lovely and I take it as the default now. Ooh am I in for some nice surprises…

Finally, the climate change deal. There was a climate change deal in Paris this weekend. My friend Stephanie couldn’t come to brunch because she was in Paris. She posted on her Facebook a picture of her with someone who looked suspiciously like Ban Ki-moon.

It was Ban Ki-moon. She was celebrating in Paris because she had been on the negotiation team at the U.N. who was organizing this deal. She is currently doing a Masters here before going back to the U.N.


And with that parting piece of eloquence I’ll say good night to you all :). Happy almost-break, good luck with finals, and thanks as always for reading :).


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