Settled

I’ll admit it: I had pretty low expectations for grad school. I was going to get into some graduate school because I’d done everything I was supposed to do to get into some grad school, then I was going to sit through 5-6 years of it, and then I’d do my one to two postdocs and then apply for tenure-track positions and that would be that. Grad school was going to be just like undergrad and my masters program in that it was going to be great, but I’d spend a good deal of time being stressed and studying things that weren’t quite what I wanted to be spending my time on, but were close enough that they’d probably work themselves out in the long run.

Well.

Life, right now, is pretty awesome.

I love the family I’m staying with. I’ve figured out the grocery stores, how my room operates, how my roommate and I get along, and how all the keys work.

I’ve got transport down, my bike works, I have my free bus pass, and I’m getting better at cycling up that massive hill.

I’ve found some science outreach activities to apply for and a list of lectures I want to attend.

I’ve signed up for my classes and they’re great: taught by excellent teachers, stuff I’m interested in and know I’ll use in the future, filling course requirements. I’m taking “Computational Models of Cognition” with Prof. Tom Griffiths, “Neural Computation” with Prof. Bruno Olshausen, and the introductory “Neuroscience Methods” class taken by all first-year neuroscience students.

I just spent 10 days in an intensive Neuroscience Boot Camp in which I got to know all of my fellow first-year Neuroscience students, and they’re a great bunch.

I’ve gone hiking, shared many meals with, and played new board games with said bunch, and feel accepted and like everyone else feels accepted into this group.

I’ve met a lot of the 2nd-year Neuroscience students, met most of the Griffiths lab, and these people have been universally friendly and welcoming.

The teachers here continue to be excellent speakers, down-to-earth, and unfailingly giving and helpful.

I get a bonus as a grad student. Being a graduate student is sweet. People agree to meet with you and engage with your ideas and treat you like someone who knows what they’re doing (hint: we do not know what we’re doing). It’s undeserved but pretty great.

I’ve got the gym system figured out! I’m taking dancing classes. It’s been a very long-term goal of mine to learn how to do hip-hop dance. This interest doesn’t really fit into the nice internally-consistent box labeled “Monica” for most people, but I put in the same interest group as “athletics” and “thinks Cirque du Soleil is the pinnacle of artistic expression (…besides writing)”. There are FREE DANCE CLASSES at Berkeley! I’m so excited! I’m really terrible at dancing, but I’m already very marginally improving. After five years of this I’m going to be awesome.

(Other things I’m bad at but am going for anyway: the writing fiction thing. That’s the z&e tab on this website. Please don’t read it—like I said, it’s something I’m not good at. But it’s kind of fun having these things in my life. Things where I’m held publically accountable for my performance, things I value and want to be good at in the future, things I can face feeling inferior about with no actual consequences, and things that are nice, long-term goals.)

I’m hearing about so. Much. Cool. Science. It’s unbelievable. Not only am I reading about a lot of cool science, but everyone around me is a font of cool science. In a disproportionate number of conversations I learn about something that makes me say: “wait, we can do what now?” We can vaguely reconstruct what videos people are watching in an fMRI machine (note: this only works if you stay very, very still. If you don’t want your “mind to be read” then just move about two millimeters while you’re being scanned and everything’s off). (That’s Prof. Jack Gallant’s work.) We can fluorescently tag the neurons that one neuron is connected to both backwards and forwards. (Retrograde and anterograde viral tracing.) Neurons are labeled with this protein we pulled out of glowing jellyfish. (GFP.) We can watch hundreds of neurons fire at once with a microscope that does something called calcium imaging. We can decide which group of neurons we want to glow red by using specially-changed viruses, and we can make those neurons send electricity to each other by turning on a light (optogenetics). There are so many cool things in neuroscience.

And there are so many cool people in neuroscience. One night after lecture, the Bootcampers headed over to get pizza from a nearby restaurant. It was too busy to seat fourteen, so we brought over the pizzas to a nearby lawn area, negotiating Venmo / Paypal / cash compensation with the buyers along the way. Then we sat down, various people coming and going, for about two hours.

Holly asked the best question, the one that kept us going until nightfall. She said: “So what is it that you want to achieve with your research, in the end?”

This is by far the coolest question I think you can ask any of us. Because behind everyone’s science, behind everyone studying one tiny, tiny system or cell or whatever they’re focused on in insane detail: there’s this idea. There’s this huge idea that seems to come down to either saving, or changing, the world.

And it’s so cool how it all connects. There’s such a rush of satisfaction when you can hear someone say: I want to study in this person’s lab; I want to work on this specific problem, and then hear them say: I’m trying to construct an artificial cell. When you hear someone say, I’m going to use these techniques to fix this existing research question, and when you hear them say, so that people can eventually directly transmit their thoughts without language. It makes me so immeasurably happy when I can hear what’s driving someone, what their intellectual goal is, and see how it’s affected where they’ve gone and where they’re going and how they’re trying to make this wish happen in reality with the resources and knowledge they have. To know them, to know their motivation, to know what drives them. And these are intellectual goals, and thus all the more special to me, the most special thing you could give me as a key to who you are.

These people have them. And they can express them, more or less clearly, but they have them. As Holly put it, we’re all trying to either save or destroy the world (Christine says she just wants to be happy in her little corner), but there’s something amazing in that we can go around the circle, and everyone will have something to say.

I was trying to explain this experience to someone, and I didn’t do it properly. There’s two ways that people interact with you: they either hear what you say and connect it with one of their own experiences, or you’ve presented something that can’t immediately find a parallel to and thus reject it or disengage. Most people I interact with don’t reject things, but they’ll disengage, saying something like: “it’s great how you think this is cool.” Which means: I don’t think it’s cool, but it’s kind of funny when you get all geek/nerd about this, and I appreciate you so I’ll say so.

This is the communicator’s fault more than anything. Even if I’m trying to explain some science fact that I think is awesome, if you give me enough of your attention and I’m a good communicator, I should be able to give you enough background for you to appreciate it yourself and not just appreciate the fact that I appreciate it. That said, that’s a lot of effort from both sides.

What’s been the most fun thing about the people here is they all get it. They have approximately the same values, backgrounds, and approaches, so the value of things doesn’t need to be explained. The coolness of things doesn’t need to be justified; peoples’ interests don’t have to be pre-evaluated. The baseline of people’s interest for certain kinds of information is magnitudes higher than for any other group of people you’d encounter.

They’re geek/nerds, science geek/nerds, majority early-twenties/early-thirties white American middle-class college-educated without-disabilities non-religious intellectual liberal neuroscience geek/nerds, and it is a darn pleasure to be around similar-minded people.

(Hmm :). That’s “majority”, by the way: not everyone falls into every category. But it makes me wonder if every person is happiest when they’re among a group of like-minded people. It seems true for me—the places I’ve felt where I most belonged were at Space Camp and recently this Cambridge Hands-On Science Roadshow. I wanted to leave England because I didn’t feel I belonged there: it’s hard to be as big a fan of America as Americans are. But the different attitudes in England were good for me, and the idea of self-perpetuating clustering seems dangerous. Being in a cluster I identify with is kind of a rare experience for me—my clusters are found in very specific places—but it makes me wonder about how rare peoples’ clusters are in general.

For now, Berkeley seems like exactly my type of place, with exactly the type of people I want to be around. Since I’ve passed the “feel accepted by people” stage, and the “get to do the research you want” stage, this has settled into a singularly wonderful experience. Dangerous or not, I suspect it usually is rare to find a great cluster—and so with the awareness that I am in this bubble, I’ll enjoy it for the fact that is special :)).

I have a lot of time right now, since classes just started last week and I’m still working out what my project’s going to be. This has meant that I’ve spent a lot of time poking around on the internet looking and thinking about things I care about, so it’s been a very pleasurable use of time. I worry that it’ll be less idyllic as time goes on, but talking to the Berkeley 3rd, 4th, and 5th years, they still seem very pleased with their lives. I chose Berkeley because the students here seemed magnitudes happier than at other schools I visited, and I’m so glad to be here.

Some other miscellaneous thoughts I had throughout the week:

  • How you know you’re still a student: you have 0 <= x <= 2 of everything. (Forks, notebooks, towels…)
  • How you know you’re still a student: you never use a cart at the grocery store. Everything needs to be carried or biked home—you can’t carry that much stuff!
  • How you know you’re a graduate student: undergrads ask you if you can buy them stuff with all your money you’re getting without working a job. HA! I almost guarantee I’m still poorer than you with my loans :).
  • Walked into my first day of class (…year 14. Still going!). Knew at least five people, one of whom I’d met at the University of Cambridge, three of which were first-year grad students, and three more were second-year neuroscience students.
  • Was sitting on the sofa at home when Tinder Date #4 from when I was in Cambridge walked in the front door. I boggled. Turned out that he was also going to Berkeley and was looking for housing.
  • Listened to an orientation talk by the Ombudsperson. Compared the experience to when I listened to a lecture in Cambridge by a trained hostage negotiator. Man, those people own the room.
  • Stuffed in an elevator with other neuroscience students. Jacob announced we were all neurotransmitter exiting the vesicle.
  • I disclosed my (thankfully over) 7-month obsession with a very uncool band. Response: “Ahahaha, ­­Band Name, I remember when they flooded our algorithms due to tween activity and we were like oh f* how do we fix this?!?” This friend worked at Youtube before coming to Berkeley. This remains the best response I have ever heard to sharing bad music tastes.
  • Responses of two neuro friends to the first lecture of an imaging class. 1. “And the example projects he showed were completely impossible.” 2. “And he showed some examples of final projects, and they were obviously complete fishing expeditions into random projects he’d been thinking about, but he said we weren’t graded on accuracy!” Friend 1 did not end up taking the class, while Friend 2 did. Background and confidence play such a huge roles in pursuing opportunities.
  • Carson and I went hiking on Sunday to Mount Diablo! It was great.
  • I never realized how much my upbringing could be characterized as Chinese, and how much it shaped me. There are just some basic life philosophies that aren’t shared across the board. Things like doing what you want to do and the essentiality of perseverance.
  • England has better lotions, body sprays, grape prices and cheap vegetarian sausages. The US has Trader Joe’s.

Night, all :). Thanks for bearing with me; it’s been an exciting few weeks, and hopefully the writing will calm down in the future. Best of luck to all those starting college right now (good luck to my youngest sister, Nicole!) and much love to all of you, as always :).

Monica

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