The Prologue

She sits at her desk, leg shaking courtesy of the empty Starbucks cup that rests next to her laptop. Her pencil scrapes against paper, crossing out the “great” thought she had at 2:00 a.m. that day. The cursor on the Word document in front of her blinks expectantly, but she cannot find the words to give it.

This is me. A creative writing major with minors in animation and special effects as well as film and media studies. I have been writing stories since I learned how to craft a sentence, and enjoy seeing what I can come up with. My project is the development of a YA novel in the dystopian, fantasy genre. In particular, I aim to explore the depiction of sibling relationships, as such works frequently feature the same heteromantic dynamics.

Having the time to work on my novel is simultaneously amazing and terrifying. I’m finally doing what I set out to do since before even coming to Carnegie Mellon, and yet I’m so scared. What if my ideas aren’t good enough? What if I’m wasting my time and should’ve tried to get a “practical” internship like some have suggested to me? What if my goal of writing this book and becoming an author is nothing more than a fantasy?

I don’t actually have answers to those questions. But this opportunity allows me to pursue my passion and create something I believe in. And I look forward to seeing where it takes me.

So I guess this is the official starting point?

To be honest I don’t even understand why I laughed so hard on this figure…

Today I’m turning 21. I am not exciting as I thought I would be. But I think this is a good thing. It means daily life is exciting enough for me. Over our weekly FaceTime chat my mom and I briefly talked about my birthday. She asked me what I want for birthday. I thought for a while and told her sincerely, nothing, mom, honestly nothing. 

“Are you sure?” My mom asked again. 

“yeah I am sure.” I confirmed. I think I am genuinely happy with my life. 

It might sound cheesy but I am saying it any way: I love working on my honor thesis. I love the topic so much that I can’t think of a better way to spend my summer, or the 21st year of my life, or even the rest of life — yes, I am applying to graduate school to work in this area, the intersection between cognitive psychology and philosophy. I actually want to work on the same cohort of topics: language development, cognitive development, the interaction between perceptual and conceptual systems. 

Oh wait, a little bit about myself: I am a rising senior studying cognitive science and philosophy. I am from Beijing, China. Before came to CMU I always thought I would be a writer or poet or something like that. But then I found out that I am more interested in how language is possible at all, i.e., how little baby learns language. So I switched gear and decided to (hopefully) become a scientist. In my spare time I am passionate about writing popular science, and, FOOOOOOOOOOOOOD!!!!! (Ask me for restaurant recommendations!)

Last semester before winter break, I talked with my two advisors, asking whether they would be interested in advising me to do an “interdisciplinary” project. Well I put interdisciplinary in quote because I am never fully convinced by the disciplinary boundary between philosophy and cognitive science. I think the debates in cognitive science nowadays are the same debates that have been going on for the past centuries in philosophy of mind. And we also need to consider the fact that even science itself stemmed from philosophy. Honestly, I don’t think science can go anywhere at all without the guidance of philosophical analysis…so the only reason I called it “interdisciplinary” is because I have two advisors, and I am going to write two things for my thesis package: 

  1. Empirical work: your classic APA style report paper on an experiment I am going to conduct in Infant Cognition Lab. 
  2. Philosophical work: a review paper I am going to write on the paradigm used in my experiment.

I know this is technically two things. Two intertwined, closely related things are still two things. On the one hand, I am confident. I started to work with infants in my freshman summer. I received a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship last year to work on speech perception with infants. By now I have received five Small Undergraduate Research Grants from URO. And I have been reading and reading and reading and reading… And I know I want to do this, and I believe that I can. I intentionally register for less classes next semester to leave enough time to work on this project.

But on the other hand, I am worried. Deep down in me there is always this little devil screaming: you’re not smart enough, you probably won’t even finish one thing, HOW DARE YOU CHOOSE TO DO TWO! HOW DARE YOU TO WANT TO DO RESEARCH!

That devil! I know her. I know her so well. She was the voice with me when I told my mom I am going to Carnegie Mellon University. She was the voice with me when I told my mom I wanted to get a PhD. She was the voice with me when I declared my additional major in Philosophy. She kept telling me that I am not smart enough, that I am not good enough, that I should know my limit. I can’t talk back because in some sense she is right. All my life in school I never excel in standardized tests. I don’t have 4.0 GPA. I am not one of the students who you would expect a perfect score from.  At best I am above average. And the emphasis is on average. Even my above average requires quite a bit of work. 

In order to fight that devil, I came up with a theory. I called it “the theory of ambitious mediocre person”. 

I am a mediocre person but I am also ambitious. My mediocre ambition is that I want to do something with my life. So what can I do? In physics “Work is the product of force and distance.” W = FS. I translate that principle into life. So as a mediocre person I only have mediocre force. If I want to maximize my work, then I need to increase my distance. Distance is the product of velocity and time. As a mediocre person I only have mediocre velocity, so the only option for me is to spend as much time as possible. Start working early and always working. 

For me, I only believe in hard work. I don’t trust subitism. No sudden enlightenment for me. 

I spent my winter break reading, talked with my advisors during the first weeks after I came back.The past spring semester also happened to be the heaviest semester I have ever had. With 60 units and 9 hours of research, I really needed to work hard. So even during spring break when I was in New York City, I locked myself in NYU’s glamorous library writing proposals. I was emailing my graduate student mentor and another philosophy professor for advice. Eventually with so much help from so many people, I submitted my proposal on time. 

I know I’ll need to start preparing for graduate school as I start to work on my thesis. But I also know I can only focus on one thing a time and I hate standardized tests. As a result, I took care of my GRE during the winter break and before summer started I took the TOEFL exam just in case any school I’m applying to may want that. 

Finally, with no standardized tests in my way, I can concentrate on my thesis work. I’ve been reading since the final week. Now I guess this post indicates the official starting point for me. Good. I can’t imagine a better way to spend my summer. 

So, what are you researching?

I am so happy to begin this summer of research! I have been striving towards conducting my own experiment ever since first becoming a research assistant during my freshman year at CMU. Now that this goal of mine has become a reality, I am both nervous and excited to begin the long journey.

First a little about myself, I am a psychology student with a concentration in neuropsychology and a minor in cognitive neuroscience. In other words, I particularly enjoy learning about the biological mechanisms and components of the brain which underlie psychological phenomena.  In particular, I am interested in the development of the visual system and how our brain allows us to see our environments.

For my project, I am studying a specific area of the brain called the visual word form area. The visual word form area (VWFA) is an area of the brain which allows us to recognize written words and plays an essential role in our ability to read. Pretty cool! Lately, I have noticed I struggle to explain my research hypothesis in layman’s terms. My research relates specifically to certain anatomical and connective regions of the brain, and it’s easy for me to slip into field-specific jargon in order to explain my study without even realizing it! Explaining my research to others outside of the psychology field is something I am still learning, but this blog will be a great opportunity for me to practice this important skill.

To conclude my first blog post I will quickly describe what I’ve done so far as well as the next steps I need to take for my project. I have completed my literature review and an experimental protocol (I will describe more about my study’s design in my next blog post). In order to interact with human participants, I received IRB approval and access to the SONA participant pool. Now I am working through lots of MATLAB code to actually create the experimental stimuli which will be presented to the participants. This code will be run on a laptop and show participants various visual stimuli, track their eye movements, and record their responses. I have very little experience with MATLAB, so this is a daunting task for me. Luckily, a graduate student in my lab has been guiding me through this process. Hopefully I will have this code up and running before my next post, but for now I need to get back to work!

Long term thinking

Traveling all day with a phone that is out of battery gives you a lot of time to think about the preceding and proceeding days. The preceding days were filled with an interview at the University of Minnesota with Dr. Bob Krueger and his colleagues, nights were spent watching The Good Place with my grad student host. The proceeding days will be filled with exams and homework that have been neglected in favor of focusing on interviews and preparation for the next stage of my education.

The next stage of my education definitely involves research, a fact that was cemented in part by the Dietrich Honors Fellowship program. This summer was the first time I got to spend all of my time doing research (whether it was in my lab or on my personal project). I found it really fulfilling to sit down and do the work of preparing my study and manuscript during the summer, and I realized that studying personality was something I wanted to continue.

In order to continue on this path, I applied to PhD programs that would allow me to research personality disorders. In both my personal statement and on the interviews I’ve had for programs, I have talked about my senior project. I’ve talked about the rational, the study design, how I’m paying participants, how I came up with the idea, and every other aspect of my project ad nauseam. This is a good thing, however, considering my whole summer was preparation for just these types of questions. Writing my introduction and methods was just practice for these interviews, where my intellect is judged by my ability to succinctly and intelligently discuss my previous work.

Even though my senior thesis isn’t done yet, I am already flaunting the skills and knowledge that this process has taught me. The study is about to be launched through Qualtrics, and it is just today that I finalized the last details with our representatives at Qualtrics and gave them the go-ahead to launch the survey. While data is being collected, I am going to continue editing my introduction and methods and work on figuring out the syntax needed to run my analyses. Once the data is collected (in a couple weeks time), I will analyze my results and try to understand what they mean in the context of the broader literature on personality and addiction. I can’t wait to see what my contribution can be to the field of personality, both in this senior thesis, and in graduate school.

My July To-Do List (in February)

Back in July, I posted my To-Do List – let’s take a quick look:

1) Complete Thesis Introduction: Well… that was optimistic, to say the least. The introduction certainly took the longest time to complete as Vicki (my advisor) gave it the “all-clear” two weeks ago. The hardest challenge with the writing process has been the massive amounts of self-editing that I can’t seem to silence, if only to just get words on a page. If it’s not perfect the first time, I scrap it completely — admittedly, a bad habit that I need to break soon. I’m barreling through my Methods and Results section because my data analysis is going rather well. We’re seeing preliminary results that look promising, so I might have something worth publishing come May!!

2.) Take an MCAT Practice Exam Every Week: Never again. Glad that’s over.

3.) Maintain a passing grade in 15-110: Got an A – still god-awful at computer science. (Bonus round: I also took an introductory course on R because I like torturing myself)

4.) Catch at least 90% of Pokemon in the National Pokedex: I don’t think I’m quite at 90% but I’m very close. I’ve started playing more video games in my free time because I haven’t done a great job of relaxing the last few months.

5.) Find a new show on Netflix or Hulu: How about 5 shows? Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Big Mouth, South Park, Survivor and The Good Doctor.

6.) Be a better Yinzer: The MCAT sucks — that is all.

7.) Decorate my Fall 2018 room: 3 tapestries, 3 flags, 2 mini-fridges and far too much laundry strewn across the floors.

8.) Breathe and Be Patient: I’ve done my best. Senior year is such a rush and I’ve spent more time listening this semester, which is very new to me. I certainly feel more stressed because of the looming deadlines and lack of certainty regarding my internship this summer but refocusing has never been a problem this year and I’ve been very grateful for that.

 

Days until Thesis is Due: 60

Days until Graduation: 86

Days until I lose my mind: -3

Making Progress, Maybe?

So, it’s been a while, in terms of how frequent my updates have been. I want to say that while I have made a ton of progress, the process of research is equivalent to hitting yourself in the face multiple times, each time expecting a different outcome other than pain.  I know — sounds brutal, huh? Why would anyone do this? I honestly have no clue. It is important to have research that you like. People say that for a reason. If it wasn’t for something I was not particularly passionate about, I would not be doing this, but the motivation that I am contributing to something important, as paramount as civil liberties guaranteed by our constitution, makes me continue to research, peruse, and seek out knowledge about this topic, even though it can be painstakingly frustrating.

In the past couple of months since my last blog post, I have written three chapters, albeit some a bit more coherent than others, and have made progress on my maps in Tableau, a data visualization tool that is able to show maps and the evolution of districts along with their respective demographics, with the help of two very gifted librarians, Sarah and Emma.

Granted thesis is independent work, but no one does it alone. I think that was, albeit a bit ironically, what I’ve learned and grown to understand in my thesis work. I would not be here without the help of Geoff, my advisor, Emma and Sarah, the best of the best CMU librarians, Karen, the Pitt Law librarian, my mom — wow, this turned into an Oscar speech real quick. Anyways, the acknowledgment section of the thesis is going to be interesting, and also the rest of the thesis, the thing I set out to do, about gerrymandering and minority-majority districts, and ensuring the constitutional right to free and fair elections where one person is entitled to one fair vote. Now, to go back to proofreading these chapters!

Pain, Panic and Pleasure

Ever since the last post, our project has been through a viscous semester–IRB, IRB Mod, Recruiting participants…

So we submitted the IRB for our study at the very end of the summer break, hoping that we would be able to catch up the first round of IRB review of the fall semester. We didn’t. So for the first month of last semester, we could not do anything, apart from receiving endless messages from the IRB team that asked us to further tinker bits and pieces of our study before they would actually review it officially. The horrible wait finally came to an end at the dawn of October when we received the approval for our study. The excitement didn’t last for too long.

In the first week of pilot testing our study, one of the participants (to whom I owe my deep gratitude) pointed out a study design flaw. She was supposed to provide an answer that was based on her previous answer to a question, except that in the study condition/group she was in, she did not see that question at all. Luckily, we caught this in the first week and, subsequently, submitted an IRB Modification request promptly. The approval of the modification took us another two weeks so we didn’t officially recruit our lab participants until mid-October. Given we need around 120 people in total, I was anxious that we won’t be able to have enough people. So I went to Kody Manke, my advisor, and he assured me that it won’t be a problem for the thesis even if we won’t be able to hit the set number of participants because the process of learning is more critical than the actual results. Plus, he reminded me that we have an online counterpart of our study where we recruited a different set of participants on Qualtrics. We were able to have 300 people in less than 4 hours so regardless of the lab study, we would be able to write something anyway from that data.

So even since late last semester, we were simply trying to recruit as many participants as possible–I typically run 15 per week, which already deprived me of my entire weekend time. And because I was extremely busy in applying to graduate schools, I wasn’t able to find much time writing the Intro and the Results sections of my thesis. That being said, I’ve already started actually writing them now. The schedules are tight (because we intend to push the Results and Discussion later in order to have more participants in) but Kody and I have agreed on a timetable which I strive to follow.

It may seem that what’s written above was the panic part of this journey, but it actually isn’t, compared to what’s followed.

I’m fairly certain — like 99.9% certain — that I won’t receive an offer from any of the Ph.D. programs I applied for. I clairvoyantly bought Sheryl Sandberg’s book Option B last semester to prepare me for this outcome. It helped eventually, but not so much at first.

Once I knew that those schools have sent out interview invitations and I received none, I panicked. “What else can I do?” I kept asking myself. As an international student, I can only stay for one year after I graduate. Although one extra year of experience in a lab of interest is for sure helpful (as my advisor went through the same process before he went to Stanford), I wasn’t sure if one year of research was a good choice for me personally. Because that would mean I will have to apply again next fall and a couple of months of research didn’t seem to be able to polish my resume or skills much further, I was in a complete loss of sense of direction. I started to doubt what was the point of doing research and even this thesis if I couldn’t even get into a graduate school to continue doing it.

Then, a conference happened. The Society for Personality and Social Psychology was holding an annual conference in Portland last week and I got to present a work I volunteered on with Dr. Angulo and Dr. Oppenheimer last summer as a side-project of my thesis. These past couple of days were extremely intense and exhilarating. I was able to meet a number of faculties of interest (who either don’t take students this year or weren’t on my radar before) and our conversations were so pleasant that I decided to apply to their master programs in psychology. (Master program is not a norm in Psychology which is why I didn’t even casually consider it last semester.) Although they also haven’t decided whether to take master students or not, at least I’m feeling bright that there are this option B. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, I was still excited to witness all those great people and research in person during the conference which deeply motivated me to continue my academic trek–which includes finishing this thesis as the first step.

I’m sure things will turn around well. If I’ve learned anything from that great book, it would be that a setback in one area shouldn’t be perceived as pervasive and persistent. Other options are right around the block and we just have to take a step back from staring at option A for too long in order to find them.

Notes on a Process

I hate writing. I love editing.

I can’t remember ever writing a first draft of anything: scripts, essays, nothing. I have a tendency to block those experiences out, largely due to the overwhelming frustration that accompanies the creation of a first draft. And because this is my blog post and I don’t want it to bring me down, I’m going to reflect on the only part of my process I actually enjoy.

I tend to view my process as one of curation rather than creation. I start with a sense of wanting to tell a story about X or interrogate issue Y, from there curate an amalgam of characters, scenarios, ideas, themes, et cetera, and by degrees winnow out unneeded elements until I have something with a structure and an ideology. For this project, I knew I was interested in a few different things:

  • Revenge, as a concept or structure
  • Continuities between antiquity and the present
  • Narrative tension, as an opportunity to expand the kinds of stories I write

As I gathered materials, I assembled more themes I wanted to explore:

  • Relationships between women and men
  • Digital mediation of communication and its effect on dehumanization
  • Obfuscation and paranoia

At the outset I didn’t know where, if anywhere the congruities were between these ideas. I started sketching out scenarios and characters in my notebooks. I began to imagine turning points and revelations. I drew pictures of what the people and places, and things I saw might look like. Eventually I had a story. I put it away for two months.

One of the things my writing teachers have impressed on me is the importance of critical distance, the idea that you cannot write objectively if you are too close to your subject. So, I used my break to work on other projects, relax, play with my dog, spend time with friends and family. I returned to my thesis a little over a month ago and saw a document that needed real work. The dialogue doesn’t cut, many scenes are flat, themes and ideas with potential are either too subdued or too obvious, tense scenes aren’t tense, characters aren’t consistent, the list goes on. Fortunately, these are all fixable problems.

I find that once I identify a problem — say, a character not having a clear arc — I like to do a read-through of my script only focusing on that one problem. I edit, I elide, I expand where necessary. There’s always a ripple effect throughout the rest of the document; often fixing one problem creates half a dozen more. Fortunately, doing this kind of editing work almost always throws other issues into sharper relief, making them generally easier to identify and fix.

I also find that this point in the process is when I really like to identify other works to draw from. For my thesis, I’ve found essays and books by Donna Zuckerberg, the plays of Thomas Middleton, the novels of Thomas Pynchon, and films by David Fincher and Joel and Ethan Coen (among many others) to be instrumental to refining the ideas and techniques in my screenplay.

I’m still refining the script. I’m still busy with classes, drama productions, and post-graduation plans. But I’m more confident than ever that my project is moving in the right direction.

My Exhibition Opens Next Month!

logue_posters_8.5x11It’s been more than a year since I started ideating and working on this project, and about ten months since developing it under the Dietrich Honors Research Fellowship. My project has changed a lot now from the first time I pitched it to my advisors, and on my way to completing my project I’ve had to let go of ambitions to replace them for more feasible goals. However, I am satisfied with the work I have successfully completed within the limited time and resources available.

Like my project’s goals and logistics, my thesis’ schedule has changed repeatedly. I initially planned to have my thesis paper completely written by the spring semester’s first month, but instead found myself working 24/7 on the project’s exhibition – which is a blessing in disguise. The purpose of writing my paper before the exhibition was to establish strategies to test throughout my curatorial work, yet there is a limited amount of challenges one can predict before setting oneself to do something.

Having working knowledge from all the research and writing I completed during the summer and fall semester has surely helped to make informed decisions throughout the curatorial process. Hopefully, those “informed” decisions and guesses will prove successful – we’ll see the outcomes after our thesis’ exhibition opening on March 1 at Assemble. I look forward to hearing others opinions on the project, and analyze my curatorial work as part of my written thesis.

So far, ups and downs, I have loved working on this project, and look forward to similar opportunities in the future.

For now, I will be disappearing from the social map until April, when I will finish my thesis. However, please stop by our exhibit opening Friday, March 1 from 6-10pm and say hi!

Follow my project on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @projectlogue

The Progresstination

Caveat: The project doesn’t reach as far as I expected…

Yes I was hoping I could probably finish the IRB approval and run some pilot tests before the fall semester began. But I only managed to submit the IRB proposal (which hasn’t been approved yet). However, now that I trace back all the work that has been done during the summer, I feel like I’ve learned a lot more than I would if only accomplishing the original goals. Of course, having those things done would be great. But taking the time I had, really just diving into the theories, their subtleties and trying to come up with interesting experiments on relevant ideas have taken me to a far better place. If I simply went with the ideas we had before the summer began and did the simple experiment setup (which we indeed considered as one of the experimental options), I would be terribly regretful for sure.

The other great thing about taking time to formulate the ideas is that we get the chance to talk to different people who do research on similar or relevant topics. For example, from the connections my advisor has, I had an opportunity to talk with Dr. Fotuhi from UPitt. He has done some really interesting work on contingency affirmation, which is something I have never heard before but is probably an even more interesting idea to take into account to our project since it’s highly relevant. As such, although the idea of contingency affirmation is not in the scope of our current project, it may be in the next phase, if there is such one, or is simply for my knowledge and entertainment, which is still something significant!

Additionally, I have taken the GRE test and am generally satisfied with my scores, despite not as high as I hoped. But I believe it’s safe to say I can put it on the shelf and leave it there. I have also created all the application accounts for all the graduate schools of interest and completed all the information excluding the writing works (e.g. personal statement).

In all, I’m excited about the new semester with great classes and this project kicking into the active gear: recruiting participants! And I enjoy every bit of this summer. Like I said in my first post, I’m going to miss it. And I’m happy to say they are memories of great experience!