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My July To-Do List

  1. Complete Thesis Introduction. Thanks to my advisor, Vicki Helgeson, this has been my number one goal for the last two weeks. She’s been extremely encouraging and supportive throughout this whole process and she really believes that getting a head-start on writing the thesis will save precious time in the spring when senioritis will most certainly kick in. As of now, I have a new draft of my goals and hypotheses for my study, with an outline of the section coming soon!
  2. Take an MCAT Practice Exam Every Week. I’m now less than two months away from my exam and it’s getting closer to crunch time. Upon suggestion from current medical students, practicing often and frequently with official material is better than keeping my nose in the books. I’m sitting at a nice place right now with my practice tests thus far, but there is always room for improvement.
  3. Maintain a passing grade in 15-110. Wow, I finally found my worst subject. For a while it was statistics and then it was physics and now the clear frontrunner is computer science—in a word, I’m dreadfully slow at working through these problems and coding is literally like learning a new language. If anyone asks if I plan on taking 15-112, my answer will be a quick “NOPE.”
  4. Catch at least 90% of Pokemon in the National Pokedex. We all need relaxing activities when stressed—but this has been a big goal of mine since I was 7, so let me live!
  5. Find a new show on Netflix or Hulu. I just finished Parks and Recreation, and I’ve been an emotional wreck for the last two weeks, but everyone knows it takes me days to get hooked on a new show (for reference it took me two months to finish one season of The Office). Here’s hoping I don’t take 13 years to finish my next series.
  6. Be a better Yinzer. Much of my summer has been spent indoors, largely due to restrictions beyond my control, but I’m itching to go to Pirates games and Kennywood and explore more of the city on weekends. After this Friday, I’ll have a better idea of how frequently I can use my weekends to explore and I couldn’t be happier—I’m tired of being cooped up inside all weekend!
  7. Decorate my fall 2018 room. My classic formula includes far too many flags and tapestries, with a hint of too many mini-fridges.
  8. Breathe and Be Patient. Simple as that. Summer’s coming to an end quickly and senior year will be here soon enough. Good things are on the way and come to those who wait.

 

 

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Lit-wrestling

It’s relatively easy to burst with an idea that you want to pursue. It’s a totally different story if you want to dive in and grasp what has been done systematically. I’m sure it’s a common struggle, but we don’t call that a struggle for no reason.

I heard this anecdote from one of the professors that I’ve been working with. This professor once had a project that was ongoing for years. And right when it was almost finished, he realized that a nearly identical study has been done in the ’60s. Of course he had something new in his version, but it wasn’t as ground-breaking as he thought it could be.

The problem then is how shall we properly conduct a literature review in the most efficient fashion? Well, just “read” and “communicate,” especially the latter. I learned my lesson the hard way.

I wouldn’t call my effort for the past two weeks “futile” because I did learn something. But until yesterday, my thesis advisor and I were not on the same page for the grand goal of this project. Hence, I didn’t read and formulate the ideas that are relevant to the ideal scope of this study. To clarify, we had an hour-long meeting every week but we didn’t spend much time taking a step back and evaluating the project in a holistic way. In a hindsight, I should have asked more questions and made less assumptions.

But there we go. The review progress is back in focus now.

“The obvious solution is no solution at all”

I remember reading this quote at the start of my research and feeling defeated.

I optimistically sought to focus my summer research on acquiring a better understanding on cultural appropriation and cultural theory, so that I could best contribute to the debate with “solutions” or “alternatives.” Yet, just when I was barely starting to research, I read the quote: “the obvious solution is no solution at all.” My mission to seek solutions quickly felt futile.

As I kept on reading, the same quote stood in the back of my mind. Reading arguments in favor, against, and in-between, it was soon clear to me that – given the controversial nature of this topic – there is no obvious or “correct” solution at all. Moreover, as I read and keep reading I noticed that, rather than alternatives or solutions, what there seems to be – regarding my research topic – is a lot of opinions.

Papers stopped being the communication of “ultimate truths,” to become opinion-pieces or argumentative essays. Intellectual contributions did not require testing as much as they required sample evidence. And research was not merely an “objective” contribution to knowledge, but also a tool for propaganda.

Based on these observations, I have started to reconsider the goals for my research. I am no longer looking for “solutions” or “alternatives” as I read about cultural appropriation and theory. Rather, I am looking for ideas, concepts and theories that could help me justify and define my project within a broader context. Reading and learning about opinions so I can make my own opinion and defend it.

I must say – knowing how I have reacted to many of my summer research readings – that the idea of deciding on an opinion and defending it is quite intimidating. However, when compared to the goal of finding “solutions,” making an opinion not only seems more feasible, but also seems like a more exciting aim.

With a new redefined goal set in mind, I am ready to continue my readings to later develop a specific opinion about my research topic.

Until then, I am more than happy to pitch you my project as whatever you may label it – research, thesis or propaganda.

Learning to Embrace the Chaos

My academic career is built on structure — of major requirements, exam schedules and class deadlines. I am used to operating to a rhythm at Carnegie Mellon, one that peaks at midterms and finals.

If the semester is a familiar song, then independent research feels like freestyle on a new instrument. There are small moments of structure, like weekly cohort events and attentive advisers, but the day to day rhythm is discretionary. There are no classes to set a pace.

Some people thrive on independence. For me, its been a more difficult transition. The work I do now is essentially just reading. I’m reviewing many anthropological texts to gain a base in theory. It’s meant to provide a grounding that will be invaluable for the rest of my thesis. However, reading doesn’t result in tangible results, and it can be difficult to gauge my progress.

With a year long project in my specific disciplines, there’s a great deal of background work that needs to be done. It’s not a normal project, where I can start writing early on and work towards my word count. It’s open-ended, where I ultimately decide what the topic is meant to be.

I’m still getting used to this system, but it feels like an evolution of what I’ve done in the past in my classes. It’s the biggest academic challenge I’ve faced yet, but its one that is helping me develop new skills and hone old ones.

 

The Discovery of a Project

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The skills involved with research — to search, analyze, synthesis and reimagine — are as essential to studying at Carnegie Mellon as being able to read. No matter what your major or area of study, research is integrated into the curriculum. After three years at CMU, I’ve completed plenty of research about history and politics inside and outside the classroom.

But original research? That’s a lot harder. That means digging deep to find a passion that can sustain many hours of tireless work. It’s different than research for a grade or to help a favorite professor. It’s entirely on you.

I love my majors. But until a couple months ago, I didn’t think I could find anything that I could sustain for a year of independent work. What happened is serendipity.

This spring, I took a class called Art, Conflict and Technology in Northern Ireland. The course description sounded fascinating, and it would help me complete my art gen-ed requirement in a context that involved politics and history. This class also involved a trip to Ireland (mostly Northern Ireland), meant to result in deeper insights to the conflict.

The trip, for me, was a revelation. I realized there, in the midst of a community in recovery, how many questions I had about the remnants of the conflict in Northern Ireland, the peace process, the years following and the people involved. It was the perfect intersection of my interests in history/politics and my passion for work that could help people.

I don’t yet know the specifics of my project, but I’ll be broadly looking at community recovery after conflicts and using Northern Ireland as my case study. There’s several specific directions I’m contemplating for the rest of my project, and by the end of the summer, I hope to set the path for the rest of my research.

Last Summer, Make it Count!

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I’m generally a very nostalgic guy. And I can’t help but think that this might be my last summer in Pittsburgh. The summer here is always a gem and the sense of slowly saying goodbye is killing me. I’m from Shenzhen in southern China where it has more rain and humidity so I’m satisfied with Pittsburgh’s weather, despite its reputation. As a result, I wanted to do something meaningful that will make the last summer count. That’s when I saw the email for the Dietrich College Honors Fellowship. And here I am, trying to grasp and enjoy every bit of this summer ride.

I study psychology with a minor in cognitive neuroscience. My broad interests of research are to wear a pair of clearer lens on how the world works but also to attempt to intervene the social issues through my knowledge. I had countless conversations with my thesis adviser, Dr. Kody Manke, about different topics that I may work on. At the end, we agreed to choose the topic of “Environmentalism and Gender Stereotype.” I’m not an avid environmentalist but I’m conscious about my eco-friendly behaviors for the most part. I don’t do them because other people say we should. I do them because I believe it’s the right thing to do. Bad for the mother Earth, not everyone thinks in that way. And that’s where my project enters the spotlight.

My thesis project is built on the idea that men conduct less eco-friendly behaviors and the reason behind it is that those behaviors and green products are regarded as feminine by both men and women. So men often intentionally choose less green products to maintain their masculinity, especially when it’s being threatened. This is a phenomena but how can we mitigate this problem? We need to look into the potential mechanisms: what are barriers in gender stereotype and why do they pose threats to men? Previous studies show that these barriers may be partially removed by affirming the manliness of the participants. Therefore, hopefully this project may be able to bear some potential means to remove or motivate men to overcome those barriers.

In a nutshell, this will probably be my best summer here!

The Plot Thickens…

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“Why is it,” he said, one time, at the subway entrance, “I feel I’ve known you so many years?”
“Because I like you,” she said, “and I don’t want anything from you.”
―Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451


CUT TO

I once heard plot structure described as thus:

In act one you put your character in a tree. You might feel bad about giving your character more problems, but in act two, you have to make their situation worse. You have to throw rocks at your character, or add in a thunderstorm or tornado. You can’t just get your character down from the tree. Or you can, but the second they reach the ground, a bear is there to chase your character, and then their leg breaks, and then the tornado comes back.
Things cannot be easy and problems shouldn’t be easily solved.
Your character has to be challenged, otherwise you don’t have a plot at all.

I am currently in the second act of my fellowship, and sometimes I wish I could simply cut past my challenges. Jump cut from this moment of uncertainty, where my to-do list is growing exponentially longer, to an indeterminate future moment, where I have the solutions to every one of my problems. Understandably, good stories don’t work this way, and neither does reality.  My foot is still broken, the cinematographer I have worked with for three years is probably unavailable, and I have more questions than answers right now. I am absolutely grateful and privileged to pursue a project that I am passionate about, but the stress is inevitable. The plot has to thicken.

Now that the script is in a solid place, my focus is shifting towards the more logistical aspects of the project. While I will still be editing the 36 pages of dialogue and exposition, writing and rewriting these scenes until the first day of shooting, I now have to scout locations, acquire equipment, find a car to film, sync upwards of 10 schedules, and collect and assemble a group of filmmakers, convincing them to believe in my vision. Along the way, I have to keep convincing myself too.

So many people have been helpful, and though it is hard to ask for assistance, I am trying to reach out and get the advice and help I need while also maintaining my goals.  The artistic process is a beautiful, maddening thing. Though I am soaring high on the expectation and exhilaration of creating something new, I am sinking under anxieties I cannot quite name. But friendship, the rare kind that I am trying to explore in this film, keeps me grounded. And luckily for my character growth, there is no way to simply cut to.

 

 


Project Update

So Far:

  • Completed Second Draft of Film
  • Production scheduled with producer
  • Preliminary design work drafted
  • Solicited new crew members
  • First round of prop and location acquisition

In the Next Few Weeks:

  • Meetings with advisors
  • Second round of revisions
  • Storyboarding
  • Hiring new production team
  • Still figuring out casting, locations, transportation

About the Project   ♥     About the Studio

Tips for when you are reading, reading, reading

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Last summer, I worked at the National Institute of Mental Health, where I researched and programmed a memory and a masked word task for the Noninvasive Neuromodulation Unit. As I programmed my masked word task, I found I needed to know why this task activated the parts of the brain we were interested in, and how to make the task similar to those already used by other researchers. As a result, every day, I would read as much as I could in order to understand the research going into the task I was programming, and that experience helped me to understand the amount of work that goes into even the smallest part of a research project.

Taking on my own research this summer, I knew I had to do the same thing: just read as much as I could every day. I need to understand what personality disorders are, why they are related to nicotine dependence, and how the new dimensional model of personality may play into this relationship. And I want to learn all this in order to understand the relationship between personality disorders and smoking more fully to motivate interventions and preventative measures for nicotine dependence.

The last month has had much more unstructured time and freedom to go about my goals in any way I see fit than last summer, so it took a little adjustment to get used to. What I’ve been finding hardest is how to read everything I need to read without being burnt out by just close reading psychological papers. Here are some tips I’ve gathered throughout this month for being able to work long hours on my project:

  1. Take breaks when you think you need them.
  2. Make small, attainable goals for each week. Preferably, have a tangible goal so you have something concrete to show for your work each week.
  3. Coffeeshops are your friend! Sometimes a change of scenery is all you need.
  4. Make sure you take time off at night. You can still get everything done without working every second.
  5. Keep a good to-do list. It feels good to cross things off, and it keeps you focused on what you need to do next.

I have found all this advice from super helpful as I’ve been discovering how to do research full-time.

Election Law 101

In the last week, I have been doing the background research on my thesis. This entails getting up to speed on election law in general, which is more time consuming than I originally thought. To gain a sort of base knowledge in this subject matter, I have been reading a lot of case law and legislation that protects the representation of others.  This method, which my thesis advisor, Dr. McGovern, referred to as the “soak and poke” approach has allowed me to immerse myself in the relevant literature. While it has been a bit trying at times to read books and books on solely just context, I know more about gerrymandering in more depth than I imagined I ever would.

Reading about these old cases that changed and affected the representation of voters, like Baker v. Carr, Shaw v. Reno, and many others has given me a good legislative background on how the United States Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has affected our government. Doing so much reading on election law, while usually riveting, has its daily challenges.

Sometimes, I felt a bit removed from my actual project, because of how dense the reading is and how long ago these cases all seem. Essentially, some days it is increasingly difficult to stay motivated. I looked back fondly on memories of submitting the honors thesis application, the rush of having an idea, and the thrill of having that very idea approved. Granted, I still am very much psyched to be working on my own project, but as I’ve gotten acclimated to the work, I am filled with less joy. Needless to say, the passionate flame of excitement I felt for my thesis has definitely dulled. In the more recent days, it has adopted an enduring, warm glow.

This week, I felt an influx of both excitement and dread. The Supreme Court released their rulings on their most recent gerrymandering cases. Given that the Court has more conservative justices and Justice Ginsberg was wearing her dissenting collar, the outlook was not good.  The Supreme Court ruled on Abbott v. Perez, a racial gerrymander court case that I am using for my thesis. Out of the districts that the plaintiffs took issue with, all but one of them were considered acceptable districts that did not racially gerrymander.  This came as a surprise to me, as the district maps had not looked compact or shown characteristics of contiguity. Fortunately, I can only hope that my research will provide further explanation as to why individuals should have an equal amount of representation.

Balancing Act

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I’m incredibly lucky to have a flexible schedule this summer. I’ve been working since spring finals concluded, but the extended time spent doing research allows me to pick my hours and avoid the monotony of a 9-5 job. However, much of my “free time” this summer has been spent preparing for the MCAT. Despite my test date being a little over 2 months away, the MCAT requires a large amount of preparation and studying for one of the most impactful exams of my career is certainly daunting. My typical day usually consists of 3-5 hours of research, lunch, MCAT studying, dinner, Netflix and video games. The order often switches around; however, most people ask when I’ll be travelling or spending time in the city—in reality, my schedule’s already pre-determined, so the most amount of flexibility I get is picking what movie to watch or video game to play as I relax in the late evening. For many, this rigid schedule may be off-putting. In fact, I think an overwhelming majority of people would hate this schedule. However, I see it as somewhat of a workout regimen—granted, it’s for my brain and the only physical result you could see is a number at the very end—but nonetheless, it’s kept me vigilant about setting aside time to focus on the MCAT.

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More importantly, this summer is about exploring the concept of balance. In my fraternity, one of our central principles lies in that of being a balanced man; notably, this concept focuses on three major domains of physical health, mental health, and social/emotional health. For much of my time in my fraternity, I’ve had a very large emphasis on mental and social/emotional health—often neglecting the physical health domain. Admittedly, this upcoming year will be more dedicated to that domain, while this summer is clearly just focused on furthering my career as a physician. Nevertheless, my fraternity brothers have been a very strong support system throughout my time at CMU, so having the fortune of living with them and handling all of the insanity that CMU has to offer has been incredibly reassuring.

As for the actual studying schedule, it’s been quite…rough. I have this idealized schedule brewing in my Google Drive for months, but now that the time for studying has come upon me, it’s been far more variable than I expected. Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the following realizations:

  • For starters, I’m terrible at Biochemistry, not Biology. For ycrouch-3ears, Biology (ortheumbrella thereof) has always been my weakest subject. Lo, and behold, it turnsoutthat Biochemistry is my worst enemy and I hate it immensely. MCAT Biology (which should really be called “Physiology with a side of Cells”) has been a relatively nice journey, exceeding my initial expectations of Biology ruining my life.
  • The YouTube channel Crash Course is my most-watched channel for the last month. Thank you Hank Green and John Green—you’re angels.
  • My quality of studying depends on music. Shawn Mendes, Sia, James Bay, Ben Rector? Great. Broadway show tunes? Oops, I just lost five hours (Sorry Hamilton).crouch-4
  • Pentel Energel (0.7 mm) pens are the only pens worth using. Pilot G2 pens havebeen officially replaced.
  • The Psychology/Sociology section is a godsend. I’m counting my stars for this section, because it’s the only area where I feel confident two months out from my exam. Physics and Chemistry? That’s a different story…