There was no specific point in time when I decided that I wanted to go to MIT and become a physicist. Though, I know it occurred around when I started to read lay-books on astrophysics and quantum mechanics during my sophomore year in high school. There was a period of a few years where I devoured pop-science books like Michio Kaku's Hyperspace, Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, Nigel Calder's Einstein's Universe, John Gribbin's In Search of Schrödinger's Cat, Richard Feynman's QED, James Gleick's Genius, and many more. As I write this, I realize that it was after reading several books about Richard Feynman that I started this whole wanting to go to MIT thing.
After barely finishing high school I realized it was probably impossible for me to get to Cambridge. Although I had something like 160% in my physics course in high school and did very well in chemistry, I nearly failed several courses during my senior year. I had no chance in getting into any four-year college, which left me with only one option; go to a local community college, West Valley. I didn't do well, but I didn't do horribly. I realized that I simply did not know how to study and although I could learn and retain everything I needed to about physics in a high school course I couldn't do the same at the college level. West Valley wasn't the right place to help me, but it did get me an internship at NASA (and my first co-author paper, in Nature no less). Through sheer perseverance, incredible luck, and some actual intellect I ended up with a life altering experience working in an astrobiology lab. While at NASA I was trained to synthesize and look for sugars, sugar acids, and sugar alcohols in meteorite samples using high-pressure liquid chromatography and gas chromatography/mass spectroscopy. We were testing the larger hypothesis that extraterrestrial rocks crashed into earth and brought in complex carbon molecules that kick started life on Earth.
I realized NASA was a potential springboard to MIT, which caused me to reassess my college strategy. As a result I switched community colleges and went to De Anza. There, I was required – which I knew – to take entry exams to test to see where I was at with math and writing. Unsurprisingly, I was required to enter into remedial courses for both and received added support to get me to the college level. Because I couldn’t take a calculus course that meant I couldn’t take physics either, but I had really wanted to take some science classes. The only course I could take was chemistry, which required co-enrollment (at the very least) with algebra I, which is where I tested. From algebra I to calculus II (accept calculus I), I received the highest grade in every class. I got 5 A’s and 1 B during 6 trimesters of chemistry (g- and o-chem) and made the Deans list every trimester for 3 years, which is how long it took me to complete the IGETC transfer agreement that got me into UCLA. However, by the time I finished community college I had changed my major several times from physics, to chemistry, to biochemistry, and it was not until I transferred that I realized that I wanted to study the brain. I went to UCLA to major in neuroscience.
At UCLA I took on a full course load, worked 20-40 hours a week in a few different research labs, was an author on 2 papers, obtained a UC LEADS and MARC USTAR scholarhips, and after 3 years of working from 10AM to 1AM just about each and every day I graduated. I applied to graduate school and was offered interviews at CalTech, Stanford, UCSD, UCLA, Columbia, and MIT :) In the fall of 2006 I entered The Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, which is where I obtained my PhD in 2011 (eventually publishing 2 first-author papers, with a 3rd hopefully out in a year or two). Certainly, Richard Feynman was an inspiration for me to attend MIT, but it was while at UCLA that I started to read the work of physiologist Matt Wilson and geneticist Susumu Tonegawa that I realized I wanted to go to MIT for a different reason. It was because of Wilson’s and Tonegawa’s work that I ultimately decided to go to MIT. In another post I’ll describe the research I did on dopamine and the genetic basis of memory formation.
This blog post is part of my Council for the Arts at MIT (CAMIT) Grant, which I was awarded in May of 2016. As part of this project I am documenting my documentation of neuroscience research, the people that conduct said research, and the spaces where research takes place using New55 PN large format instant film.