wife, mother, ph.d. student, hot stuff.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Massive Change (10 months late!)

I wrote this up in January, but needed to upload a picture for it... which I didn't do until this past week. Better late than never, though.

Some friends and I went to the Massive Change exhibit at the Vancouver Art Museum. What is Massive Change? On the website, it says:

Design has emerged as one of the world's most powerful forces. It has placed us at the beginning of a new, unprecedented period of human possibility, where all economies and ecologies are becoming global, relational, and interconnected.

In order to understand and harness these emerging forces, there is an urgent need to articulate precisely what we are doing to ourselves and to our world. This is the ambition of Massive Change.

I believe that this project was started just as a book, but has since spawned the website linked above, and the art exhibit that I attended.

One of the neatest rooms of the exhibit attempted to quantify disparity of numbers concerning wealth and politics. Sections of wall were painted with numbers of different things, and balloons representing general orders of magnitude filled the 2 story room.

However, the most jarring image here (and in the entire exhibit, for that matter) was unintentional. A museum employee was teaching kids how to use a Segway. They probably chose the location because it was the biggest room of the exhibit. But he chose to spend most of his time beneath enormous letters that read "We Must Eradicate Poverty" ....

Now I know that technology is being developed to help eradicate poverty. But those things are more in the form of reliable, cheap energy sources, water purifiers, medications, etc etc. A Segway? How is a machine that enables someone to avoid expending effort to walk (cheapest mode of transport!) and costs several thousand dollars going to eradicate poverty?

Monday, October 17, 2005

How to Get Into Caltech for Undergrad part 2: no, really, how do I get in?

All right, the part that I bet most students who read this are zooming straight to. How do you get into Caltech? What can I do to my application that will make my chances of admission higher?

The number one question at the Caltech Info session I attended revolved around test scores. "What kind of SAT score do I have to aim for?" Your SAT score and other standardized test scores probably mean squat, and are not indicators of how well you will do at Tech. I knew folks who got 1600 on their SAT's (this was before there were 3 parts to the test) and they flailed through all 4 years of Caltech. The Admissions committee knows this. So don't bother retaking the SAT a billion times to get that perfect score. If you scored relatively high, then that's all that matters... you just need to prove you are smart enough to take a test, not that you have mastered standardized testing.

The most important thing that you can show on your application is that you have challenged yourself as much as you possibly can with the resources around you. This means that you should have taken the most challenging classes at your school. If your school offers AP's in sciences, you should take them. Having gone to the community college nearby for classes that your high school doesn't offer is also a big plus.

Me, I went to a magnet program in high school, and I have a feeling that was a big factor in my admission. I sought out the hardest stuff I could do in my school district.... I took at least 7 science/math AP tests, and did pretty well. I ended up being an average student at Caltech. On the other hand, my husband took 3 science/math AP classes in high school because harder classes weren't offered. His high school science classes were a fraction of the difficulty of my classes. But he was admitted to Caltech early, had a much easier time grasping the concepts than I did, graduated with honors, and is now a graduate student at Harvard. I think that the admissions committee could see from the rest of his application that he was a hard worker.

This brings me to extracurriculars. What I said above about challenging yourself holds here as well. This is where I think my husband made his application. He was an Eagle Scout, and the section leader for the saxophones in his extremely successful high school marching band. Both those things took a lot of time and dedication and hard work.

Almost everyone I knew at Tech had something interesting to put in their extracurriculars. Some of us did research over the summers. (I think that's what got me in; I worked at Fort Monmouth for 3 summers doing engineering research.) Some of us goofed around and built wacky things with our friends (a friend of mine built a remote controlled submarine). None of us were simply classes classes classes. We challenged ourselves outside of school as well, and were able to juggle everything.

So those are the important things in your application. Which means that by the time you are a senior and are applying, there's very little you can actively do to pad your application. It all depends on the stuff you've already done.. have you taken the hard classes? Have you challenged yourself extracurricularly? It's a little late to fix that now! Great SAT scores won't make up for slacking off in school and doing nothing over summers but video games.

How to Get Into Caltech for Undergrad part 1: Do you belong at Caltech?

I've been a bit immersed in application things lately; not only am I working on my own grad school applications, but I have been involved in advertising for Caltech admissions as well. The admissions office sent me a packet of information that they thought would be useful to disseminate, but I think my version of Caltech might differ a bit from theirs.

After attending a Caltech info session a week ago, I decided to write up my own blurb about who should go to Caltech, and how to get in. Please understand that this is my own opinion, and might not match up with other Techers or the admissions office... but I figure, I went to Tech, I might as well share what I know and you can decide what to believe.

Why should I know? Let me first tell you about me. I attended a science/engineering magnet program in high school, before attending Caltech from 1997-2001. I finished my BS in Engineering & Applied Sciences (concentration in Mechanical Engineering) a trimester early, and worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab for the remainder of the school year, doing initial mechanical design for the Mars Rover (yes, the one that is currently tooling around on Mars this very moment.) After Tech, I attended MIT and got my SM in Mechanical Engineering in 2003. At this time, I am working in the immunology lab of a Harvard professor, and am applying to Systems Biology/Immunology ph.d. programs.

So that's who I am. Who do I think belongs at Caltech?

You belong at Caltech if you know for certain that you want to be involved in science or math. Does labware give you a hard on? Love calculus? Think string theory is the neatest thing since sliced bread? You'll love it at Tech. No other university will challenge you harder in these disciplines, not even MIT.... what other place makes quantum physics mandatory for EVERYONE? And on top of the challenging classwork, there's no other place that has as many opportunities for undergraduate research, which is a very key thing for getting into grad school. I was generally an average student at Tech, but even I was able to get an internship at an immunology start-up, and then do design for the Mars Rover.

That said, if you are uncertain about what you are interested, if you have even the slightest leanings towards literature, history, art, you should stay away from Tech. Admissions likes to talk about how Tech has alternatives for those who find out that they don't want to do science, but really, what employer is interested in someone who has a history degree from Caltech? You'd be better off going somewhere with liberal arts program, so you can explore the other options, and make an informed decision in such a way that you are well prepared whether you do science or something else.

Another sore point is pre-meds. The Admissions office sent me a whole packet on how pre-meds at Tech have all these opportunities, etc, and how pre-meds would do awesome at Tech. Which I think is bullshit. Sure, the opportunities exist. There are plenty of volunteer opportunities at the nearby hospital, and you can definitely be involved in great research. However, from what I remember about classes, I have no idea how the pre-meds had any free time to spare for volunteering and all the other things you have to do as a pre-med. And let's face it, med school applications are about grades. How many pre-meds do you think are going to get A's in quantum physics? In linear algebra? I know several people who were pre-meds at Tech. The few that were super stars, who were extraordinarily talented, got into med school, and are doing fantastically. But I know of others who were average students and were rejected from med school, and years out from Tech are still trying to get in.

In summary, I wouldn't recommend going to Tech if you are dead set on being a doctor, or if you think you might be interested in humanities. But if you love science and math, then there's no better place to get your feet wet.