Rona W. ’23 – MIT Admissions At MIT Admissions, we recruit and enroll a talented and diverse class of undergraduates who will learn to use science, technology, and other areas of scholarship to serve the nation and the world in the 21st century. Wed, 12 Jul 2023 23:02:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 taste Sun, 20 Aug 2023 22:58:16 +0000 If you follow me on Instagram, Twitter, or (god forbid) LinkedIn, you might’ve seen me mention that I spoke to The Washington Post for an article about Gen Z and the job market.

But the explosion of AI has changed some young people’s paths. Rona Wang, who recently graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with degrees in math and computer science, turned down a tech job she thinks could be subject to automation. Instead, she opted to pursue a master’s degree in programming that’s closer to the hardware.

“Absolutely it’s about staying ahead of the curve,” she said. “A good rule of thumb is looking for jobs and skills that require [judgment] or research in some way.”

Zoomers aren’t ignoring possible harms, despite their excitement. Some say they’re worried about the implications of AI, including its ability to spread misinformation, make people lazy to learn, raise the bar for entry-level jobs and become a way for employers to cut costs — even if it means lowering the quality of work.

As you can see, the word [judgment] is in brackets, meaning it isn’t part of the original quote. From what I remember (please note my memory is faulty and not subject to the same journalistic standards as the WaPo), this is how the conversation actually went.

Me: “A good rule of thumb [in choosing jobs that will not become easily automated by AI] is looking for jobs and skills that require taste or research in some way.”

Danielle, the journalist: “What do you mean by taste?”

Me: “Like, having good judgment and discernment. It’s one thing to design a web app and another to build it, which can be very formulaic.”

I’m not sure if the quote that ended up in the article quite captures the same meaning as the one I intended—to me, judgment feels more mechanical, less human than taste—but of course this often happens in journalism and I appreciate the opportunity to get to speak on this topic anyway. (I was also trying to convey that I want to study performance optimization and low-level programming languages during my master’s degree, which ended up as “programming that’s closer to the hardware”…)

Recently, I read Sophia Amoruso’s autobiography, #GIRLBOSS, which details how she went from being a broke twenty-two-year-old with no college degree to a multimillionaire entrepreneur running her own clothing e-commerce website, Nasty Gal. The book itself is not outstanding—as you may guess from the title, it drips with a cishet white feminism that was all the rage in 2014, and the prose is unrefined—but reading it made me realize why Nasty Gal became such a success, rising above so many other fashion e-commerce websites of the late aughts. Amoruso worked extremely hard, yes, but the magical, unattainable factor that made Nasty Gal famous was Amoruso’s taste.

How does one develop good taste? The following rules seem to hold true:

  1. Having great taste in one domain does not indicate much about your taste in any other domain. You can have terrible taste in music but good taste in friends, or vice versa.
  2. As a corollary to #1, it’s fine to have bad taste in many domains, but it seems important to have good taste in the people you surround yourself with, and good taste within your career.
  3. Taste can be developed through experience and exposure.
  4. When you’re young (and I’m still young, too), you may not have had the experience and exposure to develop your own taste, so you may mimic the taste of those around you or those you look up to. This is fine to some extent, but I’ve seen many people “wake up” during or after college and realize that they never really wanted the life they’re now living.
  5. If you’re not certain if your taste is good or not, observe the reception to what you do. More on this later.

Does AI have good taste? Well, it is trained on the corpus of human society, and presumably since society has deemed certain artifacts “better” than others, AI can learn what is “good” and what is “bad”. But it relies on what it has seen before; I’ve never been pleasantly surprised by some clever phrase churned out by ChatGPT. AI can produce many options lightning-fast, but does it know which option is the best?

Recently, I received a discount code to try an AI portrait generator. I uploaded fifteen pictures of myself, and after an hour, the website spat out two hundred options. None of them were usable, and some looked pretty weird.

ai generated image

something doesn’t seem right…

Anyway, I don’t doubt that, in the near-future, advances in computer vision or machine learning would allow a program to sort through all these pictures and toss out the ones that are obviously anatomically incorrect, such as the one above. But figuring out what is a fantastic photo vs. a merely good one—that still seems out of reach.

As mentioned earlier, sometimes your taste is bad in a way that matters, and it’s better to realize that sooner rather than later. I’ve known startup founders that worked on the same idea for years, even though they were never able to garner an audience, and while there are many reasons why this could happen, from my understanding of the situation, a major factor was that they couldn’t figure out what others actually wanted. That’s what taste is—discerning what others actually want, whether that’s sorting through two hundred AI-generated photos to find the one that will look nicest on social media, or choosing a business idea and plan that will appeal to customers, or blending the right melody and lyrics and hook to produce a pop hit.

Seems hollow to base your taste in what others want, but does taste really matter if you aren’t making decisions that rely on others’ opinions? If you’re making a song for yourself, it’s perfectly fine if it’s bad. And yes, there are many visionaries who are “ahead of their time”—their resolve in pursuing their craft despite the lack of outside validation is incredibly admirable. If I were them, I would have no idea if my taste was bad or simply too revolutionary for the era. And in this late-stage-capitalism society, it feels pretty much impossible to cling to unrecognized genius unless you’re already independently wealthy.

Cross posted on Substack here
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how i feel about ai-generated art Sun, 11 Jun 2023 19:37:07 +0000 photo of ai-generated hands

why is ai so bad at making hands?

Recently, I read something by a fiction writer that went something like, it’s so upsetting how people can just enter these trivial prompts and then pass this work off on their own! I’ve spent so much time learning how to write well and then this random guy in his mom’s basement will generate a Pulitzer-Prize novel with a few keystrokes.

As somebody who has spent many years learning about the craft of writing, I certainly understand the frustration—if my goal was to produce well-written sentences, then perhaps the advent of ChatGPT would mean that all my efforts had been wasted. But AI-generated writing doesn’t bother me, and if somebody were to create a story generated by AI “written in Rona’s style” or trained on my publicly available work, I wouldn’t mind—I’d be amused, more than anything else. Of course, this is only my reaction, and certainly other creatives might not feel the same (and a quick glimpse at Twitter would prove that they don’t feel the same).

Artists’ ire is two-pronged. One, artificial intelligence poses a professional threat. I’m privileged in that I never expected to rely on writing as a steady source of income, and if everything goes as planned, by June, I will hold bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and computer science from MIT. I’m uncertain how I would feel if this weren’t the case, so it’s possible that, under the stress of economic insecurity, my opinion would be vastly different, but my current belief on this topic is: AI is absolutely a professional hazard to artists, as it is a hazard to software engineers, data analysts, executive assistants, and a menagerie of other professions. It is a hazard in the same sense ride-sharing was a hazard to taxi drivers and photography was a hazard to painters. All this is to say, technological innovation reshapes our processes and systems, and it inevitably threatens current jobs. This does not mean we shouldn’t move forward.

But even if you can agree with that notion on an intellectual, abstract level, that doesn’t mean it isn’t incredibly stressful to see your career prospects shrivel up. One of my friends predicts that AI will lead to widespread unemployment, which will bring about civil unrest—and while I hope this won’t be the case, I can certainly understand the underlying rage that comes with losing a future you worked so hard to achieve.

Two, artificial intelligence is creatively humiliating. It can hurt to see a machine churn out a derivative of your work, to know that a soulless language model trained on snippets of your soul to produce said derivative work.

I have limited knowledge of copyright law and how data is used within these models, so I can’t comment on the legal ramifications here (and I suspect that the government will move to enact new legislature in this direction). I also don’t want to undermine other people’s emotional responses, so I only speak for myself here. I don’t quite see my work as an extension of myself, or as a deep excavation of my inner life, or perhaps the more accurate statement here is that I view the process of writing as distinctly different from the product of writing. Translating the confusing, limitless galaxies within me—that process is intimate, a conversation between the page and me, and that journey won’t disappear simply because a computer can generate pretty paragraphs. The joy of reaching for an apt metaphor, of conjuring a visceral image, of understanding myself more fully—that remains regardless. Once those words are written, once they exist as separate entities beyond myself, they are for the reader. And if the reader is a robot that wants to feed upon my dangling participles only to spit out an imitation, that’s okay too.

Cross-posted on Substack here.

they want to see you fail Wed, 31 May 2023 13:10:35 +0000 Recently, one of my friends relayed that she grew up in an environment filled with vicious, competitive peers. When I got into MIT, they might be nice to my face, but I know they were secretly upset. They didn’t want me to succeed, no matter what platitudes might escape their lips.

It’s a story I’ve heard from plenty of people. I needed to be careful, because I was surrounded by people who wanted to see me fail. This dynamic might continue long after college admissions; after another friend received a prestigious graduate fellowship, he said he felt it, too.

I’ve never really known how to deal with others’ envy, and it feels weird to even say that, to suggest that other people might be envious of me—it’s like I’m claiming there’s something about me or what I have that is so spectacular that others might want it, and isn’t that a boastful claim to make? And isn’t it presumptuous of me to assume someone else’s underlying emotions?

So I’ll give an example where the other person openly admitted their envy of me, so I don’t have to speculate about their motivations.

I switched to a math major (from a humanities major) in fall 2019; initially I struggled to adjust, but by late 2020, I had gained more confidence in the area. Some cool opportunities came my way: I was invited to speak at Math Prize for Girls, a competition for top female students in mathematics, which I’d attended in high school. I was accepted into well-regarded international programs. I was admitted into a research program that led me to co-write a graph theory paper with an established mathematician, which was then published in a combinatorics journal and got me an Erdös number of two (which, to be clear, is a vanity metric and not indicative of much, but it’s still a fun fact that can raise some eyebrows).

One of my close friends, a fellow math major and a guy, saw all this happening and asked, point-blank: “Do you think you’re getting all of this because you’re a girl?”

That question went over about as well as you might expect. I was one of four women (out of sixty students) in my research program. If they were trying to show favoritism to girls, they were doing a terrible job at it.

Aside: because he was such a close friend, I did approach this question in good faith and with nuance. After all, I have no idea how these programs admit students, so it’s possible that being from an underrepresented demographic boosted my application. But really, I don’t think the answer matters that much.

Later, he did confess that he’d asked that because he was jealous that I was succeeding, even though he didn’t think I was that good at math. We talked things through and moved on.

This was a relatively mild situation—yes, this guy was upset and said something rude, but he wasn’t actively rooting for my downfall, and he never would’ve done anything malicious to hurt my prospects. But in another universe, maybe he would’ve emailed those programs saying I was bad at math so they should kick me out, although I’m not sure how effective that approach would’ve been. Maybe he would’ve purposefully given me the wrong answers when I asked him for help. Maybe this resentment would’ve manifested in ways that are completely unrelated to math.

In retrospect, I’m not entirely sure how I should’ve defused the situation or avoided it in the first place. Yes, there’s an argument that I didn’t do anything wrong so there was nothing I should’ve done differently—that’s true, but it isn’t about whether or not I’m morally right. It’s about self-preservation, and things could’ve gotten much worse if this guy had been more malicious.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have texted him about all the good things happening—maybe that had felt like bragging. Or I asked him for too much homework help, so his impression of my math ability was worse than the truth? Once I’d realized he was angry, I could’ve resorted to self-deprecation (you’re right, I don’t deserve this) to placate him.

You might be reading this and thinking, if you have to conjure these defensive tactics, why are you even friends with this guy? But it isn’t about this specific friendship. It’s about how I interact with people in general. I’m not sure how to avoid this flavor of ire. I’m not sure how to preemptively stifle these flares of jealousy before they ignite.

For many years, the only LinkedIn profile I had was a joke.

screenshot of a linkedin

Not to brag, but I have more than 20 Twitter followers now.

I made it on a whim for shits and giggles, but there was some underlying discomfort, too, which I was trying to manage through humor.

hated LinkedIn. I knew how people use it—how they scroll through someone’s profile, casting judgment over all of their achievements (or lack thereof), reducing a person to their resumé. A charade that I’d eventually have little choice but to participate in—so many job applications required a LinkedIn profile.

I didn’t want my accomplishments to be dissected—I didn’t want to do anything that might threaten others’ egos. Hence, jokes! In third grade, my classmates called me the class clown, but they also called me the second-smartest kid in the class (first place went to my math rival). If they were busy laughing, they wouldn’t hate me for how quickly I could complete my times tables. I don’t think eight-year-old Rona had the social awareness to understand jester’s privilege, and there are so many more reasons why I adore humor—truly, it makes the world go round—but even now, I sometimes find myself relying on it as a protective measure.

Not everyone uses that tactic. Some of my friends keep a low-profile, no online presence, never talk about what they’re doing. Others are extremely discerning about who they forge relationships with, and only get close with people who don’t seem prone to envy. I’m still figuring out my own style.

It feels imbalanced to write a post about others’ envy but to not discuss my own, but truthfully, as I got older, I became less preoccupied with comparing myself to other people. The change wasn’t one of moral goodness but self-assurance. I’m happy with my path with all of its twists and turns; I’m happy with who I am. This doesn’t make me better than anyone who might struggle with envy—first, I still have my moments of insecurity, and second, I think it’s a perfectly natural emotion and society would be more harmonious if it were socially acceptable to confess one’s envy.

Maybe that’s why my favorite non-single song from Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour album is “jealousy, jealousy”. It’s admittedly surface-level—she never delves deeper into the root of her resentment—but she’s unafraid to make that angsty adolescent cognitive dissonance so explicit: And I see everyone getting all the things I want/And I’m happy for them, but then again, I’m not.

Messy. But that’s what makes life interesting, no?

Cross-posted on Substack here.

defining the future Mon, 22 May 2023 17:33:17 +0000 It seems to me that we swath an imaginary future world in pretty words. We want it comfortable, we want it just, we want it innovative, and most of all, we want it beautiful. VC-talk is speckled with grandiose promises: we are building the [insert-product] that will reshape society. We are disrupting the [insert-field] landscape. Everybody agrees that our current world is not good enough, and we need to strive for change, and we aren’t quite sure how that change will ripple outwards into our global systems, but, well—here’s another pretty word! Hopefully it’ll distract you from asking any more difficult questions.

I suppose we are all shackled to the linearity of time, hence this preoccupation with the future: the only chunk of our existence that has not yet been determined for us. I used to cling to regret—I wish I could go back in time and do MIT all over again, knowing everything I know now—until I truly thought about it and realized that repeating years of my life with full knowledge of future outcomes would be incredibly tedious.

This reverence we give to the future, I don’t think it’s quite deserved. The future is not so different than any other instance of time, except that it has not happened yet, and thus any adjectives may be attached to it. It can be apocalyptic. It can be dazzling. It can be destructive, or it can be beautiful. This attitude reminds me of the conservative attitude towards fetuses. Because it has not demanded anything from us, we can imagine it to be anything we want—how convenient!

I’ve found myself seduced by this easy illusion. I’m not sure what I’ll do after graduation, but I hope it’ll be full of friendship and intellectual exploration. There’s nothing wrong with these platitudes about the future, except that they allow for laziness through vagueness. There is some importance in reflecting upon and understanding which values to prioritize—certainly that is better than wandering in the dark without any well-defined values at all—but values need to be achieved through action. It is good to know where the moon is, but you’ll never get there without building the rocket ship.

I’m probably too young to be giving any definitive advice on how to define the future, so I’ll end this post by discussing the future I imagine for myself and how I want to get there.

Sometimes, younger students—especially those who want to finish college in less than four years—ask me why I’ve been around MIT for so long. My answer is always because I love learning, and I love taking classes, and I love being in this inspiring, intellectual environment. I’m sticking around next year for a master’s degree. This choice has undeniable opportunity costs—I could earn much more working in industry—but actions reflect values. Seizing the future I actually want—instead of the one that will be inflicted upon me—means being okay with having less money or status than my peers.

Yesterday, my friend told me that he thought I was unusual for an MIT student. You’ve taken gap years, you’ve traveled the world, you write so much. Revealed preferences—perhaps I’ve always liked doing what is interesting in the moment, instead of working towards some aspirational future. Except that isn’t quite correct. In choosing to take a year off to work in New Zealand instead of grinding away on problem sets in college, I chose a future where I would be someone with New-Zealand-gap-year experiences instead of sophomore-year-at-MIT experiences. There is no such thing as delaying life; this is already my life. Is my future meaningfully distinguishable from the choices I have already made, the person I already am? Maybe I don’t need to worry about the future so much—the train will always come.

Cross-posted on Substack here.

selecting for obsession Sat, 20 May 2023 15:44:17 +0000 This morning, I was Googling Chris to find a photo of him, and was inadvertently reminded, thanks to news reports, that he was once a child prodigy who represented the United States at the International Chemistry Olympiad the summer after ninth grade. It’s easy to forget how smart he is—we’ve known each other forever, and he is my best friend, and when we talk, I don’t feel out of my depth.

Chris is starting his PhD in the fall, making him the latest among my exes to pursue a STEM doctorate degree. My two high school boyfriends are both currently in PhD programs (pure math and chemical engineering); when we were teenagers, I obviously hadn’t given any thought to their plans regarding higher education, and had chosen to date them because we had a decent rapport and shared interests.

“Why are you always dating these PhD types? You’re overindexing on intelligence. Why don’t you go for someone like ‘James’,” my brother Kyler once told me. “James is ambitious, accomplished. He’s self-made.”

But I’ve never been romantically drawn to that kind of person—the Forbes 30 Under 30 type, the industry leader, the high achiever. Someone preoccupied with status, who wears success like luxury cologne.

I didn’t say this to Kyler at the time, but it isn’t intelligence I’m looking for. It’s curiosity.

When I ask Chris how he got into chemistry, he tells me about how, at age six, he really liked this chemistry book—an introductory college textbook—and read it cover-to-cover. In seventh grade, he begged and begged his parents for a lab so he could do his own experiments. He adored the colors and textures. “It felt like magic,” he told me on one of our first dates.

It’s a story that diverges wildly from the backstories of other Olympiad kids I’ve known. My other friends almost always have a story that involves helicopter parents, prep classes starting in second grade, a childhood curated for success. And Chris had all of that, too—he had to play violin, he had to do worksheets in preschool while all the other kids played—but he also had an unrelenting love for chemistry.

Back when Chris and I were dating, his friend called us a “power couple.” It was a well-meaning compliment, but it made us both cringe, because it felt so far removed from reality. It felt like Chris and I were kids who had been obsessive about our interests, and then we’d gotten good enough at those interests to be rewarded with some extrinsic markers of success, but we certainly weren’t trying to appear on magazine covers or increase the number of commas in our bank accounts.

Over-optimized lives—cold showers, early-morning jogs, 500+ connections on LinkedIn—disinterest me. A life built to be seen by others—that’s not what I want.

My friends often say I can’t help but be myself. “You wear your heart on your sleeve,” they say. It’s true, I find it suffocating to cosplay anybody or anything else. I want to spend my time chasing whatever whims I have. I refuse to stifle my obsessions in pursuit of somebody else’s idea of excellence.

And that’s what I find so compelling in other people, too. Reckless curiosity, childlike wonder, a neglected resumé. Intelligence matters, success matters, but perhaps those things arrive later, and perhaps those qualities are not so rare among people I know. But the inner confidence to commit to a passion—that is special.

Cross-posted on Substack here.

the luxury of bad art Thu, 11 May 2023 14:21:00 +0000 Recently, I’ve been trying to record music. I have a mic setup thanks to the rap class I’m taking this semester with Lupe Fiasco; my living group has a piano keyboard, and I’ve downloaded MuseScore. It’s my first time approaching music as a creative outlet, and to be honest, I’m not very good—some of it comes from a lack of experience, but I also suspect I don’t have the voice to ever become better than a mediocre singer.

I became interested in songwriting after listening to Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour album and realizing how wonderfully she captured the pains of first love, first heartbreak, teenage insecurity. Her songs climbed the Billboard Hot 100 because they resonated with so many people, because they bridged the distance between souls in crisply-produced three-minute bundles.

a photo of olivia rodrigo's sour album cover art

sixteen-year-old me needed this album

Her music reminded me of what I’ve tried to do for a long time, with my writing, with my fiction, with this blog. Life is less lonely when somebody sees you. Feelings become more manageable when they exist somewhere outside of your own body. Identifying something universal within your own specific experiences—that feels like finding a lighthouse among dark churning waves.

In tenth grade, I entered a writing contest for the first time, with a short story I wrote over winter break. It was sarcastic and silly, and I infused it with observations that had plagued me for years, like how I felt trapped between the dichotomy of being a “girly-girl” and a “tomboy”, and how boys got to be multifaceted but girls were labeled one thing or another. It was very, very fun to write. The story ended up winning a national award, and I flew to New York City for the awards ceremony.

While there were many wonderful outcomes that arose from this experience—it was the first external, institutional validation I ever received for my writing, and it helped me later in college admissions—I think the most significant internal development was the sudden insight that I could talk about the stuff that bothered me. Starting from fourth or fifth grade, I felt like I’d been constricted by gender norms, by internalized misogyny, by other people’s expectations of who I was “supposed” to be—but I’d never really discussed my frustrations with anybody. Then I got to make up a story and give my problems to a fictional character.

That was years ago, and my relationship to creative writing has since become more complicated. I’ve been incredibly lucky in many ways—eternal gratitude to those who have believed in me and supported me even when life was rocky—but it was only after the (metaphorical) ink on the contract had dried that I realized being a professional writer is very different from being a hobbyist, from being a kid tapping out fanfiction at midnight. The expectations were stricter, the critics were more vicious, and the stakes were higher.

I don’t try to take my writing too seriously, which isn’t always easy. But I’ve found that when I become obsessive about crafting a beautiful phrase or vivid image, that’s often a sign of ego—and it’s necessary sometimes, but it can also get in the way of the reasons I began writing in the first place.

What if I want to be terrible and artless? What if I want to draw ridiculous comics featuring characters with unrealistic proportions and sloppy storylines? What if I want to record a pop melody that bashes a thinly-disguised ex and upload it to Soundcloud only to get two likes? I don’t want to commodify everything, and I don’t want to be good at everything. I don’t want to think about the invisible audience hovering behind my shoulder, casting a critical gaze upon anything I produce.

My songs may never be heard by anybody other than myself—I don’t know if I should inflict my singing upon others. I don’t know if I have anything innovative to contribute, and I don’t know if I want people to scrutinize my music. Last week, as I wrote lyrics, the thought floated through me—this is a waste of time since I have no real musical aspirations, I should do something that might actually further my career like my software engineering problem set or my systems design reading or even just reading a novel—but I wanted to capture what I was feeling in that moment before it faded. I wanted to preserve that version of Rona before she was lost to the merciless linearity of time. It felt like a song was the most honest conduit for her, and it didn’t matter if it was terrible.

Cross-posted on Substack here.

recently read Wed, 03 May 2023 13:19:58 +0000 I’ve been doing more reading recently, so wanted to share!

“Detail of the Rice Chest” by Monica Youn

My friend Alec attended the L.A. Times Festival of Books recently and heard Monica Youn read this poem. They were completely blown away—I think their exact words were something like “I didn’t know poetry could do that”. It isn’t quite the same experience, reading it online, but still. An absolutely stunning, incisive portrait of Asian Americanness.

“At the Clinic” by Sally Rooney

I love Normal People, and this short story is a predecessor to the novel, featuring Marianne and Connell. There’s a sentence in this story I keep coming back to. This sketched trajectory of their relationship bore so little resemblance to anything he thought or felt that he just nodded and said: Yeah, exactly. That sense of resignation—not even attempting to cross the abyss—Rooney is sharp for that observation.

Anne Carson, The Art of Poetry No. 88

An extraordinarily dense interview. I didn’t get through all of it, and I don’t think I’ll be able to process everything I did read. She articulates so much of the role writing plays in my own life: Yes, that you travel inside of. I think that’s what poems are supposed to do, and I think it’s what the ancients mean by imitation. When they talk about poetry, they talk about mimesis as the action that the poem has, in reality, on the reader…I think a poem, when it works, is an action of the mind captured on a page, and the reader, when he engages it, has to enter into that action. And so his mind repeats that action and travels again through the action, but it is a movement of yourself through a thought, through an activity of thinking, so by the time you get to the end you’re different than you were at the beginning and you feel that difference.

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton

I found this in my living group’s library and started it on a whim. I’ve often found it difficult to get through historical books—admittedly, old-timey prose can be dry—but this one is absolutely captivating and so relevant even a century later; I guess some things don’t change. Her sentences sparkle, but the most impressive achievement, I think, is in the whip-smart observations on human nature.

Shamir’s secret sharing

Figured I should share something technical. Recently learned about this secret-sharing algorithm, which exploits the Lagrange interpolation theorem, which you may have learned about in a high school algebra class. I found it very clever! Like with most other cryptography, no idea if I’ll ever get to apply it in the real world, but as an intellectual puzzle, it’s fun.

Cross-posted on Substack here.

why i chose mit Fri, 21 Apr 2023 14:39:32 +0000 I first arrived at MIT as a tourist, a thirteen-year-old with glasses that didn’t flatter my face and blunt bangs I cut myself. It was spring break of eighth grade, and my family was on a vacation visiting the East Coast—of course, as was typical for my academically-serious parents, such a trip had to include visits to prestigious college campuses.

It’s been a decade, and only brief snippets of that MIT still remain in my memory. Walls papered with activities posters, that’s the main image I recall. I suppose some things don’t change.

Throughout high school, I would visit MIT several more times for the Harvard-MIT Mathematics Tournament and Math Prize for Girls. It would be easy to editorialize, to imbue these experiences with the overbearing hand of hindsight, to claim that these events were all stepping stones to an inevitable destiny where I would be writing this blog post to you. But that isn’t how life works, right? It would be just as simple to tell a story about any other number of colleges, had I decided to attend those instead.

Here’s a secret: MIT wasn’t my top choice. My top choice was Stanford, which I was not admitted to. And if I hadn’t chosen MIT, I probably would have chosen the University of Pennsylvania, which had recruited me for their creative writing program.

I adore MIT now, and I always say that I’m so glad I came here, that it was absolutely the correct decision. But who knows? Maybe I would be saying that too if I had gone to Stanford, or UPenn, or anywhere else. Truthfully, I started college when I was young and impressionable, and wherever I had attended would’ve irrevocably changed me. Was MIT perfect for me, or did I become someone who was perfect for MIT? And honestly, does the distinction even matter?

When I was in my late teens, people would ask, Rona, why did you choose MIT if you’re interested in the humanities? I wasn’t quite sure of the answer myself, so I would respond with some lifted-from-the-admissions-brochure sentence about how MIT has a stellar humanities program (which, by the way, it does) or a vague gesture at my interests in mathematics.

But I’m not a teenager anymore, and I don’t feel any need to defend myself. If I think back to the decision I made as a high school senior, it seems obvious, and I’m sure I would make the same decision again.

I was the rare person who didn’t love Campus Preview Weekend, MIT’s famously extravagant and wild weekend for admitted students. I found the schedule demanding and confusing; I didn’t know anybody else who had gotten into MIT and struggled to meet other kids. In contrast, UPenn’s visiting session felt much more normal and easy to understand. But I suspect, deep down, during that entire stretch of April, I always knew I was going to choose MIT.

Bluntly put, it was the most selective school I was admitted to, and I was a stressed-out seventeen-year-old, so of course that social perception mattered to me. From speaking to UPenn students, it also sounded like UPenn’s mathematics and computer science programs were not as strong (please note that I am not commenting on the actual rigor or quality of these departments, this is simply what I heard from the kids there), and while I liked the humanities a lot and knew UPenn’s creative writing program was incredible, I had some inkling of the job prospects (or lack thereof) for an English major. And if I was going to study STEM, well, MIT it was.

When I was younger, I didn’t know how to confess these reasons, because they seemed so shallow. I wanted to impress people around me and I wanted to get a job? And even now, while I think those are important considerations, I certainly hope I wouldn’t carry out the rest of my career in the same manner. I want to work at moonshot start-ups doing exciting stuff, even if they don’t look as shiny on my LinkedIn as McKinsey or Google or Jane Street would, and they don’t offer the financial stability of an established company.

But even though my reasons for choosing MIT were probably not that deep or thoughtful, they still led me to the right place. It turns out that those reasons were decent signals for what actually matters. Like, I went here because I wanted others to think I was smart for going here, but hey, MIT does admit a lot of really smart, hard-working kids, and thus I’m fortunate to have befriended so many amazing, brilliant people.

Petey suggests looking at a school’s alumni to decide if you want to become “that type of person.” During the beginning of my time at MIT, I struggled with this, because I didn’t want to become the “stereotypical MIT alum”: that is, an engineer without interests in the wider world, working a cushy job at a big company. Of course, the truth is that MIT has so many alumni—each graduating class is over a thousand people—that it isn’t easy to generalize, and my perception of an “MIT alum” was rooted in broad, unflattering strokes colored by teen angst.

It only struck me much later that I may be different, but that means I could be a different type of MIT alum. I could be someone that incoming MIT first-years could look at and say, hey, I could also grow into becoming someone like her. MIT’s identity is ever-shifting; while I was only thinking about how it might change me, I failed to consider how I could change MIT, too.

Also posted on Substack here.

how to meet curious people Wed, 19 Apr 2023 16:00:03 +0000 My friend Eric recently wrote a blog post about isolation at Harvard that resonated with many readers. Several people have mentioned similar experiences at their own universities—student populations filled with clout-chasers, dispassionate hoop-jumpers, what have you.

At MIT, while these people certainly exist in droves—McKinsey information sessions are packed full, pre-professional clubs proliferate like dandelions—I’ve found it reasonably simple to avoid them and befriend people who express intellectual curiosity and genuine passion. To be fair, MIT may have cultivated a different culture than these other institutions, so this might be much easier for me than those at other schools, but here are some of the approaches I’ve developed from my time in college:

Not being involved in professional clubs.

My sophomore year here, I joined a business club because I was interested in entrepreneurship and had some vague inclinations towards consulting—I liked the idea of using my entire skill set instead of choosing between STEM and humanities. The meetings were boring, I didn’t particularly click with anybody there, and I realized that if I actually pursued a career in this direction, I would have to continue going to boring meetings surrounded by similar people. Sorry, maybe that’s harsh, and it’s obviously a generalization, but the realization was enough to turn me off from these type of clubs and this entire flavor of career.

I’m still on the mailing lists for various computer science groups because I want the job opportunities (and free food), but I don’t try to get involved with them at any deeper level. While I’m sure these clubs appeal to a large variety of people—it’s possible to want to cultivate your professional prospects while still being genuinely passionate about computer science, after all—they certainly attract careerists, and I’d like to avoid careerists.

Or, as Eric put it, “These organizations do nothing except act as vessels to sell [college] student resumes to company sponsors for thousands of dollars, then disburse that money on free food and branded merchandise for members.”

Taking non-required classes.

Last month, I was trying to decide between taking 18.03 (Differential Equations) and 18.032 (also Differential Equations, but with a more mathematical and theoretical flavor). My friend was taking 18.03, while I knew nobody in 18.032. Due to a mandatory recitation for another class, I would have to skip 18.032 recitations, while I could attend 18.03 recitations. And did I really want to grind during senior spring, especially when I was also taking four other classes?

There were multiple reasons why I decided on 18.032. I dislike black-boxes—a system that functions with opaque inner workings, such as consumer electronic devices. 18.03 had theorems we didn’t prove, and we were expected to use those theorems for rote computations. This was quite irritating to me, because WolframAlpha already exists. (This was also why I didn’t like my introductory machine learning class last fall.) 18.032 traded breadth for depth, which I preferred.

But the atmosphere of 18.032 was just different. 18.03 is in 10-250, one of MIT’s big lecture halls, and has hundreds of students. It’s required in multiple majors, and lots of people are there to check it off the list. My other friend told me “nobody takes 18.03 seriously.” Meanwhile, 18.032 has about twenty people. The kids in the classroom seemed to care much more about math. That made sense, I suppose—they had voluntarily signed up for what was considered a more challenging course.

So I stayed, because I wanted to be around people like that.

Not hiding from my passions.

At MIT, even before I got my book deal, many other writers would reach out to me, because they knew I liked writing a lot. I met a lot of my favorite people this way—like Michelle, who asked me to contribute to her science writing magazine, and is now pursuing a physics PhD, or Steven, who got a creative writing master’s degree in England and is now enrolled in an MD-PhD program. To be a creative writer at MIT, there’s a certain amount of going-against-the-grain required—a decision to sacrifice time and effort that could’ve been put towards your “real” career in STEM, to instead write. I was writing because it is something so deeply rooted in me that I couldn’t help but love it, but it became a fantastic way to attract likeminded people.

(As an aside, I think the meeting-cool-writers filter became less effective after I got the book deal, because suddenly there was social status attached to writing, and there were more people with ulterior motives trying to establish some connection with me.)

More generally, I don’t try to hide my interests out of fear of appearing uncool or something. That might sound ridiculous—we aren’t in high school anymore, after all—but even at MIT, people say I’m a nerd for caring so much about learning certain topics outside of class. Last week, my friend Wenjun and I started discussing continental drift because we have a shared interest in ancient Earth, despite being math and computer science majors, and somebody else asked, “Is this for a class or something?” He seemed confused why we wanted to talk about this when none of us were studying geology.

The way I figure it, if I’m open about what I care about, it’ll be a lot easier to meet people who care about the same things as me, and that’s worth looking uncool.

screenshot of poem

“Masks” by Shel Silverstein

Being okay with loneliness.

This one is specifically for women and anyone else who might’ve been a minority within their interests (which I imagine is true for a lot of the STEM women out there). But as I tried pursuing my passions in computer science and mathematics beyond just taking classes, I noticed I was often the only woman there.

This might’ve started as early as middle school, when I joined Science Bowl and was one of two girls there out of about fifteen kids—I was captain of our B-team, and the rest of that team was boys older than me, and the only reason why it felt fine to lead them is probably because I was too young and oblivious to think there was any issue with the gender disparity.

More recently, during my summer math research project, I was the only woman in my group and one of four women (out of sixty-ish people) in the program. In March, I tried going to a SIPB hackathon (the student club at MIT that makes cool stuff like our course scheduler) because I like building websites and wanted to help out, and I was the only woman there out of twenty-five or thirty people. By the way, all of these observations are made with the caveat that I was the only woman that I knew of, since I may be unaware of other people’s gender identities.

It’s sometimes hard to be the only woman in the room and I would love there to be more gender diversity within my interests. I also don’t blame anyone who can’t handle the isolation and otherness, and thus does not engage deeper with their interests. A lot of my confidence has come with age and being able to not care if guys ignore me, or condescend to me, or hit on me, but this was more difficult when I was younger.

I don’t know if this advice will work for anyone besides myself. There are many other traits and aspects I haven’t mentioned—I would consider myself to be outgoing, which certainly helps with meeting people—and again, I go to MIT. Friends who attend other prestigious institutions have had vastly different experiences, which makes sense, as I’d imagine that people who choose to attend elite schools probably prioritize professional development, economic and social capital, etc., and those priorities often squash one’s natural curiosity.

Overall, my belief is that like attract likes—the best way to find curious people is to be curious yourself. But of course, if you’re reading this blog post, you probably already knew that.

 Cross-posted on Substack here.
happy singles awareness day Tue, 21 Feb 2023 15:29:12 +0000 Last week, one of my friends, “Mike”, asked me if I had any Valentine’s Day plans. I didn’t, so he asked me if I wanted to go out to a nice restaurant that day.

I wasn’t opposed to the restaurant, although it was somewhat expensive. But I wasn’t sure what his intentions were: was this a platonic, hey we’re both single so might as well do something situation, or was he hoping for something more? While Mike was a nice dude, I wasn’t interested in getting involved in anything romantic with anybody at the moment.

My friends unanimously voted that this was a romantic scenario. “It’s Valentine’s Day, and that restaurant has three dollar signs,” one of them said. She had a good point.

I considered texting Mike, “Yes, let’s do it! I’ll invite our mutual friend Bob too” or showing up while leaning hard into the plausible deniability of “I thought this was just a friend hangout!” But that was just delaying the inevitable conversation where he’d make his interest clear and I would have to turn him down. And didn’t I owe Mike the courtesy of straightforwardness? Wouldn’t it be better if he had a chance to spend Valentine’s Day with somebody on the same wavelength?

“Let’s meet up in person and talk about it,” I messaged him. The next day, we walked along the Charles River, winter sunshine warm atop our heads, as I monologued. Look, Mike, I think you’re a great guy, but I just got out of a relationship and I really want to focus on my classes this semester. I’m not interested in dating anyone right now. I’m so flattered and I seriously appreciate our friendship … It sounded so cliché, but it was all true.

Mike nodded. “Cool, I got you.” The entire conversation only lasted the length of the walk from Hayden Library to the intersection between Massachusetts Avenue and dorm row—maybe five minutes.

The following morning, our dynamic was exactly the same as before: we joked around in the Banana Lounge, we struggled through a problem set, we sat next to each other in lecture. Any awkwardness I’d feared had easily dissipated into the February chill.

Today is the first February 14th in years that I haven’t spent with someone in a romantic context. I was in class until 1:30 pm, then I hit the gym, and after dinner I baked chocolate desserts with friends from WILG (my living group).

chocolate cake with buttercream frosting & strawberries

baked with lani l. ’21 & elisabeth b. ’22

I don’t know if there’s a way to say I like being single without sounding like cope, especially on Valentine’s Day, but I like being single.

I haven’t truly been single in years. I became accustomed to all the broad strokes of a relationship—being attuned to someone else’s needs, adjusting to their quirks and habits, creating a shared language of inside jokes and collective memories. I cherish the trust and safety cultivated within these relationships. So much of life feels like estrangement—there’s always this untranslatable distance between people, and isn’t that quite lonely?

But I also adore a wide-open schedule, getting to watch whatever I want on Hulu (Abbott Elementary, anyone?), and focusing on my own career and friends. This past month, I spent hours coding a house management website for WILG, and it occurred to me that this almost certainly wouldn’t have happened if I weren’t single. Maybe some of you are fantastic at compartmentalization, but I’m not, and I don’t think I would’ve gathered the time or focus to build something new while also pouring energy into somebody else.

In the last week of January, I visited my younger brother in Los Angeles, and our parents flew down from Oregon. During the trip, my mom and I spoke about having kids, since I’m not sure when I should start a family. (It is so unfair that women are expected to choose between career and children, but that’s for a different post …)

“Once you’re a mother, you’re always a mother, and you’ll always be tethered to somebody whose needs you place above your own,” she said. “Why rush into that? You’re so young. You haven’t even graduated from college yet.”

Being in a serious romantic relationship and raising kids aren’t the same, of course, but the principle remains. I’m still young, and there’s so much I want to do for myself. I want to say yes to social invites without fretting about how my partner might feel about it, and I want to spend my evenings reading or studying or anything else I might like. Hell, I refuse to even adopt a cat, even though I absolutely adore them, and several other girls in WILG have cats, because I don’t want any disruption to my personal space or sleep schedule, or to anchor myself to a years-long commitment.

I suppose all this is to say—being single is unexpectedly kind of awesome. Maybe this arises from luck of circumstance, as I’m comfortable with myself and the obstacles in my life are not so insurmountable that I can’t defeat them alone. I’m not dunking on people who aren’t single, or who are actively searching for a partner. And I’m not dissing my exes, as they are really cool people. But maybe solitude is underrated.

Happy Singles Awareness Day!

Cross-posted on Substack here.