5 years at MIT: post mortem

I wrote most of this 1.5 years ago, but for some reason never published it. This is a super condensed summary of my experience at MIT, written a few months before leaving the Institvte.

Each year in two sentences or so

Year 1 – I experience college real quick — social butterfly Cathy makes friends all over campus, attends frat parties, joins a ton of activities, takes part in a bunch of freshman programs. I also take too many classes and do not get enough sleep, but life is great and college is fun.
Year 2 – I explore the breadth of EECS — I start taking foundational classes and doing *real* research, I go to fewer parties but I continue to make friends, and I also try sleeping regularly, which is wonderful. MIT and life are dandy.
Year 3 – Then, in an attempt to not sacrifice depth while going after breadth, I hit a brick wall, crash and burn, become perpetually stressed, and withdraw from most people. I feel simultaneously empowered yet crushed, and MIT has not quite been the same place since; I am grateful to my friends who kept me alive and sane. I feel ready to leave MIT, for better or for worse. (But I don’t, despite company offers urging me to leave early.)
Year 4 – I essentially take this year off, at least technically, indulging myself with growing URGE, taking less technical classes, teaching computer architecture and ESL, and contemplating my future. I gain a ton of unexpected skills, experiences, and friends; this year is immensely rejuvenating and convinces me to stay at MIT for one more year, for the MEng.
Year 5 – I broaden my horizons by immersing myself in academia, and along with it, the adventures of rushing to my first conference deadline, agonizing over PhD programs, understanding advisor relationships, and working my butt off to make it to Germany. This year is marked first by the fear that the best days of my life have already passed and my unwillingness to grow up from being an undergrad, and second by the gradual realization that life can be better–more free, more engaging, more intellectually rich–in the future.

My main technical interests also morphed over the years

Year 1 – “durrr, what is EECS?”
Year 2 – signal processing (6.003) → speech recognition (UROP/6.345)
Year 3 – vision (MASLAB + 6.869)
Year 4 – vision (UROP) → autonomous robotics/vehicles (6.UAT)
Year 5 – autonomous vehicles → distributed control of agents + transportation

What I learned from MIT

There are no rules. There is no box to think outside of, anything could be possible.
To think further, broader. In some sense, I feel that every year I have spent at MIT has allowed me to think 5 years further out.
To go for it. In the words of my former advisor Professor Seth Teller, if you think something might be your life passion, go at it as hard as you possibly can. Otherwise, you might never find your passion. Become the world’s foremost expert in what you love.
To not be afraid to ask. I have earned and spent tens of thousands of dollars for student groups, by asking. By asking, I learned more about robotics during my CMU visit (Robotics Institute) than in a year working in a robotics lab. At the Berkeley visit (EECS), several professors remembered who I was because of my questions.
Having money is very nice. Having a department rolling in money makes wonderful things like URGE, Maslab, 6.570 possible (with just a little bit of student motivation).

Professor Seth Teller

seth teller - shrinkrob

Professor Seth Teller, my former advisor (as an undergrad researcher), mentor, and academic role model, passed away earlier this month. He truly and passionately worked towards addressing important problems (with autonomous vehicles, assistive technologies, and robotics for disaster recovery at least!), somehow with both vigor and patience; he has done so much, and yet there was so much more to do and more to come. The situation is entirely shocking to me, and I wanted to share some words.

On 7/12, I was reminded of how compassionate of a community MIT is. I woke up to an email with the subject line “Call me ASAP” from my former grad student supervisor David Hayden. It had been more than 1.5 years since we were last in touch, but he wanted me to hear the sad news from a person and not from something less personal (i.e. email, internet). (Thank you, David, I really appreciated it!) And it’s a great reflection of the warm person that Seth was (and the people around him!). No matter how busy he was, he would smile and greet me in the halls, and always made time to meet with me when I asked. Throughout the day, friends messaged me, and I messaged friends, to make sure that everyone was doing alright. A couple years out of MIT now, I am reminded that Seth has touched so many people, so many lives. Even friends who did not know him except as a professor reached out to say a few kind words.

I want to share one small anecdote, which has affected me to today.

About 2.5 years ago, having very little clue about what I wanted to do/achieve with my life (what some of us fondly call the quarter-life crisis), I went to Seth Teller at a loss and told him the executive summary of my vague interests: “I think self-driving cars are pretty cool.” Seth had co-led the MIT DARPA Urban Driving Challenge team back in 2006, but at this point, it was mostly a past project. He told me the following: “If you have an idea of what your passion in life is, then you have to go after it as hard as you possibly can. Only then can you hope to find your true passion.”

Anyone can tell you to go after your dreams. Seth’s insight is that dreams and ambitions are not always clear from the start — they may be hidden, they may manifest themselves in several forms. He knew that hard work is required to find them, extract them from the mess of school and experience and daily life, pursue them, and achieve them.

Shortly after, I left his group and joined the Distributed Robotics Lab (under Daniela Rus, MIT), where I started studying transportation problems from a computational/robotics perspective and did my Masters thesis on algorithms for automatic mapping (“GPSZip: semantic representation and compression system for GPS using coresets”). And now I have moved on to Alex Bayen’s group at Berkeley to continue studying the problems of estimation, prediction, and control/automation of current and future transportation systems.

In short: When I grow up, I want to be like Seth Teller. I want to work on important problems, and I want to help people. I want to support the people around me, and I want to help people find and go after their dreams. And I want to always take the time to smile and say hello.

I am grateful for every short minute I spent with Seth. For more information, here is the initial press release, the investigation update, and his personal website. I do not know the circumstances for his death, but I am very sorry for the world (and especially those closest to him) for the loss.

2013: In which we won the MIT Mystery Hunt

Half a week later and despite the lack of sleep, the memories of the MIT Mystery Hunt are starkly fresh. I am incredibly happy and honored to be a part of the small group of hunters to solve the meta puzzle that ended the 2013 Mystery Hunt.

But the team that was, whose name due I suppose to the lack of character limit in the registration form and too much creativity was the entire text of Atlas Shrugged, was called by the Sages and asked, “Would your team agree to stop if the team that was currently in the lead was given the coin?” Other lead teams were given the same option. This was a huge break of competition format, and a question as impossible to answer as some of these puzzles. [Shrugged] was close to the Indiana Jones metapuzzle answer involving decoding a huge calendar wheel of dates, but had been given a wrong response to a yes/no hint question asking if half of their data was right. When they get a second call from HQ correcting the mistake, they turned down the offer to stop Hunting and pressed on. Five minutes later, John Galt and friends did get the fifth of six round answers and headed off for the last task, the runaround.

via 2013: The Year the Mystery Hunt Broke | Wired Magazine | Wired.com.

Sunday night and beyond, Twitter saturated with good-natured frustration about hunt. My favorites:

Damn it, someone win the mystery hunt. (@dbfclark)

Find the damn coin. #MysteryHunt (@gemini6ice)

dear god how much longer? #mysteryhunt (@roydraging)

Holy shit they just mad[e] it so you can skip an entire round in order to end this thing. This is trouble #MysteryHunt (@jmgold)

This #mysteryhunt is so long that it’s spanning two presidential terms. (@Jeffurry312)

Appropriate that the team with the longest name won the #mysteryhunt with the longest duration. (@mersiamnot)

Winning was awesome and, even better: by the end, many of the other teams thanked us for winning (and thereby ending the hunt).

[Image credit: lroyden]

75 hours and 19 minutes, the longest in Mystery Hunt history. I learned so much, got to know a bunch of cool people, and am so happy to be a part of it all.

Teaching recitation: observations

This semester, I am a recitation instructor for 6.004: Computation Structures, a foundation class for EECS majors here at MIT. The class demographic is primarily sophomore and juniors, and enrollment is upwards of 200 students. It is a very well-established class whose curriculum has not changed much in the last 8 years and whose course logistics and organization are mostly smoothed out. It is an ideal environment for inexperienced TAs to focus on teaching, learning, and communicating rather than the frustration of system inefficiencies.

Well, I’m absolutely loving it. Every recitation is solving a small part of the puzzle and a storyboarding adventure. Below are just a few observations I’ve made over the past few weeks.

Students are physically drawn towards handouts. The more colors, the less readily available — the more exotic, basically — the more attractive. One time, I made a multi-colored handwritten handout for a topic that I had trouble explaining in words and distributed them during recitation. Word must have spread somehow, because attendance during one of my sections increased by 50% the next class. That day, the classroom was so full of unfamiliar faces that I thought I was in the wrong place.

Tabula rasa
Undergrads here in EECS are quite passive about their learning in recitation. There is some prevalent inhibition from talking at all, even to voice some basic concerns (e.g. please move, you are blocking the board; please write bigger/darker/clearer). At the very beginning, I am presenting to a blank wall of stares that occasionally look down to jot down notes. Students seem to need to be taught to speak, to smile, to frown, to laugh, to raise their hand and ask questions. They do seem to be born with the ability to walk out and to not show up again, but they are otherwise blank slates. It’s up to me to keep them or lose them.

But the real side effect of this phenomenon on me is that I am pleasantly surprised (shocked, rather) everytime students say “have a good weekend” back at me and everytime I don’t hear a lot of shuffling of papers and backpack zippers at 1:56pm.

Pre-spring break attendance
Yay, spring break! Everyone I know (myself included) skipped class today (er, yesterday) in lieu of fancy spring break plans or laundry or just more quality time with the internet. Beyond all odds and to my utmost pleasant surprise, however, attendance in my sections did not deviate much at all. I estimate regular section attendance at 15-20; attendance today was 13-15. We started placing bets before section to guess how many students would show up. My original guess was 5, and I was willing to (but did not) put money on the number being less than 10. Turns out, my students are much more optimistic (and correct) about attendance than me.

The desire to skip class on the last day before a long vacation is a strong force, so I need to think a bit more about the circumstances around my recitations that countered this force (such that I can replicate this effect!). Another instructor, who observed my section, once described my recitation as “very relaxing,” so maybe coming to class was close enough to the feeling of spring break!

The trouble with asking for feedback
Turns out, it is hard to cater to 20 different students all at once. When I asked for feedback on the amount of lecture review versus problem solving preferred, I got back a uniform distribution of the entire spectrum of choices. They did all agree, however, that I ought to make fewer mistakes, So there is at least that bit of feedback on which I can act.

Areas of improvement
Names: I’ve never been good with names, but that is no excuse to not even try. I still don’t know names, for the most part. Knowing names is a key part of engagement in teaching.

Blackboard organization: It occurs to me that my blackboard organization is sloppy, or at least, non-ideal for notetakers. The tradeoff that I am concerned about is that more time spent writing things on the board means less time to explain and interact with students.

The Torch or the Firehose
One last note. Professor Mattuck put together a guide on teaching recitation at MIT, and it’s absolutely fantastic. It’s a great read and points out common pitfalls. It also inspires better teaching. MIT could really benefit from closer attention to excellent teaching.

Day 0: Flu shots, shopping, bus to NYC

About to embark on our trip to Asia!  I’ll be taking lots of photos and hopefully writing a bunch.  Nancy, Josh, and Julian may be writing too!  There’s this Ninja Coder toy that may be following us through our journeys, starting with posing with my EeePC and all my Facebook swag. Also, thanks to Jenelle for letting me borrow her camera on this journey!

Apparently, Facebook and Google swag make awesome gifts.  It’s stuff that we don’t spend money on (as starving college students, we’re not supposed to spend money on gifts), these are hot companies in Asia, and swag is actually pretty hard for them to acquire.

Another untested pro-tip is to wear MIT t-shirts/sweatshirts to the manufacturing plants so the plant people can take pictures with us and have “MIT” all over it.

I went to CVS for a last-minute flu shot and it turned out to be a mess through my health insurance.  Note to future self: always get the flu shot though the free and fast flu clinic that MIT offers every year.  Otherwise, you might be spending $30 and a few precious hours before leaving the country at a pharmacy.

Anyway, leaving Boston in about 1.5 hours!