Human Touch

Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

As native Californian, choosing to attend MIT came as a shock to my family. When I moved to Boston, they started placing bets on whether I would stay past the first blizzard, and how long I would last in general. Luckily for me, I moved to the east coast during one of the tamest Boston winters. For me, though, the weather wasn’t the biggest culture shock.  What I was not used to was something more personal: the lack of human contact.

People at MIT don’t touch each other. Mind you, I am not what you would call a “touchy” person, but I was shocked that people rarely even shake hands. If you’re lucky, you may get a wave or a head nod of affirmation. The first time I saw my parents after I moved to Cambridge, I embraced them for minutes. They were confident this was it; I was coming home. But instead, I longed for human contact. I don’t think I had embraced anyone in months. 

I was in a state of distress, I needed human contact, and so I went to the nail salon. Ok, this might not seem like the “obvious” solution, but I wanted to be doted on. My theory is that if I have to stare at a screen all day and watch my fingers type, I may as well like what I see.

Now, since I am a busy graduate student, I strategically optimized my choice: best rated salon while minimizing cost and travel time. It quickly became my go-to stimulant. I went almost every two weeks to celebrate, well, anything: finishing an exam, getting a good grade on an assignment, even sending an email. I quickly became known as the “put-together female in computer science with a fresh manicure.”  At least I was somewhat memorable.

And that was when another thing hit me: not a lot of women in my field. I had always known this fact, the lack of women in STEM is a popular subject and common headline.  But what a lot of my (mostly male) colleagues do not realize is that female doting is not done alone. Most people don’t go to the spa to relax; they go to talk. The poor manicurist had to listen to me rant and rave about my week. I wondered if she thought it was sad that I was alone.

I made a few friends during my first year. Not many, since in some ways I was a bit out of my element. I was older than your average PhD student; I had done my master’s and worked for a couple years before returning to graduate school. Having worked, I valued some more mature (and expensive) things: nicer clothes, designed brands, etc. I had a designer purse, which many of my colleagues noted, “is not the purse of a PhD student.”  And so sometimes I felt strange indulging in myself. Here I am, spending time and money on a manicure every couple weeks. No one else here takes pride in that.

But I was wrong. One day, as I was working on assignment with my closest friend, she told me about how she got her nails done for the first time in Harvard square — at the same place I'd been going. I explained to her how much I missed being embraced here, and to my surprise, she agreed!

It became our thing: my best friend and I taking the subway from MIT to Harvard on a Friday afternoon. (Sometimes we chose a different day, but Friday is always a call for a celebration.) Even in the dead of winter, when nail enamel would quickly crack in the sub-freezing temperature, we went. We grabbed coffee, we talked about handbags we liked, we discussed research, but most of all, we bonded.

Perhaps finding a spa buddy was an odd friendship to seek out during graduate school, especially because I didn’t even know that’s what I needed. It’s a weird problem to have, because this is an academic university, but it’s also my life now. And sometimes, you just need to embrace what you need.