Dear future Ming,
The date is August 26, 2019 - today is your/my/our first day at MIT. When you next read this after/if you graduate, it may well be the year 2025. How’s life at 27 treating you? In the year 2025, your younger brothers, currently high school freshmen, will be halfway done with college. You will have frozen through six New England winters, your parents may have retired, you might even be engaged, and crazier still, perhaps the world will finally have agreed that climate change is real. (Yes, there are still naysayers in 2019.)
On this particular August afternoon, I (present-day Ming) am currently sitting in a bank on Mass Ave, about to apply for my first ever credit card. As I take these first steps into the adult world of credit scores and IRAs, it seemed fitting that I should begin composing a letter to my future self.
Earlier today, I took my first proper stroll around campus. I walked down the Infinite Corridor, dotted with research posters from labs I hoped to join. I sat in an empty classroom in Building 1, looking towards the Charles River as it shone under the morning sun. It was beautiful. This was a moment in time when grad school still existed largely in the abstract, when the inevitable frustration of failed experiments and rejected papers were merely amorphous blurs in the future. At that particular instant in time, I felt excitement, pure and simple.
I was excited to finally be paid to go to school, that my full-time job was to learn and to grow my mind. I was excited to meet my future classmates, to take classes with both PhD students at MIT and MD students at Harvard. To join a lab, to write papers, to present my work at a big conference for the first time, and to mentor my own team of undergraduates. I was looking forward to teaching, to getting involved in science outreach, to maybe even designing my own course one day. And of course, I was looking forward to finally living near a city with its own Chinatown, a 15-minute subway ride between me and all of my favourite foods from home.
As I sit here now, away from the glitz and glamour of campus, a different set of emotions begins to surface. To tell you the truth, I’m also extremely nervous. All throughout undergrad, I’ve looked at the grad students around me and admired the apparent effortlessness with which they devised good scientific questions, troubleshot problems in the lab, and stayed motivated despite experiments going awry time and time again. Now that I’m about to be in their shoes, it feels like there’s a truly insurmountable distance between where I’m at now, and where I eventually need to be. The truth is, I don’t always find research to be enjoyable – research is sometimes deeply frustrating, data are often confusing, lab work can get quite lonely, and whole days can go by where nothing seems to go according to plan. Do I really have the grit to see this through for six more years?
Starting afresh in a brand new place also scares me. To put it bluntly, I’m worried that I’ll struggle to make friends. What if I don’t fit in with my programme cohort? Will I often feel lonely? In a way, I envy you. By the time you read this, you’ve hopefully got it all figured out. I, on the other hand, have to start from scratch — how long will I be meandering around until I find my group of people? At the end of the day, I must remind myself that happiness and community do not just fall into one’s lap. Difficult as the journey may be, it’s ultimately up to me to create my own happiness, and to build my own community. I’ve chosen this path for a reason: I want to be challenged.
Me drinking from the firehose in Stata, taken during the 2019 Orientation Scavenger Hunt. Future Ming, was this picture emblematic of your MIT experience?
Through a combination of hard work and, equally importantly, extraordinary luck, I’ve found my way here today. I’ve been given several remarkable gifts: wonderful mentors who have trained me, wonderful friends who have supported me, and a wonderful family that has been the bedrock of my entire life experience. I hope you’ve made good use of these gifts by passing it forward, being the friend and mentor for others as they have been for you. When you look back upon these past six years, I hope that you do so with pride – knowing that you have been kind, held yourself in high esteem, and acted with integrity.
Most of all, I hope that you have lived these past six years to the fullest — that you’ve taken care of yourself, allowed and expected yourself to live a life outside of school, and taken the time to enjoy all the little things. I’ll be content if the Ming who reads this one day is still the person who looks at the sunlight glistening off the Charles and smiles to himself, remembering just how lucky he is.
As one of my favourite professors from undergrad used to say, Ad Astra — to the stars!
Your former self,