A Week in the Life: Food Edition

Building community by breaking bread
MAR 2020
Mingyu
Y.
Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology

I love to cook. I picked up most of my culinary know-how during my junior year of college, through a combination of YouTube videos and scrappily assembled family recipes. That year, my housemates and I would go shopping together every weekend and designate one day a week for each of us to cook a family meal for three. I always looked forward to having a home-cooked meal in the evenings together, and on days when I was out late, knowing that a plate of food would be waiting in the fridge when I returned. Since then, cooking has continued to be a great way to unwind at the end of a day, and to share with friends a taste of my hometown.

Food also happens to be an informative lens through which to document one’s day-to-day experiences. It’s in that spirit that, as I enter my fifth week of graduate school, I decided to capture a prototypical week in my life by sharing its highlights through food:

Sunday dinner: Dry hotpot


Sichuan dry hotpot, a.k.a.香锅

Although I don’t live with my college roommates anymore, I still try to cook a family-sized meal each weekend to last me a couple of days. This upcoming week is a particularly busy one; it’s my first exam week of the semester, with a Human Pathology midterm on Thursday, and a Thermodynamics midterm on Friday. This dry hotpot is one of my go-to meal prep dishes: you buy a hotpot seasoning packet, and instead of making a soup base like you would in traditional hotpot, you stir-fry it with all your leftover meats and veggies. I’m a big fan of spicy food (the maternal side of my family is from Sichuan, China), and this dish is always satisfactorily hot.

Sunday dessert: Pathology over pastries


Studying(?) for our first pathology midterm

Later that evening, I met up with a couple of friends to study for Thursday’s pathology exam. The study session was more extravagant than most, with Irena (leftmost in photo) and Sydney (second from right) having made an amazing assortment of baked treats (yes, Irena made each individual pumpkin cupcake by hand!). That night, we worked through a problem set about structure-function correlates in tissues, which included examining slides from real patient biopsies. The course directors are practicing pathologists at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and I appreciate how they frequently incorporate authentic patient cases into the course material. There’s an enormous swath of information to digest in this class, and I admittedly left the evening feeling like my knowledge was somewhat like Swiss cheese – solid at first glance, but actually full of holes. 

Monday dessert: Chocolate art


Tasting a drawing made from chocolate crayons!

One of my goals for these next few years is to truly make the most of the Cambridge/Boston area, and the diverse community that it attracts. I recently discovered that Harvard holds a public lecture series on the science of food and cooking. Each week, a different chef is invited to speak about their culinary journey, with an eye to sharing how food science has informed their innovation process. That night, I attended a talk by pastry chef Janice Wong, who spoke of her experiences creating edible installation art – enormous marshmallow stalactites, caves with fluorescent bonbons, and murals from chocolate paint. I think it’s important to recognise that the scientific community is far more diverse than just traditional bench-side researchers, and events like these help me to keep that in perspective.

Tuesday dinner: Burritos with Bobby


Burritos with a side of gross anatomy

One of the most challenging aspects of pathology is being able to recognise a 3D organ/tissue from a 2D microscope slide. When you only have flat images to work with, how do you tell a stomach from a colon, or a thymus from a lymph node? That night, Dr. Bobby Padera, one of the course directors, held a review session about just that. He walked us through the tissues of the body, describing the histological hallmarks that distinguish each tissue from its neighbours. Shown above is a photograph of the liver at the gross anatomical level (projector slide), compared to its appearance on a 2D microscope slide (fuzzily displayed on my laptop screen). Bobby also brought burritos for all of us – you know you’re getting desensitised when you can eat dinner to photographs like that.

Wednesday dinner: Home alone


Leftover dry hotpot, stir-fried with a packet of instant noodles

Wednesday’s dinner was perhaps my most representative meal of the week. On most days, I have dinner alone in my apartment – some nights I read a paper from a lab I’m rotating in, and other nights I’ll leaf through my class notes or watch an episode of Bob’s Burgers. That night, it was time to knuckle down and study thermodynamics. I had flicked through a practice exam the night before, but I had put off actually trying the exam for fear of exposing to myself how little I could do. To be quite honest, I’ve been finding my thermodynamics course extremely challenging. The problem sets often require a level of mental gymnastics that just doesn’t come naturally to me, and it’s not uncommon for me to look at a solution and think “how was I ever supposed to figure that out?”. I resolved to at least give the practice test a go, even if that meant finally confronting just how much I didn’t know. After all, I fail by default if I don’t even try.

Friday dinner: Dumpling night


Dumpling Night with the first-year HST cohort

To celebrate making it through our first pathology exam (little victories, right?), I organised a Dumpling Night with the fellow first-years in my programme. Amongst us, there was enormous heterogeneity in prior dumpling-making experience. Two of my friends had studied abroad in China and could probably do it with their eyes closed; as for everyone else, experience was few and far between. I love bringing new cultural experiences to friends, and that heterogeneity is exactly what makes it fun! I really enjoyed watching everybody gathered around the table, hunched over each other’s plates as they perfected each dumpling. My grandparents would be proud.

Sunday breakfast: Sid-Pac brunch


October Sid-Pac Brunch, complete with our own custom apron!

I currently live in Sidney Pacific (affectionately, “Sid-Pac”), an MIT residence hall for graduate students. Every month, Sid-Pac organises a big Sunday brunch, complete with home-cooked breakfast items, pastries, and lots of fresh fruit. All the prep work is done by volunteer residents, and today seemed like a good day to join them. I was immediately set to work cracking eggs (see top-left panel), but eventually was able to hop around from station to station, meeting the pancake flippers, bacon fryers, and waffle makers. It soon became clear that many of these volunteers were brunch veterans, some of whom were in their third or fourth year of regular volunteering. I definitely felt a sense of camaraderie as we cranked through our cooking assignments, counting down until the 12pm deadline when the doors would finally open for the rest of the students.

As someone who’s still starting out on my grad school journey, I can definitively say that food has been a wonderful springboard for meeting people and for building new community. The truth is, starting afresh and finding belonging in a new place is difficult. Although a night of dumpling making won’t magically fix that, each little experience of sitting around a table with new friends, creating something great together that you couldn’t have done alone, adds that little bit more to the feeling that you belong.

Here’s to many more culinary adventures to come.