January 24 2017
For the next two years, I would have my proverbial undergraduate experience as an under-aged graduate student: living in dorms, immersing in school life, and graduating with a prize for the arts. The Media Lab The MIT Media Lab was the brainchild of an industry-minded professor who convinced the institute and the Department of Architecture to carve out a piece of MIT to allow corporations to fund cutting-edge computing research, in exchange for open access to the Lab and non-exclusive rights to the intellectual property produced. The Labbers needed constant ability to demonstrate their ideas and works-in-progress in hectic demo-days: open houses where executives and researchers from the corporate sponsors toured the premises and saw first-hand the goods their money helped to create. Journalists and celebrities often joined the fun for good measure. The Lab was extensively lauded in the media and was flush with cash, making it was one of the most financially generously corners of graduate research at MIT. We received a research stipend on top of our MIT tuition being fully paid for. I also applied for a Canadian federal scholarship for students studying overseas, resulting in two income streams to cover living expenses. My adventures in academia would again be a lucrative one. My mother, despite her frugal organic lifestyle of never eating out, suggested that buying food was never a waste, so I never thought twice about my bank account, so long as it was in the black, and I spent everything I made to enrich my student experience in Boston. The Lab was essentially a collection of a dozen research groups, each headed by a professor working in disparate areas in the loosely defined field of human-computer interactions. The professors had sole discretion in admitting students, and I joined a group which used computational linguistics in the building of storytelling avatars to encourage language-development in children, a wonderful fit for my background in computer science and theater. The professor in charge knew my well-established UBC mentor, opening the way for my acceptance after I flew to Boston for the interview. My two other reference letters were from my computer networking professor, who was impressed with my independent work on PrimeClimb, and my Studio Fine Arts professor, who professed to exaggerating my artistic talents on the application when I gave him flowers in appreciation of my admittance. Each Media Lab group was run as an independent fiefdom with the professor firmly in control, so the Lab did not have a uniform graduate school experience. We had to support our own group's specific research mandate towards the development of a thesis, while completing a certain number of course credits for graduation. With the professor's guidance, the courses could be flexibly chosen from the Media Lab, MIT in general, and even nearby Harvard by cross registration. Harvard! Living I arrived by myself in Boston in June, one semester early, to get acclimated before the start of the September academic year. Unlike UBC's cobblestoned Acadia Park, MIT had various uninspired condominium buildings available as graduate student housing. As an alternative, there were independent living groups with more socially cohesive arrangements. I joined the hippie collective called pika. Years ago, pika had left the Hellenic fraternity system to become an independent co-ed group of about three dozen students sharing a mansion in the residential suburbs of Cambridge. At pika house, everyone lived two or three to a room and shared communal meals while taking turns with cooking and cleaning duties. The house was accessible by a free shuttle bus from campus that looped around Cambridge, but it was just as reachable by a long walk or brisk roller-blade trip. I shared a bunk-bed with an Economics exchange student from the other Cambridge in England. As a new student, communal living seemed an attractive way to get introduced to campus, but as my schedule filled up, I began to chafe at the shared space and house chores. I skipped most dinners and the weekly meetings, coming back late on the final shuttle bus to steam-wash dishes for thirty people which left me drenched in midnight sweat. My brief stay at pika gave me a short but intimate experience with MIT geekdom. Everything around the house, including the working fire-pole, was built by student residents over the years. Squatting in the grimy bathroom introduced me an endless supply of wrinkled Calvin and Hobbs comics and raiding the basement soda fridges led to the discovery of the house library where I spent a few memorable nights pouring through Neil Gaiman's Sandman stories. My room had a bare light-bulb that served as the reading light. One night, to dim the glaring light, I covered the bulb with my favourite white T-shirt emblazoned with the red logo of the student DJ group from Japan I had hung out with. The heat from the light-bulb quickly seared through the shirt, leaving it with a couple of conspicuous burnt holes which were rather cool looking and strategically located over my heart and my right shoulder blade. I would wear my long-sleeved blue UBC Science shirt under the burnt white T-shirt as my unique uniform for many of my days at MIT. I applied for more conventional housing and found one with the perfect balance of historical inspiration and modern amenity. I spent the rest of my time in Ashdown House: a medieval castle in the heart of campus on the bank of the Charles River. It was an architectural landmark with stone walls and lofty spires sheltering dorm rooms across four floors. The first floor had over-sized common space for parties, laundry, and secret nooks for dark TV rooms and dusty libraries. There were key-card access, a front-desk, and no household chores. When my parents visited for graduation, I booked the visitor room so they got to stay at in the building for the full MIT experience. Ashdown, named for an old housemaster from decades ago, was much too central and cool for graduate students and would eventually be taken over by undergraduates years later. I began in a double room on the second floor that had nothing but a roommate, two beds, and two desks. But for the second year, we managed to secure an ornate suite on the first floor which housed four people in two bedrooms. Situated in the prominent corner spire of the building, it was endowed with a full kitchen and a spacious living room with a ten-foot wide round table that easily sat a dozen people. Upon moving in, we hand painted some modern art, strewn them across the walls and began to host weekly dinner parties. The head of the leadership of Ashdown was an Indian-American who had a brother at MIT also active in student government. A few months after he graciously assigned us the royal suite, news of his suicide shook the community, and his memorial service at the student center was the first I had ever attended. The undergraduate student body likened their studies at MIT to drinking from a fire-hose, as academic pressure combined with the pursuit of extracurricular experience in order to live college life to the fullest left many sleep deprived and a little unstable. This was the ivory tower where I would spend two years with a distinctly undergraduate flavored experience. Ashdown House was on the west end of campus, immediately across Massachusetts Avenue from the majestic steps and towering stone columns leading to MIT's main Gothic structure, the infinite corridor, with its iconic domed roof at the central lobby and sprawling galleries bracketing a rectangular lawn where the annual graduations took place. The MIT Media Lab was a modern white rectangular building at the opposite end of the mile-long corridor, where other academic buildings congregated on east campus. Near Ashdown in the west were student housing, recreational buildings, and the student union building. I spent my days in classes and the time in between at the Media Lab. Lunch would be purchased from one of the many high-cholesterol food trucks that congregated in the parking lots, and for dinner, usually late in the evening when the crowds had dispersed, I would traverse the infinite on my very Canadian roller-blades to the student union building for a steak sub, chips, and caffeinated drinks. Roller-blades were such an uncommon sight that MIT did not even seem to have rules forbidding their use indoors, and silently gliding along the waxed surface of the infinite was a surreal experience. I found a well-lit corridor near the library where I would park my roller-blades, blast music from my Apple laptop's tinny speakers that reverberated down the empty gallery, and sit on the ground to do my homework. To let off steam, I enjoyed intramural ice hockey, tennis, and soccer. Or I would simply play roller hockey on the side street in front of Ashdown, aiming to hit the stop sign or its pole with a hard red ball, the loud bangs and pings much to the annoyance of passing cars and tired students walking back to their dorms. Most of all, I would spend my extracurricular time at MIT performing in Kresge Auditorium next door to Ashdown, as my theater pursuits expanded to take up a significant chunk of my calendar. Theater Within days of landing in Boston, checking into my research group at the Media Lab and getting my paperwork sorted out, I looked for student theater groups, landing a supporting role in the summer production of A Comedy of Errors by the Shakespeare Ensemble. Weeks later, we performed in Kresge Auditorium for a paying public audience, with a review of the play showing up in the campus daily The Tech. The experience introduced me to MIT theater and I would steadily expand my role in the community. My lingering Chinese accent did not stop me from tackling Shakespeare's difficult iambic pentameter with the Ensemble and Dramashop, as a moon-dancing Sir Andrew in Twelfth Night and as one of eight Hamlets in an adapted version of the classic text. My lack of dance training did not stop me from joining the Dance Theater Ensemble, enthusiastically making it up as I went along next to those with earnest background. And my lack of music training did not stop me from joining the musical She Loves Me, with a second act solo as Arpad that I somehow powered through. By the end, I played the leading role in the Dramashop's production of Leo Tolstoy's Power of Darkness and directed the Arabic fable, The Elephant, Your Majesty, produced by the Muslim Student Association, which we made an audience participation piece by situating it in the infinite corridor. From the early days, I continued my participation in student government and joined the Graduate Student Council. There, I was a part of the inaugural five-member Ring Committee which designed a class ring for MIT graduate students. It was an adult version of the classic Brass Rat, the undergraduate class ring, featuring the MIT mascot, the beaver, along with commemorative events of the year. We called it the Grad Rat and customized each ring based on the graduate's degree and department. The tradition of graduate student ring continues today, with a complete redesign once every five years as opposed to the annual updates of the Brass Rat. I also applied for a student life grant to buy a camera and began to dabble in making music videos. I made a video on graduate student life and submitted it to satisfy my grant, then I kept the camera and made videos of all the theater performances I was a part of. Theater was such a big part in my life that I even talked my way into auditing undergraduate acting classes. My favourite was a speech class, where I would fall in and out of sleep while doing the breathing exercises lying on the floor. I landed on the radar of the MIT Arts Council and was made a member of the MIT Arts Scholars, where my brushes with fame included meeting Michel Gondry the music video and filmmaker who came to MIT to research the science of sleep and having lunch with Margaret Atwood on her tour for Oryx and Crake. By the end, I knew all of the Theater professors and was nominated for a Convocation Student Art award, the Wiesner Prize, which I won for my body of work in theater, design, and video. It is an award typically reserved for undergraduate students who have more time to get into trouble, but I got it and would graduate once again with acclaim. The credits I gathered in the theater would ultimately eclipse the accomplishments of my day-job, that of the academic researcher. Academia The focus of my research group at the Media Lab was on using computational linguistics to create better software agents for interacting with children and promoting language development. The professor leading the group had a Linguistics rather than Computer Science background. So for my very first courses she recommended I cover some background with a Language Development in Children class at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Computational Linguistics class at the Harvard Department of Computer Science. Harvard! Taking the subway to Harvard square and walking onto its historic campus to take a class was probably the biggest ego boost of my academic career, but the thrill as short-lived. I did so-so in the classes, not understanding the theory but scraping by with hard work, and I would never delve further into the deep subjects. Instead, I rounded out the rest of my academic calendar with softer Media Lab classes like Lifelong Kindergarten, Society and the Self, and Tangible Media, which were paper-reading affairs where A's where handed out by default and the real focus was on academic publishing. In this respect, I was already in the game with my papers published while at UBC and I quickly joined the research activity of my group. My colleagues ranged from undergraduate interns and one-year Masters students looking to get the letters and get out to greying PhD students bitter from half a decade of service with no thesis in sight. We conducted studies with our existing storytelling software in elementary schools around Cambridge, much as I had done at E-GEMS. The more interesting aspect was learning about my colleagues and seeing how they worked and lived. One undergrad intern was from a wealthy family in Hong Kong. He had been sent at an early age to boarding school in England and spoke with a heavy British accent. Though he was a member of a fraternity, he drove a Jeep and lived in a rented apartment with his sister, who was also an MIT student, and threw lavish parties there with beer-filled ice sculptures. He would graduate, get a Harvard MBA, and inherit the family business back in Hong Kong. Another masters student had attended MIT as an undergrad, and was now simultaneously tackling the Media Lab graduate degree and an MIT MBA degree. He would go on to a stellar career at Google before climbing high up the ranks of Facebook in Silicon Valley. The PhD students had on average spent over five-years under the professor's tutelage in an increasingly strained relationship. They thought the professor was selfish and did not groom them for their own academic success, instead, she milked them for research production and lived the high life of tenured faculty: staying in five-star hotels in Africa while ostensibly spending grant money to interview third-world children. It would seem that the exalted Academy had its fair share of power, privilege, and politics. I was infected by the group's long simmering sense of injustice and we confronted the professor to complain about her heavy-handed way of governing. She walked out of the meeting and no changes were made. Some members of the group were able to make up with her individually afterwards, but was among those who did not do so, and I quit from her group before having published a single paper with them. Perhaps it had long been in the works, but the professor shortly left MIT for a prestigious deanship at a different university, and I went on the search for a new permanent home within the Media Lab. The professor who took me in was a computer scientist as well as an award-winning designer and who would eventually go on to head the Rhode Island School of Design. His group was more design workshop than publishing powerhouse, and all I had to do was support its creative efforts, show them off in demo days, and write a thesis. The experience was fun and friendly from beginning to end, though it would also surely mark the demise of my academic career since no paper writing was involved and most graduates of the group continued on to the creative fields. The students of the group were an artistic bunch who accepted me as one of their own as I began to make my mark in MIT theater. Early on, the professor took us on a bonding trip to New York's art museums. Grateful for having found such a supportive landing place, I worked hard and made the group's space my home. We finger painted murals and spent late nights preparing for demo days to make our professor look good. Appreciative of my efforts and my expanding credits in the MIT arts community, the professor sent me in his stead to attend a UNESCO conference in New Delhi, India, where I spent a week in the strange foreign land in workshops with media researchers from around the world at the United Nations funded event. At a time when the Internet was only beginning to take off, our group developed online tools for digital creation and collaboration. I helped built this networked creative studio and its tools for creating and editing pictures, sounds, and slideshows. My thesis was a keyword-based image search system based on this work and some ideas that floated around the Lab at the time. If one was to search for "oranges" and the system did not have any pictures tagged with such a word, then a common sense database analysis would reveal that "oranges" were "fruits" and so were "apples" so images tagged with the word "apple" would be retrieved. Never mind that one was looking for oranges. It was a mixed-bag of ideas and workable demonstration that was enough to garner a pass as a Masters thesis. Combined with my eclectic collection of Media Lab, Harvard, and undergraduate Theater courses, I had met the requirements of graduation with another A average. Not all the research at the MIT Media Lab were as soft and superficial as mine. Some of the graduate students were true geniuses and inventors, winning prizes for inventing devices to cheaply purify water in Africa while I was earning decent reviews for student theater productions. I had aspirations to tap the engineering spirit of MIT and to build a true scientist's skill set and thought hard about registering for a course at Harvard, Physics 123, which promised a laboratory setting for learning the basic toolkit of electronics engineering, but it did not ultimately fit my schedule. Graduation Graduation was eminent, and with it the end of my academic career. I did not have a solid track record to try to extend my studies to a doctorate degree and decided to compete for lucrative corporate employment in the dynamic campus recruiting which took place at MIT. I applied to all the prestigious names I had learned about during my internship at Microsoft: finance firms such as Goldman Sachs, management consulting firms such as McKinsey, and up-and-coming technology darlings such as Google. I did not get very far with any of them. Dissatisfied with the Google interviewer's subjective questioning, I emailed the founders of the then small company to complain when I was rejected and was ignored. In the end, with my thesis have been nominally associated with Internet search, I received an offer from Microsoft, to return as a full-time Program Manager in the MSN Search group that was building a copy-cat competitor to Google. The job offer came in an enticing package that read "Opportunity Knocks" on the front, revealing a $75,000 annual salary and generous benefits. After having treated MIT as an extended arts camp, the offer vindicated my experience and bolstered my sense of self worth. I accepted. I flew my parents to Boston for graduation week to tour the city and to attend graduation, taking them on an ocean themed day of whale-watching, watching Finding Nemo, and sushi dinner. Much as my end at UBC, it was a victory lap with my mind was at ease having secured my next position. With my graduation from MIT and the addition of these three letters forever to my resume, I had been exposed to the best in the world. The best at studying, the best at achieving, and the best at competing. From far-and-wide, the students came to Boston, each with perfect grades as buy-in, and each with other interests they pursued with passion in addition to the crushing course load. There were the twenty-something professors, the concert pianists, the circus-performers, the army recruits, the Olympians, and the future politicians. It didn't matter what one did, as long as one strove to be the best at it at MIT, and by extension, the world. On the plus side, having seen a place such as MIT, I could claim to have seen it all, to know the fluff in the pudding and to be less fazed by fame. On the down side, the world-famous place, in conjunction with my theater training on unleashing impulse for dramatic performance gave voice to some of my worst traits of impatience and arrogance. I had performed academic suicide by burning bridges with the Professor in charge of my career. It was a reasonable decision that appealed to my strong sense of justice, but it was certainly not a well reasoned. Having committed this cardinal sin, I was able to salvage my Masters Degree from MIT, but it would be the end of my academic career as my distaste for academic politics overcame my desire for scientific discovery. This would only be the first of many more such emotional decisions and career ending resignations to come on the long road ahead as I grappled towards a finding fulfilling station in life.