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Harvard College Junior, Mather House
As a Harvard student, I think one of the fastest lessons you learn is that the word “midterm” is a misnomer. These tests should really be re-coined as exams because they seem to happen all throughout the semester rather than just in the middle of it. Some classes won’t have midterms (maybe they’ll have papers) while some classes will have up to three midterms (more common in science classes).
This week, my big exam was in my LS2 (Life Sciences 2: Evolutionary Human Physiology and Anatomy) class. It was a 50 point in-class exam and students had 50 minutes to complete it. We were very thoroughly notified that time would be a critical issue, but this didn’t help with my anxiety. There really isn’t any time to think! I truly had to know everything about germ layers, embryos, sensory impulses, and etc. inside and out to be able to not think yet thoroughly answer all the questions. Whether or not this crazy-fast recollection of physiology and anatomy will ever help in the future is still TBD. When this exam was over, I definitely had less on my plate – but still enough on my plate to keep me a bit overwhelmed.
My senior fall midterm schedule is looking pretty nice since they’re spread out over a few weeks. However, I’m still running from meeting to appointment to interview in a (hopefully) hot mess fashion.
In my EMR 20 (Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning 20 – The Business and Politics of Health) class, my professor David Cutler cut a deal with his students: if students volunteered to present in groups the pros and cons of the New York Soda Ban, those students would be able to drop a pset (problem set). This class has a pset due every other week which seems nice at first because most psets are weekly. However, these psets tend to be longer and since I’m very interested in the international development trend of the course, they take me longer as I research my tangent thoughts. Long story short, I volunteered to present the cons concomitant to Bloomberg’s Soda Ban and was placed in a group of 4 students total. Group presentations – especially when you cannot select who to work with – can be wild cards. My “con” group was great though! We were super organized, efficient, and productive. Everything was seamlessly shared on Google Drive and we even ran through our presentation at least twice the night before! It was definitely one of the best group project dynamics I’ve ever experienced to date. Coincidentally, we all represented four different years of the university; I really appreciated not only meeting new peers, but also listening to their different perspectives and knowledge about the university. Harvard students employ an outrageous amount of acronyms so it was funny to see which ones freshman learn first. From class selection, sleep/eating schedule, to our approach on how early to start psets, our opinions and preferences all varied yet were all similar as well. I can’t really articulate the common thread linking all Harvard students, but there’s something warm and fuzzy keeping us together through our experiences in Annenberg (the freshman dining hall), The Yard, and beyond.
The group presentation is just one of the many ways Cutler makes his lecture-format course interactive. He’s one of the best professors I’ve ever had in terms of transforming lectures into an active, rather than passive, activity. He challenges us with questions and then uses our answers to pose higher level thinking questions. He’ll poll us on our opinions before and after discussing certain topics like whether or not we should improve the economy to improve health or focus on healthcare first to have the enhancement of the economy follow. I’m really enjoying the lectures thus far!!
Outside of class tests and projects, I’m starting another research experiment as a Research Assistant at the Harvard Decision Science Lab. I’ll be working with a fellow from the Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences. Since we employ human subjects in the lab, it’s always hard for me to determine how much information to disclose so I’d rather err on the conservative side. We’ll be spinning around the Dictator Game to answer our research questions about impulsive decision making and bargaining.
This week is also the beginning of the PBHA (Phillips Brooks House Association) mentoring program that I’ve been involved with since my freshman fall and have been directing since my sophomore fall: BRYE Teen. (I’ve warned you all about our ridiculous amounts of acronyms!) PBHA is a student-run, umbrella public service organization that supports hundreds of different programs serving the elderly, the youth, and every person (or animal!) in between! BRYE stands for Boston Refugee Youth Enrichment and has many subcategories such as BRYE (afterschool) Tutoring, BRYE Summer (summer camp), and many more. My co-director and I have been working super diligently this past first month of school to recruit both mentors and mentees. We’ve been nervously waiting to see the fruits of our labor and I’m more than happy to report that the fruit turned out sweeter than what we were hoping for!
My favorite thing about PBHA is that it connects you with your community as well as other students. Many of my friendships have blossomed from being involved in mentoring and PBHA in general. Once a month, PBHA serves dinner and hosts a meeting called Cabinet where directors from various programs come to give updates and learn about the other aspects of PBHA they might not be aware of – sort of like a behind the scenes look. The PBHA Cabinet meeting is a great place to learn about how Harvard students have been spending their time!
Although the theme of my week has been running around from task to task, I try to make time to stop and smell the roses. The establishment of the new Science Center Plaza has helped me make time to stop and smell the roses. The new plaza is incredible – and even more so in the nice weather we’ve been having in Cambridge! I’m glad that no more students will have to go on without the plaza. It’s a unique and thriving place to meet with friends, have lunch, and get tan! I’m pretty sure I always naturally smile when passing the plaza. There’s also a tented area where farmer’s markets happen with frequency along with other special events too such as health fairs and boutique shops!
If you ever consider visiting Harvard, don’t come when September transitions into October. I’ve never noticed this before – and maybe it’s just a coincidence this year – but every aspect of everyone’s life has recently magnified. These heightened responsibilities stem from upcoming midterms, extracurricular club/volunteering activities, job recruitment…and the list goes on forever. Once October hits, students can no longer deny that school has started and autumn is in full swing. Actually, maybe visit this time of year because it’s so freaking gorgeous with the leaves changing colors.
Classes are strangely picking up – meaning we’re still in the calm before the storm, but people are getting antsy because it’s very obvious that the storm is extremely imminent. I’m going to turn the other cheek with regards to this storm though and focus on the fun things in my life while I can.
Mather had a Magic Show! Mather is one of the twelve upperclassman houses – it’s known for it’s concrete high rise tower (19 floors!). Students live in The Yard (the heart of campus) their freshman year and move into one of the upperclassman houses for their remaining three years of undergrad – this is called the residential college system. Each upperclassman house has a wide range of house-spirit building activities. Think constant pep rallies. For example, some days will be marked as “community dinners” where only residents of the house are allowed to dine in the dining hall. Houses will also hold Stein Clubs, also known as Happy Hour, once every 2 weeks where there’s just a ton of free food and drinks along with great music — these are the best way to start your weekend relaxation! A personal goal before I graduate is to attend every house’s Stein Club 🙂
Fun fact: Most (all?) Harvard houses will be renovated in the next few years! We’re in the process of a long term renovation process which is really exciting because who doesn’t like the new small of architecture?? However, at the same time it’s pretty scary because I’m definitely going to come back to my 10 year reunion clueless of the new names to each building!
Back to my main point, Mather had a Magic Show! Joe Schwarz came and put on an intimate show for about 10 people. He talked about his nontraditional love for science. It was really exciting to not only see him perform tricks as well as explain them, but also hear about his surprising application of his scientific knowledge. At Harvard, there are a handful of paths that most students go down post-graduation: consulting, finance, med school and law school are the top ones that automatically come to mind. In the moment, students can start to feel like there are no other paths, so refreshing events like the Magic Show are very helpful to remind students that the world is bigger than what we think.
…which can also remind us that we should branch outside of the Harvard Bubble – it’s very common for students to hardly step foot off campus. I’m pretty guilty of being trapped in said bubble and that’s why when my sorority organized a group to fundraise and participate in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s about 4 miles down the river, I jumped on the opportunity! It was a great Sunday afternoon spent before the onset of midterms!
I’ll update in a few days about midterms…ugh
As I mentioned last week when I was describing my course schedule for the semester, I’m taking more independent classes this term. These less structured courses are a new experience in my academic career and I’m nervous-excited as I venture into this personally new unknown. Hopefully, I’ll be able to manage my time and work well enough to not go crazy come November.
One of the two of my more independent classes is GHHP 91r (Global Health and Health Policy Supervised Reading and Research). The goal of the class is to write a mini-thesis on a topic of choice under the supervision of a faculty adviser who is there to help focus my topic as well as grade me at the end of the term. I’ve (tentatively) chosen to continue my topic from the summer when I was performing clinical trials about maternal health and nutrition (vitamin A/iron supplementation during pregnancy within malaria-endemic regions). However, I’ve been unable to secure an adviser as of yet. I’ve been emailing and meeting with people like crazy and I have (false?) confidence that I’ll find an adviser eventually, but this process has been much more difficult than I anticipated and thus, I have been a bit discouraged.
Good thing this discouragement doesn’t carry over from classes to my extracurricular activities! This week of school has been focused on my “work” outside of the classroom.
In my search for a global health adviser, I was directed to a Harvard initiative about raising awareness about malaria. There’s actually a competition open to all Harvard affiliates and I’ve gathered 3 of my friends to form a team with me and enter. When I first perused the article and found out about the competition, I definitely thought it was cool, but something I would never enter due to no time/thinking I would never win. However, I still attended their informational session and ran into some friends there. We threw around the idea of forming a team and I’ve been super determined to enter with a great idea. We don’t have any ideas yet though — but we’ve been having a blast trying to come up with some! Okay, so most of our meeting time is spent joking around and relaying stories, but the few serious minutes we had were pretty productive. We’ve scheduled a meeting with the head of Malaria No More and intend to schedule many more with professors and whatnot.
I’ve not only never entered into a contest of this sort, but also wouldn’t have seen myself doing something like this. I’m getting really excited about my team though since we come from many backgrounds (life sciences, economics, education, computer science), it’s been really useful to bounce ideas off of each other!
This Defeating Malaria contest is definitely more of an academic extracurricular. However, I’m also involved with the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) which is an umbrella organization running a bunch of programs geared towards public service and volunteering in the community. Mentoring was a huge part of my high school years; I mentored elementary students afterschool all throughout high school. When I moved across the country for college, I knew I wanted to continue mentoring and the opportunity to mentor the heavy immigrant population in Dorchester was perfect because it would also help keep my Vietnamese language ability alive.
I joined the Teen sector of the BRYE (Boston Refugee Youth Enrichment) program during my freshman fall and started directing the program the following year. At the beginning of each semester, PBHA programs like BRYE work diligently to recruit student volunteers. I spent a lot of time this week interviewing applicants. I’ve also stressed the importance of recruting mentees this year so I’ve been calling a lot of families in Dorchester and utilizing my proficiency in both Vietnamese and Spanish. BRYE has truly been the best application of my language abilities and I love it!
One more “extracurricular” that I’ve tacked onto my schedule for my senior year has been trying to find something to do post-graduation. My plan is medical school, but not immediately. I’m hoping to fill in my gap year(s?) with something related to the medical field and hopefully this different insight will help me become a better practicing doctor when the time comes! Besides from looking into research fellowships, I’ve also been on the job hunt for healthcare consulting/tech firms. I’ve never actually sought out a job before and this whole process of networking and interviewing has been intimidating! I had a phone interview with a healthcare software company this week and apparently that went well enough so that I’m at the next stage of their hiring process: a skills assessment. It’s essentially an online logic test from what I gather. There will be a proctor just sort of watching me as I take this 2 hour test, but I won’t be able to see the proctor! I’ve never done anything like this and I’m nervous – probably more nervous than what’s good for me. I’m taking this logic test this week and just don’t know what to do with myself since I feel like I can’t prepare for it…
So I’ve been trying to relax. I’m a senior and I’m not currently active in the medical school application cycle. There are endless reasons why I should be having a great time…and I may or may not be exploiting them. However, the ticking clock ticks louder senior year because time is definitely running out to do everything I want to do! But one step at a time right?
One thing I’ve always wanted to do was to get money to throw a party. Thanks, Harvard! There’s a student run group on campus called Drug & Alcohol Peer Advisors (DAPA) and they give out grants every week to students who apply for funding. I decided I wanted to host a party revolving around guacamole and although I requested $40, I received a good $20 for guacamole and everyone was so impressed. It was the best. I definitely want to continue taking advantage of this resource to feed all my small cravings 🙂
I sort of have this problem where even when I’m full, I won’t stop eating. It’s the worst. I’m just glad I have an affinity for exercising to counter my bad habits. I have my third Boston Half Marathon coming up in three weeks and have been experiencing anxiety about it for the past three months. I don’t ever feel ready for long races! But around the end of every September, there’s a community 5k event called the Brian Honan. It’s an amazing event, full of community and spirit! Harvard also sponsors a huge group of runners at the event so registration is free for us! Today was my third Brian Honan as well as my best 5k time! A huge group got together for the event and some of us even jogged back together with a stop at the football stadiums to run up a few stairs before heading over to brunch. Today was just overall an amazing day! It was downpouring at 6am in the morning but the sun was out and the day was beautiful by noon when the race started!
It’s been a great week, but I need to stop ignoring my classes. Midterms are coming up…what?! Midterms are definitely the sneakiest thing in college.
You’ll hear everyone talk about Senior Spring like its a legend – as it should be! We started from the bottom, now we’re here — maybe Drake is so catchy because everyone can relate.
But why wait for the spring to start the legend when the class of 2014 can start now? I’ve been constantly denying my imminent entrance into “the real world” (where I’ll have to pay things like rent and electricity … and cook for myself … maybe) while simultaneously reminding everyone of my senior status to demand the profound respect I should automatically deserve. Long story short, I’ve been beyond enjoying my first two weeks of school.
I can attribute much of my happiness to the freedom of my class selection. I’m concentrating in Neurobiology (concentration is Harvard’s fancy word for major) and pursuing a secondary field (Harvard’s fancy term for minor) in Global Health and Health Policy; I still have a few course requirements left as well as some classes that I have to/want to take in preparation for medical school. A lot of the classes overlap so that they double/triple count for things so it’s been really manageable — and dare I say FUN! Now that Shopping Week is over and Study Cards have been submitted, I know what’s ahead of me (at least academically) this semester!
*Shopping Week:The first week of every semester where students are free to drop in or leave any classes. Students can use this week to their advantage by getting a feeling for the professor and the course material. You can get a sense for a class from a syllabus, but attending a class – even if it’s just for a few minutes – will give you more familiarity with what you’re committing to for a whole semester!
*Study Card: A physical piece of paper with a list of classes students want to enroll in – there is a deadline date and time that this must be submitted. There’s a fee if it’s turned in late, but there are plenty of email reminders so this should never happen! Also, depending on what classes you’re taking, professors may need to sign the Study Card in order for students to enroll. The add/drop date is after the Study Card deadline so classes still aren’t exactly set in stone for a few weeks!
The list below are the classes I’ll be enrolling in for the rest of the semester. I’ll start off with the official university description in italics and insert my personal commentary as well.
I’m really excited about my classes this semester because I’m taking 2 more independent classes. The good side is that I have a lot less hours of structured class which makes my job search for next year a bit easier, but the flip side is that I’ll have to constantly remind myself that there is a ton of work for those independent classes! It’s my first time taking independent classes – take this as a plea to keep your fingers crossed for me!
Life Science 100r: Experimental Research in the Life Sciences
(fun fact: the “r” in a course name means that you can repeat the class!)
A laboratory course that immerses students in a dynamic project-based research environment. Participate in experimental projects directly linked with ongoing faculty research. Students select a project from the following research tracks: neurobiology, microbial sciences, cell biology, and synthetic biology. New projects, including some in other research fields, are offered every term. In a highly collaborative atmosphere, students form a fully-functional and diverse research group based on the sharing of ideas and progress reports between projects. New projects every term. Students collaborate to form a fully-functional and diverse research group based on the sharing of ideas and progress reports between projects. The spring microbiology project is part of the “genomes to Biomes” series.
This is class one of two of my independent classes. This class physically meets every Thursday afternoon where students from every project must attend and there will be presentations on the progress of their project. It’s a wet lab class that I’m completely stoaked for because I really haven’t done too much wet lab (read: pipetting and the like) outside of the labs associated with classes. I did a lot of wet lab research outside of classes for summer internships during my high school summers, but have been preoccupied with taking advantage of Harvard’s abroad resources during my college summers.
I generally just love research. I’ve never been in a better environment. All researchers are the epitome of chill. For example, they aggressively insist on being called their first names! The down side can be that the timescale just feels like the slowest thing ever because some experiments (i.e. dealing with cell cultures) can be very time consuming, but the bright side is that you get to set your own hours! Students will have access to the lab 24/7 too! I think the chill setting of research is fostered by the researchers’ strong curiosity in their work – we’re internally motivated to completing our experiments in order to answer our own questions. Being immersed in such an academically driven environment will only do me good.
We’ve only met twice and the lab part hasn’t actually started yet, but I almost cannot contain my excitement. Seriously. The professor of the class, Alain Viel, is amazing and he has been the topic of my conversations with both my social peers and academic superiors. My favorite joke Alain has told so far happened when he was explaining the logisitics of the lab and said that there are two types of lab jackets: disposable and non-disposable. “A non-disposable jacket is a disposable one with your name written on it.” He also brought us presents for being students!
For the semester, I’ll be working under Cristopher Bragg‘s experiment on modeling hereditary dystonia in human neural progenitor cells. We’ve been talking about knocking in and out some genes and casually isolating RNA. Our first hands on lab has been scheduled for this coming Monday. The project has a team of 6 undergraduate students and we plan on meeting Monday night to prepare for our presentation on Thursday. Hopefully we’re setting both the tone and the pace for the rest of the semester!
Life Science 2: Evolutionary Human Physiology and Anatomy
Why is the human body the way that it is? This course explores human anatomy and physiology from an integrated framework, combining functional, comparative, and evolutionary perspectives on how organisms work. Major topics, which follow a life-course framework, include embryogenesis, metabolism and energetics, growth and development, movement and locomotion, food and digestion, stress and disease, and reproduction. Also considered is the relevance of human biology to contemporary issues in human health and biology.
I think this class has a reputation on campus for being the class most likely to mirror medical school. It’s a class heavy on its memorization so I’ve been intimidated for a few years. In addition to the three hours of lecture every week (pretty standard for a class), there is also 3 hours of lab. I had my first lab this past week and I couldn’t stop talking about it because we dissected a dogfish and a lamprey and I simply love cutting everything up. It was more of an exploratory surgery lab and there was residual adrenaline in my system for two subsequent days.
CAUTION, you may not want to see the pictures below…
One of the professors of the class, Daniel Lieberman, is super cool. If you’ve read any of his books, it’s obvious that he loves to run and a handful of my undergraduate friends work in his lab to study running forms. Outside of lecture, I tend to see him every Sunday morning as well during our warm up for Harvard On the Move, which is a group open to the entire community that encourages people to exercise whether if it’s walking, running, or even doing stadiums!
Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning 20: The Business and Politics of Health
Health and medical care pervade every aspect of our lives. This course uses quantitative methods (graphical analysis, algebra, data analysis) to examine issues related to health, disease, and systems for delivering health care. Topics to be covered include differences in health between rich and poor countries, differences in types of medical care and who receives it, and the political context for reforming health care policy. Techniques for analysis will be developed and demonstrated in class and section. The course uses examples from a variety of international settings, but focuses mainly on health and health care in the US.
I’ve never heard about this class and therefore, it wasn’t on my radar when I was planning or shopping. Word of mouth made it a popular class though as the number of students who enrolled actually doubled their expectations, which meant that they hired more staff for the class since its goal was about a 1:12 TF (Teaching Fellow – usually a grad student, along the lines of a TA/CA teaching assistant/course assistant at other universities) to student ratio. The professor of the class is David Cutler, who strikes an incredibly rare balance of being super knowledgeable as well as not being scary-intimidating. I plan on scheduling a meeting with him soon in hopes of him helping me with my mini-thesis (see next class below).
I’m really excited about this class because it combines global health with statistics which I’ve never done before! I’m also hyper-interested in all the topics because it seems like I was exposed to many of our discussions when I was in Africa this past summer pursuing clinical research in maternal health and nutrition. Our last lecture revolved around HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. I can for sure say that if I wasn’t involved in my summer internship, I would not have been as impacted nor interested in the last lecture.
Global Health and Health Policy 91r: Supervised Reading and Research
Supervised reading leading to a long term paper on a topic or topics not covered by regular courses of instruction.
Call me a slacker or whatever, but I’m not writing a senior thesis for my neurobiology concentration. I had a few weeks when I was really into the idea (I wanted to see if there was a neurological mechanism to preference construction – essentially determining whether or not brain activity was involved with playing favorites!) and planned out a whole proposal and everything too. However, I would have had to commit my summer to thesis research in Boston and when the opportunity to pursue clinical research in Tanzania appeared, I couldn’t resist hopping on a plane!
Although I won’t be writing a thesis for my neurobiology concentration, I’ve decided to write a mini thesis for my Global Health and Health Policy secondary field. I want to write about maternal health and nutrition within the context of malaria — essentially continuing my project from the summer. Since this is an independent course, it requires an adviser. I asked the principle investigator from my summer clinical trials to fulfill this role, but I was, unfortunately, rejected as he is more than busy! This has pretty much led me to scramble and in my frantic state, I’ve emailed tons of people (that I don’t personally know) in the hopes of them blindly agreeing to advising me or pointing me in the right direction.
Maternal health in terms of malaria is a pretty specific expertise so I was having trouble in my quest for an adviser. As of now, I do not have an adviser. BUT things are looking up! (Fingers crossed!) Harvard is actually hosting this Defeating Malaria competition. I’ll explain more about the competition later (next post!) when I understand the details myself, but I’ve reached out to one of the organizers of the competition and she has been an angel about referring me and connecting me with the right people.
After I secure an adviser (knock on wood), I’ll have a better sense of my topic for my research paper. By the end of the semester, I’ll have at least 20 pages written about maternal health and malaria — WOOT!
Neurobiology 101hgf: Synpases – Molecules, Networks, and Behavior
The synapse functions as a fundamental signaling unit of the nervous system, and underlies all forms of brain activity. We will first explore the biology of glutamatergic synapses, focusing on receptor function and synaptic plasticity. Then we will address how synapses function in neuronal networks and direct behavior. The course will highlight important biological concepts as well as technical advances.
A full time College student normally enrolls in four classes per semester. Yes, I’ve already listed four courses, but before you go judging me as this crazy hyper-motivated Harvard student committing academic suicide, this Neurobiology tutorial I’m about to describe is technically half a class! It counts as half a class per a semester and lasts throughout the entire year. Therefore, it will count as one full course by the time I graduate.
Neurobiology tutorials are typically taken by juniors – I took one last year called Dopamine which has become enormously popular after my classmates and I endlessly raved about it. Tutorials are really small and intimate classes based on our discussion about the current scientific journals we read. I love it. Reading research articles has been one of my favorite homework assignments since MCB 145 Junior fall semester; I find it one of the most fulfilling activities that are challenging. There are some things that are just hard because they’re mean (organic chemistry) and some things that are hard, but still fun to decipher (reading science papers)!
At the beginning of the school year, there’s always a neurobiology tutorial fair where all the teachers come with syllabi to talk to interested students. I talked to Geoff and Helen at the fair and they were too adorable for me to not take the class. They insisted on both being present at every class and just seem to genuinely care about undergraduate students. Plus, they provided cookies during class.
That’s my academic roadmap for the semester! I’ll talk more about my extracurriculars in my next post because a Harvard student’s life would be incomplete if he/she only attended class…as corny as this sounds, that was Real Talk.
Although it’s only been a handful of days, I feel like I’ve been on campus for at least a few weeks already! I guess my quick-comfortable level serves as a testament to how much at Home I feel at Harvard. After traveling all summer, it is REALLY nice to be settled in one place again.
When I say I’ve been traveling all summer, I really mean literally traveling all summer – and I’m not even abusing “literally” here! When my last final took place in the spring semester this past May, I had 3 days at school to get myself ready for my internship in Africa! When my clinical research internship ended, I traveled down Africa – alone and meeting up with other Harvard students – and made a pit stop in Dubai and London before returning home to California where I did a bit of domestic traveling as well! Harvard took me to Africa and I definitely took advantage of the great geographic location!
Please allow me to semi-quickly summarize the end of my summer and outline what the first 4 days of school have been like. One ending is just another beginning ! 🙂
Part 1: Amsterdam
I know the Netherlands doesn’t really make sense in the context of Africa, but the Amsterdam airport is a huge international hub for flights. The cheapest flight from New York City to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania involved a 13 hour layover in Amsterdam during the middle of the day. Let’s just say I was far from complaining and very eager for my new passport stamp!
Things conquered in Amsterdam:
Stroopwaffles & Cheese, Eye Film Institute, Free walking tour in Spanish, Flower market, Chinatown, Vondelpark, Anne Frank’s House (!)
Part 2: Tanzania
I scored an internship through Harvard’s Global Health Institute program called iSURF (international Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) through which, for the first time, I pursued clinical research projects revolving around maternal health and nutrition. I loved the research topic, my co-workers, and the grad school friends I made! During my time here, I picked up enough Swahili to barter and speak to taxi drivers – thanks to my dedicated co-workers who doubled as translators. There’s no denying that a big chunk of my heart stayed in Tanzania. Living abroad gave me a grander perspective on the disparities in health access and socioeconomic status which is helping me clarify what profession I want to follow after graduation. Thinking a bit shorter term, I’m also looking into following up on this topic of maternal health and nutrition by writing a mini thesis this fall semester in a GHHP 91r course (Global Health & Health Policy, Supervised Research and Reading).
Things conquered in Tanzania:
Part 3: Zambia
I’m pretty sure I made everyone nervous – including myself and my credit card company – when I bought a one way ticket to Tanzania. I knew I wanted to visit Cape Town, South Africa ever since my roommate went the summer after her freshman year and refused to stop talking about it. In the roughest of rough travel itineraries, I intended to go from Cape Town to Bolivia in order to join in the forces of Refresh Bolivia, just like the end of my summer 2012. However, when flight prices from Tanzania to South Africa were $500 more than what I expected, and when flights from South Africa to Bolivia were $1000 more than what I had budgeted for, I had to sadly face reality by accepting that I wouldn’t be able to “Refresh Bolivia” this summer.
Perhaps this huge itinerary change came as a blessing in disguise because I had more time to focus on the journey to Cape Town rather than just the destination. I took a 3 day train (note this mode of travel is highly NOT recommended) from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to Zambia. I stopped in a few places in Zambia, but was mostly interested in Victoria Falls. I met a few people in Zambia that redefined altruism by taking me in when in need. Since I was traveling by myself, I learned a lot about myself and my capabilities. It’s very empowering to travel alone and I can’t thank the universe any more profusely than I do every single day for affording me this opportunity to not only explore the world, but also explore what I want to do in this world!
Things conquered in Zambia:
Kapiri Mposhi, Lusaka, Livingstone, Zambezi River sunset cruise & gorge swinging/abseiling/zip lining over the Falls
Part 4: Zimbabwe
TripAdviser recommends seeing Victoria Falls from both the Zambia and Zimbabwe side – I second this recommendation! I crossed over the border and explored the waterfalls from this side as well. This was one of the more developed destinations out of my itinerary so I took advantage of the available WiFi and hot water. Continuing my travel southwards, I caught a flight out of Zimbabwe to South Africa to meet a fellow 2014 Harvard classmate and iSURF intern who had been working in Uganda for the summer.
Things conquered in Zimbabwe:
Victoria Falls, Bulawayo
Part 5: Cape Town, South Africa
No more overnight trains and sketchy buses for me – from here on out I would by flying high 🙂 After a week of solo backpacking in central Africa, I was more than ready for any and all companionship! One of my good friends from school, Jen and I had thrown around the idea of traveling in Africa together since we would both be iSURF interns. Africa is a very large continent so I tried to remain realistic while throwing ideas around, but as emails were exchanged and flight information was forwarded, there was no hope in containing either my or Jen’s excitement! We did a ton of research and planned an intensive yet flexible itinerary to take advantage of our 5 days there. We even met up with a fellow rising senior who also arrived to town around the same time we did for thesis research. (Tangent: He’s a statistics concentrator writing a senior thesis on wine…so he got funding to travel to Cape Town, wine capital of the world! Anything. is. possible.)
Things conquered in Cape Town:
Stollenbosch, Camps Bay, Table Mountain, Hout Bay (seals!), Chapmans Peak, Cape of Good Hope, Cape Point and its Lighthouse, Boulders Beach (penguins!), Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Greenmarket Square & VA Waterfront
Part 6: Dubai
When I was booking flights from Cape Town back home to California, I learned flights from Cape Town to London were ridiculously cheap. I’m a sucker for a sale so I booked. Initially intending to spend 2-3 days in London, I actually spent 5 days there due to flight sales. I won’t start raving about London here (that’s the next part!), but Dubai comes into play because I had a 12 hour layover from 2 am to 2 pm. After getting lost for hours in their enormous airport, I managed to leave the airport and hop onto their sweet metro system which helped me see as much as I could in my 6 hours of daylight! It was a bit stressful trying to spend all my Dirham currency, but that’s maybe the only kind of stress I’d welcome.
Things conquered in Dubai:
Dubai Marina, Jumeirah Beach, Mall of Emirates & Dubai Mall
Part 7: London (and Cambridge)
Words just don’t do justice when it comes to expressing my love of London. I had the absolute best time and on a budget too! You may be thinking London on a budget, whaaattt?! But thanks to Harvard’s diversity and international presence, I made a really good British friend last semester who was beyond helpful in my London trip. He connected me to his high school friends who offered me free housing (as well as free tour guide services!) and he even made a detailed itinerary of London and Cambridge. I also had a lot of help from other Harvard friends who either studied abroad in the UK or who had traveled through London earlier on in the summer. I’m undeniably a California girl at heart so it means a lot when I say London is incredible despite its gloomy reputation.
Things conquered in London:
Natural History Museum; Biking through Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, and Trafalgar Square; Leicester Square; Chinatown; VA Museum; Science Museum; St. Paul’s Cathedral; Modern Tate Museum; The Angel in Islington; Shoreditch; Covent Garden; Piccadilly Circus; Kingly Court; Camden Market; Tower of London; Westminster Abbey; Big Ben; St. James Park; Princess Diana Memorial Walk; Cambridge/Kings College
Part 8: Los Angeles
Domestic Harvard friends are impressive as well! It was cheaper to fly London > Los Angeles (LA) > San Francisco (SF) rather than London > San Francisco directly, but I would land in LA too late to be able to catch a same day flight to SF. I called upon 2 of my blockmates (blockmates are a group of up to 7 other friends that you make during your freshman year and tell Harvard you love them enough to commit to living in the same upperclassman house for the next 3 years of your undergraduate life) who are LA natives. They very willingly picked me up from the airport, energized me with the famous In-N-Out, housed me and entertained me until my flight the following night. College friends very quickly become family and although I already knew mine are very reliable, it still warms my heart that they very willingly cater to my outrageous needs!
Things conquered in LA:
In-N-Out, Reactivating my American Phone, The Melt, Santa Monica Pier, LA traffic
Part 9: San Francisco
I’m not originally from the Bay but my best friend from college was finishing up her internship there and my best friend from high school attends UC Berkeley – do I have to further explain why this trip to SF was so completely necessary and amazingly timed?? I hadn’t been up to Northern California since participating in a science camp (Young Scholars Program as UC Davis) in 2009 so it was nice to come back and play tourist in my home state!
Things conquered in SF:
(spontaneous) Giants v. Red Sox game, HRD Cafe, Ikes Sandwiches, UC Berkeley student life and UC Berkeley Kappa Alpha Theta chapter (it was awesome seeing sisters on the opposite coast!), Coit Tower, Crissy Field, Dolores Park, Washington Square, Lombard Street, Palace of Fine Arts & Nick’s Crunchy Taco Tuesday
Part 10: Home Sweet San Diego!
I have 2 influential factors when creating a travel itinerary: flight prices and free housing. Due to these 2 factors, I only managed to sneak home for about 4 days! This would be the shortest amount of time I’m at home during a break from school ever! I do not plan on making this the norm. It was too short, but well worthwhile! Thank goodness my parents and sister had free time to hang out with me and love me. Home was fabulous as always. However, due to my extreme circumstances of 4 days, I was spending time with my family by day and chilling with my high school friends by night – and in between these appointments, I visited the dentist and optometrist too! Sleep? What is that??
Things conquered in San Diego:
Family, Friends, Food
Part 11: Boston (and Cambridge!)
I’m lucky to have family friends in Boston who eagerly greet me at the airport and drop me off on campus with enough food to feed an urban county. This luck continues on campus as my friends warmly welcomed my return. Catching up with everyone, unpacking, and shamelessly shoving my face with Asian fruit took up the one day I had before classes started. During my final year of Harvard (!!!!!), I have 1 Neurobiology concentration requirement, 2 Global Health and Health Policy secondary requirements and 2 General Education classes left. This definitely is not a lot as some of them can double count and I have 2 semesters to fulfill everything. With my General Education courses, I have tons of freedom which means a hectic shopping schedule and a blind hope that everything will be figured out when Tuesday 5 pm rolls around – Tuesday is Study Card day when students must turn in a list of courses that they intend to enroll in for the semester and some classes need instructor signatures which can be a tad stressful on occasion. I’ll know my classes by the next blog though!
Things NOT conquered back at school:
Unpacking, class schedule
WOAH. August is over?! It’s hard for me to be in denial any longer, especially since my first day of Senior Year is tomorrow! My last fall semester Shopping Week is kicking off in just a few hours and with three years of wisdom and experience as an undergraduate, I’m still frantically constructing a shopping schedule the night before…
Shopping Week is what we call the first week of every semester when students are allowed to sit in (or walk out!) of any and all classes without any hard feelings. It’s an exploratory week where everyone strives to strike the perfect balance of our favorite professors, homework, and catching up with everyone back on campus! Although I don’t have a shopping schedule yet, I’m not exactly freaking out because we pre-term plan (PTP) which is a system where students enter courses they intend on enrolling in for the next semester in advance. Both Shopping Week and Pre-Term Planning have no strings attached which definitely eases the stresses concomitant to committing to classes!
But before we get too serious talking about commitment and classes, I wanted to wrap up my summer of participating in iSURF (international Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) through the Global Health Institute. I was pursuing clinical research in maternal health and nutrition in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania for a total of 9 weeks. I wrote a final report at the end of the program that I wanted to share with you – below is what I submitted!
Nutrition and Global Health Internship
Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
The summer internship abroad description depicts clinical trials addressing critical gaps in nutrition and the complex dynamic between these gaps and infectious/chronic disease as well as perinatal, child, and maternal health. The core of these epidemiologic studies entails randomized clinical trials investigating both the safety and efficacy of iron and/or vitamin A supplements during pregnancy in resource-poor settings, with the ultimate goal of positively contributing to the broader global health and health policy agenda.
I am pleased and happy to report that all of these promises of both wide-range and in-depth clinical research exposure that was laced within the internship description were successfully delivered upon completion of the internship.
Although my Tanzanian internship was my first time traveling to the African continent, this summer internship was not my first abroad experience. I spent last summer abroad in Latin America, completing a medical shadowing internship at a private clinic in Lima, Peru as well as a sustainable clean water engineering project in Cochabamba, Bolivia. My South American experiences last summer have imprinted an understanding of the slower pace traditional outside of state lines and most importantly, have honed my patience as well as my ability to both appreciate and adapt to the culture of my surroundings. For my African adventure, I anticipated similar communication barriers and delays concomitant to the abroad lifestyle. To my pleasant surprise, the task list accumulated at a beyond reasonable pace whether that entailed acquiring familiarity with the three studies or advancing the trials along.
My first task involved creating a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) to regulate and track the flow of participants’ samples and data. The SOP task emerged from necessity as it seemed as if neither a written nor digital record existed; but coincidentally and conveniently, investigating informational flow through shadowing and interviews served the greater purpose of learning the details of the study and its data collection protocol. It was interesting to peak into, poke around, and then ameliorate the gap in procedure. Unlike a laboratory bench experiment, clinical trials are more vulnerable to uncontrolled and unexpected events which call for resiliency and flexibility in problem solving. This realization was also enlightening because it was my first time differentiating between protocol and practice. I admire the type of on-your-toes need for creativity that has proven to be characteristic of working in big scale clinical trials.
Drafting the SOP harmoniously worked hand in hand with the assignment of creating a matrix which visually juxtaposed the study’s various analytical laboratory tests with how the test results are utilized to determine the health conditions of participants. The completion of this task necessitated research beyond the studies’ full protocols. Scientific journals and research articles helped me not only compile the test-condition matrix, but also develop an understanding to the meaning behind once abstract large words and fancy acronyms. It was refreshing to get a big picture sense of the study as well as its details to motivate both the clinical trials and my personal contribution, especially since it is very easy to have research interns work with their heads down without grasping the grander purpose of neither their labor nor the study.
Speaking of working diligently with my head down, I brought it upon myself to familiarize myself with the Microsoft Office program of Access, software that I never heard about before this nutrition research internship. Access serves as a relational database management system that also catalyzes the export of data for analysis. I concentrated on creating Access forms for a different study that also examined maternal health called Cook Smoke with Blair Wylie as the principle investigator. My practice of creating Access forms was quickly put to good use for developing a Compromised Sample Log form. However, creation of this form catalyzed the realization that the LIS database currently in use needed to be revamped to optimize efficiency and cease disappearance of data. A Visual Basic database has been piloted and activated with intentions to record laboratory test results.
The backlogging of the first 6-7 months of 2013 has been initiated and is well underway with the new database. It is easy to perceive repetitive tasks such as entering data or counting slides and blocks as useless, time-killing tasks. However, I tried to keep an optimistic mindset because as minor as my tasks seemed on the surface, they needed to be completed in order to move on to later stages of the study. It is important to experience first-hand multiple aspects of research so that a broader sense of perspective can be more easily achieved.
With a familiarity of both a broad and narrow sense of the trials, the opportune time to visit hospital sites presented itself. I enjoyed and appreciated the diversity of the sites – some sites are located in popular, urban areas while others pop up from unpaved compounds. The drastically diverse landscapes of the sites directly reflect the wide socioeconomic gaps in Dar es Salaam’s population which is an important characteristic to include and analyze within the trials. On-site visits were exciting and eye-opening as I tried to observe and memorize every detail of the hospitals. From the common waiting room to the labor waiting room and all the way to the actual birthing room, I was entranced by all the similarities, but mostly differences, to American and Peruvian hospitals.
The hospital differences grew – in a depressing manner – with the opportunity to shadow Professor Ferdinand Mugusi at the non-paying infectious disease ward of Muhimbili Hospital. Regarding my hospital exposure, my experiences have been relatively sheltered due to high US health standards. Even when I served as a medical shadowing intern in the developing country of Peru, I was based in a private clinic where financial concerns were neither a prominent thought nor a driving factor in every patient diagnosis. Tanzanian physicians tend to favor the cheaper, more non-specific tests, if any tests at all. It is indeed inspiring to witness Tanzanian provisions of free health care to those who cannot afford it. However, it is also distressing to witness crowded conditions within an infectious disease ward where resources are extremely limited. The silver lining lies in the uplifting reassurance of how well the staff strives to evenly distribute the resources available.
As with any developing country, Tanzania is no different in that financial matters both motivate as well as limit its progress. It was ironic how financial constraints also influenced the smooth advancement of the clinical trials. I have experience with money trouble in the context of laboratory bench research and grants, but I have never seen – or have I ever been this moved by – a staff that financially contributes out of their own pocket for the sake of keeping the study alive and running. To say that such efforts are heart-warming would be a grand understatement. Seeing first hand a non-romanticized perspective of research illuminated the people’s passion for their profession – a passion I arduously aspire for as an undergraduate – as well as wholly demonstrates the kind heartedness characteristic of Tanzanian culture.
Another important and intrinsic aspect of Tanzania is their skill to work in teams. During the weekly Thursday Skype meetings with Professor Wafaie Fawzi in Boston, it was always delightful to have everyone gathered in one room, catch up on the details of the study that they are personally responsible for, as well as work towards a common goal and brainstorm solutions to problems that have arisen during the week. The most personally impactful meeting was over the topic of enrollment and raising awareness about the maternal health studies. The catch 22 dilemma consisted of our goals to innovatively enroll new pregnant participants all while not overwhelming the clinic sites. Ideas to collaborate with individual village’s community leaders as well as hire a truck with a speakerphone announcement were debated. Although the solution remains in a grey area, the sound consensus was that the shared goal was to promote our study without demoting the reputations and perceptions of the health care system. The seamless transition from one specific problem of enrollment to the general concern of maternal health programs was a critical moment to witness because it served as a reminder to maintain awareness of each baby step so that in the end, the aggregation of steps creates a path to the ultimate end goal of improving global health.
Counting the weeks of this summer internship has evolved into a daunting task. I don’t want to leave my abroad experience or have summer end!! Yet at the same time, I can’t wait to return home to California, especially since I started my internship just a few days after my last final last semester.
For this summer of 2013, I’m participating in Harvard’s Global Health Institute’s international Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (iSURF) program. The institute supports both domestic and abroad research and serves as a liaison between eager students and professors/postgraduates.
More specifically, I’m interning on clinical research trials examining the topics of maternal health and nutrition in Tanzania. It’s my first time: diving into clinical research as well as nutrition research; in Tanzania as well as on the African continent; and feeding myself for an extended period of time.
So many “firsts” completed in just a few months which have truly been an incredibly transformative experience. It’s my second time spending the summer abroad on a Harvard program (summer 2012: Summer Internship Program (shadowing at a private clinic in Peru) with the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies) and I already feel much more like an experienced traveler. I’m more comfortable in foreign places, navigating rough/sketchy transportation systems, and communicating via charades.
The time has come when you can just sense everything winding down – like an (epic?) end is imminent. In the midst of a transition, many people are asking general questions about my overall experience in Tanzania. I feel a little guilty saying this (because I absolutely loved last summer in Peru and Bolivia!!), but my Tanzanian experience may be better overall. I think my preference can be explained by how last summer felt more like a summer of learning – I was learning tons of Spanish (with a Latin American accent) and learning a lot about myself: what I can do/what I’m capable of. And this summer feels like a practice run (of senior year? of real life?) where I’m using the characteristics and skills learned last summer and I’m honing them now to not only tackle, but also overcome challenges. If I wanted to be more cliché, I’ll say that I’m growing up!
My Latin American program last summer had more structure – students would go to class/work Monday through Thursday and weekends had fun excursions planned by the program coordinator. There were only a few weekends free for spontaneity and everyone had a host family to more personally watch over us and protect us.
My African program this summer has less structure – students get accepted into the program, are written a check (iSURF comes with automatic funding. Yup, best thing ever.), and can determine their preferred dates to work basically all on their own. You may or may not get picked up at the airport. You may or may not receive help in finding accommodations. All they really ask of you is to send a quick email upon a safe arrival. It’s like pushing a baby bird out of its nest and telling it to chirp if it can fly.
Regardless of a summer program’s structure, abroad experiences are phenomenal and every undergraduate student has to have one. Have to. I really can’t say if I have a preference for either type of structure because they have both fostered an abroad environment in which I thrived; but what I can say is that I’m really glad my first Harvard program abroad was the more structured one. This initial guidance definitely provided me with a grace period to learn the basics of adapting abroad – and adapting quickly.
I have had two main challenges while in Tanzania. These challenges arose early and have endured throughout the summer. Remember when I was venting (/complaining) about all the hardships concomitant to finding safe and affordable housing in Tanzania? My program partner and I settled on a hostel/guest house that was mid-range in costs, but also out of range of the city (which contributed to much of the problems I had finding safe and affordable transportation to/from work – but that’s a whole other story).
It was here at our guest house where we got comfortable and complacent, and even stressed all the benefits of our living situation when the chance came up in conversation to convince ourselves and our friends that we were doing just fine.
I was openly jealous of all the other summer interns in the area though because their accommodations were both better and free – and better not just because it was free! I’ve met a handful of other students, all on different programs, who are interning with different organizations for the summer. Their housing stems from US Embassy supported housing or alumni/coworker networks that have led to house sitting gigs.
One of the friends I made here – and probably the most gracious friend I’ve made here – was offered a house-sitter position in a house with 5 bedrooms. She invited both me and my program partner to house sit with her so she wouldn’t be all alone in a big house. Needless to say, I was (and still am) beyond super grateful for her invitation. To live in a house with a kitchen and running water, let alone a nice house…all for free?? “Too good to be true” doesn’t even describe it – mostly because the situation was true! My friend is a student at the Kennedy School (+100 for networking) so I hope she’s ready to be constantly showered with presents and love when we’re all back in Cambridge.
So there my program partner, Leanna, and I were. We just finished hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro. We hadn’t showered nor looked in the mirror for 6 days. I was sure my hair was about to dreadlock. I was living out of a trash bag in which clothing that only smelled a little sweaty were considered clean. Think when dirty, grubby children are coming home from the playground and their parents were excited but also disgusted – I’m sure this was how my roommates received Leanna and me.
I’ve never lived in a house that wasn’t owned by my parents before! I feel so grown up! Not only did the move ease my financial constraints, but it was also closer to work which ameliorates my ongoing transportation predicament. The move made my life 1000% better. Yes, 1000. Because if I had 10 lives, all 10 lives would have completely improved in every aspect and every manner.
Now that Leanna and I had access to a kitchen, we didn’t have to live off of ready-made food! Although I didn’t hate my avocado and tomato diet, I also don’t hate variety. (Ironic that I’m researching nutrition?) Probably a subconscious manifestation of me missing my Asian roots and home, the first dish I made was fried rice.
The first dish is always plagued with self-doubt, but after some ego-boosting compliments, I initiated some conversations about hosting a dinner party. Most of my friends are house sitting around the same general neighborhood which makes seeing each other on weeknights much less of an inconvenience. Everyone loves a free and home cooked meal so people gathered at our house after work. We were running a bit behind schedule though – looks like we definitely have immersed ourselves in some Tanzanian traditions – and everyone chipped in to whip up several dishes in under an hour!
This post was pretty much all about non-work related events. Oops?
Before my work update, I’d like to note that I’m extremely attracted to abroad experiences because there’s learning everywhere!! Whether I’m inside or outside the office, I’m constantly stimulated and observing (and mimicking) new human behavior. A foreign environment is conducive to a very high concentration of ethereal experiences. Yes, ethereal. I just love learning people’s different habits and tracing them back to cultural differences – and you can’t learn this anywhere but abroad!
Work has been a little slow this week. My main contribution has been trying to optimize their database. I feel somewhat like a healthcare consultant because I spent a lot of time learning the protocol and then spent even more time learning what the researchers/lab technicians/staff actually practices. I’ve tried to grasp the flow of subjects and their bodily fluid samples through interviews, shadowing, and private investigations. With all this knowledge, I’ve been working with an IT guy and my postdoc to code a new database since the one currently in use is unreliable – the last 6-7 months of data haven’t been captured in a digital manner!! We were all really excited to recently have a finished database to pilot, although our enthusiasm simmered when we found lots of room for improvement during the pilot. We’re currently in the works of making those tweaks and hoping pilot 2.0 runs more smoothly!
I have a few side projects that I work on in addition to the database and I even got an unexpected, but very pleasant, opportunity to shadow a doctor who is also a professor at the medical school where my office is located. More on this next week!
When I dubbed last week (with my Zanzibar trip and a successful meeting with my principle investigator) as the best week ever, I might have spoke too soon. Alternatively, the best case scenario is that I’m having consecutive best weeks ever…let’s run with that.
The most epic week of my whole summer internship (thus far) and I didn’t even go to work once. Very analogous to those learning moments outside of the classroom – that is what the summer is for after all, right?
This summer, I’m serving as a research intern in clinical trials revolving around maternal health and nutrition. It’s my first time handling clinical trials and I’m definitely learning my fair share of the triumphs as well as the difficulties of protocol vs. practice. Did I mention I’m working in Africa? Yep, I’ve landed the dream “job” at age 21 by participating in the Global Health Institute’s international summer undergraduate research fellowship (iSURF) program.
Since iSURF is a fan of the buddy system and sends at least 2 students per destination abroad, I have a summer program partner, Leanna, and although we work on different projects and in different areas of the city, we try to align our African travel plans – because we too are fans of the buddy system. A bit of planning and flexibility allows students abroad to exploit their summer destinations. One of Leanna’s best friends and blockmates (a group of up to 8 friends that you tell the college you’re obsessed with during the spring semester of your freshman year to ensure that your group is placed together in the same upperclassman house for the remaining three years of undergrad) is pursuing research for her senior thesis in East Africa. They had roughly planned to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, together this summer. When her plans fell through, Leanna was still determined to hike it and I was pretty much indifferently down for the ride. Let’s keep in mind that I’ve never been camping for more than one night and for whatever reason, the sound of 6 days didn’t alarm me.
Leanna spearheaded planning the entire Mt. Kilimanjaro hike. Many Harvard students volunteer with SIC, Support for International Change, and she had heard of a partnership between SIC and a hiking company. We rode SIC’s coattails for their student discounts and had semi-strategically/semi-luckily planned our 6 day hike up Mt. Kilimanjaro to begin one day before the federal government of Tanzania imposes a hefty, high-season tourist tax.
Everything seemed to be going our way! We bought bus tickets for a 12 hour ride to the base of the mountain and although our tickets mistakenly noted the wrong day, we didn’t have a problem boarding! The bus seats reclined and the Bongo-flavor music was all very conducive to sleeping. When slumber wasn’t on our side, we were easily amused by the passing of the beautiful green scenery as well as what we suspected to be a baobab tree forest!
Wiped out from the long bus ride, we turned in early despite the Friday night ambiance.
Saturday began with a hefty breakfast along with an introduction to our head guide named Kombe who visited us at our hostel to help us with our rental gear as well as give us a brief overview of our imminent week of hiking. After an initial blood oxygen level and pulse check, we bid farewell, knowing that the next time we met, we would be starting our ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Leanna and I spent the rest of Saturday food-touring the small town of Arusha and met up with a friend we made through mutual friends at Zanzibar last week. Her name was Lauren and although she was based in Arusha, she had yet to explore an arts and crafts center called Cultural Heritage.
Cultural Heritage was a huge arts center that included the largest collection of Tanzanite gems. Our eyes sparkled just as much as the gems as we stared, but we quickly made our way to the large art gallery next door.
The gallery was fantastic! From architecture to content, the building fitted with stained glass window and spiraled around an impressive showcase boasting the most prominent aspects of African culture, from tribes to animals. There were plaques and framed letters of US presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton visits; too bad Obama wasn’t planning on coming to the Cultural Heritage center during his POTUS visit!
While roaming the town, we stumbled upon a library and nervously/curiously entered. To our surprise and shock, the library was absolutely crowded both on the basement and ground floor … on a beautiful Saturday afternoon!
As the adventurous young adults Leanna and I strive to be, we also called Saturday an early night in an attempt to relish our last night in a bed under a roof for the upcoming week. There were no regrets about our decisions Sunday morning when we were picked up by our hiking company and started making the short drive to the starting gate of the Machame route where we’d be spending the next 6 days.
At the entrance, we met our entourage – or as we endearingly nicknamed our crew: mantourage – which consisted of 2 guides, a chef, a waiter, a toilet-master, and 6 porters. 11 men to take care of 2 girls for 6 days. Yeah, the numbers seemed about right.
Leanna has camping experience and she was able to call our adventure the most luxurious camping she’s ever done. I, on the other hand, during this camping trip, gathered very high standards for what camping should be like; the disclaimer here being that our 6 day Mt. Kilimanjaro hike was enough camping for my lifetime. (I’ll probably avoid camping again at all costs, but make sure everybody knows about that one time I hiked to Africa’s rooftop in 6 days.) We were essentially waited on hand and foot: everyone in our mantourage (except for our guides) would race up and down the mountain much faster in order to have our campsite set up upon arrival. Leanna and I were woken up daily to a hot beverage delivered to our sleeping bags and there was even “warm water for washing” in buckets right outside our sleeping tent twice a day. There was no doubt we ate better on Mt. Kilimanjaro than in lower elevations when we were responsible for feeding ourselves.
Throughout our 6 day route, we made our way up to the nearly 6000 meter peak, Uhuru Point. The most pleasant surprise was reaching the summit on July 4th. I think it’s fair that students always get a burst of patriotism when abroad. Leanna and I may not have had an American flag to boast on Africa’s rooftop, but when we weren’t desperately trying to breathe oxygen into our lungs, we were radiating American vibes as best we could. Most of the hikers we ran into were American and reaching the summit not only felt like an escape from Africa, but also an escape from the real world.
…or maybe I was just feeling like there was some out-of-body experience happening because I was majorly oxygen deprived. I’m talking about a blood oxygen level hovering around 60%. This is when studying neurobiology serves as a disadvantage because I start listing all the neurons and organs that have most likely already suffocated to their demise. I wasn’t really aware of (or maybe I was denying) the severity of the situation. All I knew was that I was beyond super sleepy (on the verge of losing consciousness?) and very nauseous. I could n o t come to terms with not reaching the summit, especially after enduring so much dirt everywhere for so many days. I thankfully reached the top of the mountain with the hand-holding of my guide and raced down quickly after to chase some oxygen. Okay, so maybe Harvard kids are a little intense, but at least we’re not just intense about academics…?
It’s insane how many ecosystems you pass while hiking 6000 meters! We went through rainforests, deserts, heathers and moors! Mid-way through Day 2 of hiking, we were already above the clouds.
The views of fluffy beds of clouds beneath us were priceless. Clouds would often roll right through our hiking trails and provide a movie set-like backdrop; I’d have to cue Leanna here to mention all the Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones references I didn’t understand…
The entire week of hiking was not as physically rigorous as I thought it would entail – except for summit day of course. On summit day, you start hiking at midnight, trying to reach the peak around sunrise. This means you get very little sleep and it’s FREEZING. The wind was mercilessly whipping my face regardless of the direction I was facing.
I countered this by taking gulps of straight up glucose provided by my guides. Yet, This isn’t to say the the 6 day adventure wasn’t exhausting, but I’m confident that most people could handle the level of hiking difficulty! In my opinion, Mt. Kilimanjaro is less of a physical battle and more of a biological battle. You struggle with things out of your control – the two main things being the cold and the altitude. With four pairs of pants on, Leanna and I were equipped to fight the cold (although our painfully freezing fingers and toes wailed in disagreement – I was just happy I could still feel pain rather than having my extremities go numb!!). However, I struggled a ton on summit day with altitude sickness and experienced my first oxygen mask…an overload of scary excitement! University Health Services, UHS, and abroad programs partner up before students go abroad to ensure students have all their necessary vaccinations as well as appropriate medications (i.e. altitude/diarrhea pills). With their medical support, we were prepared as well as we could be for the hike but mountain conditions are so unpredictable!
I still think my most physically challenging quest was hiking the Colca Canyon in Peru last summer after my Summer Internship Program (SIP) with the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS), but summit day of Mt. Kilimanjaro was by far my most biologically challenging adventure. Is it ironic that I have Harvard to thank for an overwhelming majority of my blissful challenges whether that be academic, social, physical, and biological? College has definitely been a transformative and fulfilling experience if I’ve ever had one.
Overall, the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro was a super scary experience as it was happening and I’m lucky to say that I have no regrets. Reaching Africa’s rooftop was an experience unlike any other and I’m confident that this is a true statement I can continue to make throughout my life. It was my very first time doing anything of this kind – camping?? extreme mountain hiking?? Crazy.
You may have noticed that this blog sort of jumps all over the place. This can be explained by 1) my tendency to ramble, 2) all of my EMOTIONS – I’m so proud and happy for myself, for conquering something I didn’t even know was on my bucket list; but I’m also still debating whether or not it was stupid of me for doing something that brought me so close to kicking the bucket, and/or 3) the overload of events over the course of a single week that I’m still trying to process – I hiked ~19,500 feet, WHAT?!
Matters didn’t even really slow down off the mountain! We had scheduled one more day in the small town of Moshi which lies at the base of the mountain before returning to our internships. Plans were looking pretty grim as it seemed as if Leanna’s throat infection evolved into bronchitis during our hike. After consulting with a physician at the closest public hospital, Leanna chose to spend the day indoors. However, I met some New Zealand travelers in our hostel and ventured out with them to the nearby waterfalls and other attractions.
A week of pure nature without any responsibilities or distractions – amazing. I highly recommend it. But I have to admit it was really nice returning to civilization and being able to communicate with my family and friends regularly. And if we’re on the confession train here, I also hated returning to flooded inboxes and the guilt-driven impulse to reply immediately. Technology is such a double edged sword/catch 22. I have some really hefty travel plans for after my internship ends so we’ll have to wait and see how technology serves me then. Just 2 more weeks until my internship is over, but this in no way reflects that the summer is almost over!
Students tend to feel the stress of summer planning during the spring semester. To be fair, our month-long J-term (January break/winter break) has recharged and prepared us to tackle the extra load of stress; especially since final exams are now before – rather than after – the break.
I had one goal for this summer: go abroad. (My sub-goal was to secure a warm location that was conducive to tanning.) My aspiration isn’t unique and when there’s such a high demand to experience life abroad, Harvard tries to supply. There is a ton of support for students’ foreign aspirations such as the OIP (Office of International Programs) or its sister, the OIE (Office of International Education). From studying and interning abroad, if the variety of Harvard programs doesn’t fit your appetite, it’s not uncommon to apply to other universities’ programs. All the opportunities can be a little overwhelming and a little more difficult to navigate – but this is more of a good problem to have.
Last summer, I participated in the Summer Internship Program (SIP) through the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) in Lima, Peru where Harvard runs several summer programs. I had some friends who were based also in Lima, but were participating in the international summer undergraduate research fellowship (iSURF) program through the Global Health Institute. I filed the latter program’s name in the back of my mind when I learned that acceptance into the program came with automatic funding! The iSURF program supports 8-10 week projects all over the globe (with the SURF program supporting domestic projects).
With my endeavors to achieve a secondary (more commonly known as minors at other universities) in Global Health and Health Policy, I researched projects pertaining to nutrition and was ultimately placed in Tanzania for the summer to jump on board with clinical trials examining maternal health and nutrition in the context of malaria. Abroad? Check. Tanning potential? Very high. My summer internship offer was a once in a lifetime opportunity to pursue many “firsts”: venturing out to the African continent and acquiring experience in clinical research. If this isn’t the American dream, it’s definitely the premed dream coming into fruition.
In the midst of summer planning stress, it’s important to remember that with a little planning, we can make it something special. –> This was a cheesy-cute introduction of a current summer email thread among fellow summer interns in Tanzania. I like to think we’re a very eclectic group that’s not very representative of a normal population sample. Although a handful of us are still in our undergrad, most of my friends are 1) in grad school (studying something along the lines of international development), 2) have volunteered in the Peace Corps, and 3) have DC origins. We all came together in quirky ways – from a Harvard in Africa summer contact list to random chance encounters. Our “how we met” stories all seem very shady on both the surface and deeper levels, but the more important thing is that we’re sticking together while we’re grasping Tanzanian culture.
Our process of cultural immersion would most definitely be incomplete without a trip to Zanzibar.
Before arriving to Tanzania, I was ordered to go to Zanzibar by every single person I knew who has stepped foot in this wonderful country. The opportune weekend finally presented itself so my iSURF program partner and I extended the weekend from Friday to Monday. We spent four fabulous days and three glorious nights in Zanzibar with each night on a different part of the dream-like island.
My Zanzibar trip was phenomenal. The pictures don’t do the paradise island justice, but it’s much better than what I could describe with words! It’s dangerously easy to fall in love with the island and its crystal clear ocean. For the first time ever, I pet a tortoise, ate lunch in the company of a peacock and his mistresses, and went snorkeling. When I returned home, I promptly declared Zanzibar as my honeymoon trip.
My home for the summer is in Tanzania where my research is based. I’ll never turn down the opportunity to travel, but I do prefer to travel to one place for an extended period of time so that it feels more of a home rather than a layover; this is just about the only way to discover the nooks and crannies – the real character – of any location.
Studying/working abroad is what I call a staycation: not exactly a vacation, but definitely not real life either because hard hitting responsibilities can be as transient as Zanzibar beaches. My Zanzibar trip was a pure vacation. I was sad when my weekend in paradise came to an end, until I realized I was only leaving one beach vacation and returning to a staycation – I’m no doubt the luckiest girl in the world!
In an attempt to get more comfortable in my summer home, I discovered a group of expats in the area who meet weekly to dine in a new restaurant.
The week that I had joined this expat group of foodies, it was their 100th dinner and there was even a celebratory cake! It was both extremely intriguing and exciting to meet such a diverse group of people who had also made Tanzania their home from anywhere between a handful of weeks and up to 13 years! It’s always a refreshing experience to mingle with people who have gone through similar transition phases, Swahili learning curves, and culture shocks.
Speaking of shocks (warning: worst segue ever), my trip to Zanzibar was quite unexpected; but sometimes the best parts of traveling stem from flexibility. My iSURF program partner and I were initially planning on leaving the city to spend a week hiking to Africa’s rooftop – we wanted to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro, otherwise known as the highest peak on the African continent. Our plans were struck down due to calendar conflicts: Professor Wafaie, the Principle Investigator of my project (and an overall champ of every department ever), was traveling from Boston to Tanzania. All the postdocs I work with on a daily basis urged me to reschedule my Mt. Kilimanjaro climb which I did very willingly because I was excited to see the man in action!
I’m very content with the way things worked out. Professor Wafaie and I exchanged a few emails before last spring semester ended in an attempt to meet and acquaint each other before I started on his research project. However, the semester ended quicker than we anticipated and we settled for meeting in Tanzania. I finally got to meet him in a meeting which I anticipated to kind of just sit in on and observe. The highlight of the work-week was definitely when I contributed to the meeting – I felt like it was one of those moments that would have made Sheryl Sandberg proud.
This meeting was filled with all the head honchos of the medical school and our big team of researchers. You could sense the higher tensions all day in preparation for this meeting. I had been assigned to work on some blood samples for the day and I reported some numbers and statistics to my postdocs before the meeting. However, my overloaded postdocs were scrambling to locate the scratch piece of paper where they scribbled my numbers on so I spoke up and announced the numbers out loud, to which Professor Wafaie responded by thanking me personally! … !!
Best week ever.