Articles by Alissa D'Gama

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My last semester of college starts tomorrow (crazy!) and I like to think I have become a little wiser over the past four years. From my first trip to Nochs and my first all-nighter to writing my thesis and applying to MD/PhD programs, I have learned some useful do’s and don’t’s during the past four years.

1. Make sure to take classes you really like. Sure, most concentrations require introductory and mid-level courses that you may or may not love, but when you are choosing upper level courses and electives, take time to shop classes, read syllabi, and pick courses that you will enjoy taking. I have found that I learn the most when I am taking a course with subject matter that I am really interested in, and am pretty lucky to be taking classes this semester that I will really enjoy and that will be useful for the next couple years of my life.

2. Find a place on campus where you can study effectively, whether with your friends or with yourself. Freshman year, I lived in a six-person suite and studied in Lamont Library, where you can always find a fellow study-er. Sophomore through senior years I studied in my beautiful Mather single, although many of my friends cannot study in their rooms or they are at a high (around 90%) risk of falling asleep.

3. Take a break sometimes. Everyone I know at Harvard is involved in some combination of classes, research, extracurricular activities, community service – you name it, and someone is probably doing it! Every once in a while, if you feel stressed out, or have been sleeping less than you want to, take a break. Sleep and don’t set your alarm, catch up on your favorite TV show, go watch the BSO or one of Harvard’s many music and theater groups, eat a two hour dinner with friends, or go for a walk in Boston (assuming it isn’t -4 outside like right now). You will thank yourself later. (Also, learn to take naps. They are awesome. The red couches in the basement of Northwest Labs are particularly effective for this.)

4. Don’t focus on competition. Focus on yourself. This can be said for when you are applying to college, when you are in college, and when you are applying to fellowships, med school, law school, you name it. If you compete, compete with yourself. I find this quote by Eric Burns particularly apt: “Greatness is more than potential. It is the execution of that potential. Beyond the raw talent. You need the appropriate training. You need the discipline. You need the inspiration. You need the drive.”

5. Get involved in activities you are truly passionate about. Again, this can be said for high school, college, even (and maybe most importantly) your career. Try things out and find out what you like the best. Don’t do something just because it will look good. Do something because you will have fun doing it, and when you look back on the experience, you would do it all over again without hesitation.

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Although December brings reading period, papers, and finals (which I finally finished!) it also brings many holiday socials for student groups on campus. Since a lot of student groups transition boards between December and January, the meetings serve as a way for the graduating seniors to reflect and welcome the incoming board members.

My first was the Harvard Premedical Society’s annual holiday party, where the outgoing board participates in Secret Santa and, this year, played apples to apples and ate a delicious peanut butter cake cooked by one of our board members! Since I have been on the board since my freshman year, it was really sad to see my time come to an end—I have made some of my best friends at Harvard through HPS, and I’m going to miss it next semester. Here is almost the entire 2010 board!



The next day, I headed over to the Undergraduate Admissions Council social. We are a student group on campus that serves as the student arm of the Admissions Office, so for those of you who are accepted, you will receive a call from us in the spring and we will be behind the scenes making sure Visiting Weekend is a blast! We munched on appetizers and desserts in the Lowell House Small DHall and caught up with everyone to make sure we were all on track for next semester. My co-chair Ayse ’12 and I can’t wait to meet many of you in the spring!

A few hours after that, I walked up the stairs at 14 Plympton Street to the (somewhat) annual crimson superlatives. Of all the activities that are coming to an end in December, The Crimson has probably involved the most blood, sweat, tears—and joy!—and I will miss pitching stories and editing the paper into the wee hours of the morning. All the other news execs and I have spent so many hours together since our freshman year 🙁

Next semester is going to be so different now that my time with so many activities has ended. I’m heading home tomorrow morning, and I hope all of you have a lovely holiday season! I’ll be back in January when I’ll be working on my thesis during J-Term.

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Last night, my roommates and I were all in our suite at the same time—we weren’t at medical or graduate school interviews, The Crimson, our labs, a UC meeting, an evening section, or an IOP event…we were all home, and we were excited to spend a few minutes catching up before finals begin.

When anyone thinks about going to college, they think about what it will be like to have roommates. I remember how nervous I was the day of my freshman move-in—picking out my outfit (a striped pink-and-orange polo with jeans, as my current and freshman roommate Cara ’11 still remembers—in retrospect, her striped shorts and grey t-shirt was a much better idea as it was a ridiculously hot day), wondering who I would be sharing a room in my suite with, and what my roommates would be like.

All freshmen at the College live in one of the dorms in or around Harvard Yard—I lived in Weld, one of the dorms next to the University Hall and the John Harvard statue. After filling out my housing application, I found out over the summer before freshman year that I would spend the year in a six-person suite with two doubles and two singles. Our first day, my roommates and I picked our rooms out of our recycling bin (the only container not packed into a box of duffel bag) and I shared a long but somewhat narrow double with Cara ’11 the entire year (and it worked out! We have been roommates ever since 🙂 ).

During the second semester of freshman year, we got to form a blocking group, which is a group of up to eight students who will be placed together in one of the twelve upperclass Houses. Cara and I got placed in Mather House, along with a surprisingly large number of other Weld residents! Mather is an awesome house, and all of the undergrads living there get singles in suites all three years. Sophomore and junior year we lived in the lowrise, which has five floors and consists of duplexes, with a common room on one floor and bedrooms either on the floor above or below. This year, we are living in the tower on the seventh floor. I got pretty lucky and have an amazing room overlooking the Charles River. Here’s the view from my window!

We also have three other roommates—Ashley ’11, Camille ’11, and Emma ’11. One of the best parts about all the students at Harvard is the diversity of interests and activities everyone is involved in. Cara is a Psychology major who is an Exec on The Crimson’s Design Board, Emma ’11 is a History of Science concentrator who is one of The Crimson’s Design Chairs, Ashley ’11 is a Government concentrator who worked for First Lady Michelle Obama two summers ago, and Camille ’11 is a Physics and Astrophysics concentrator who has gone all over the world to take measurements and collect data on awesome telescopes—pretty cool!

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A few Sundays ago, my friend John ’11 and I sat ourselves down at au bon pain with some chai tea (my favorite kind! I actually don’t drink coffee, so tea is my 24-hour staple) and had a marathon study session for our midterm in American Health Care Policy. It was interrupted briefly by our two hour student study network for Life Sciences 1a—we’re both facilitators, which means we staff classrooms in the Science Center on Sunday night and help freshman with their problem sets.  Going through the sets of slides and taking turns explaining the concepts to each other, I started thinking about how awesome it was to be able to ask him what adverse selection meant and why moral hazard led to a welfare loss (things I can now explain and did explain on my midterm!) The morning of the midterm, he texted me asking a question and I later emailed him with my last-minute confusions. Since we became friends last year, I’ve known I can count on him.

That’s what I love about the students at Harvard. When I held the intro meeting for the Harvard Premedical Society during freshman week and our ice cream social during April Visiting Weekend, I got asked the same questions over and over again: Is Harvard competitive? Are all the students cutthroat? Coming to Harvard, I didn’t know what to expect, and listening to these students voice their concerns, I realized that for many, the atmosphere they encountered during April Visiting Weekend was an important factor in their decision to come to Harvard for college. So, what’s the truth? What are we like?

From my experience, Harvard students are the opposite of cutthroat. My friend John ’11 would always take time out of his studying to answer my questions about health care, even about things he already understood. When I went to a volunteering shift at Brigham and Women’s Hospital my freshman year and suddenly realized my problem set was due in 10 minutes, I called my roommate, who not only woke up, but found my problem set in the pile of papers on my desk, changed, and walked to the Science Center to drop it off for me in my Teaching Fellow’s box. Sophomore year, I remember having my blockmate Jeremy ’11 explain confusing concepts to me as we sat eating breakfast before our Molecular Biology midterm. Junior year, I asked countless MCAT questions to my friends Kevin ’11 and Eric ‘11—and since we took the MCAT on three consecutive Saturdays, we all went to Pinocchio’s, a local pizza place, for a late night dinner when the person taking the test got back from the testing center Saturday night as a mini-celebration. And now, senior year, my friends and I who are applying to medical school or MD/PhD programs are always there for each other—whether through text messages after a difficult interview, email encouragement, or interview prep the night before. We have each other’s back—that’s what matters, and that’s what it means to be a Harvard student.

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Since Punit just wrote about his experience with The Crimson’s “turkey shoot” I figured now would be a good time to add on my own thoughts.

Without a doubt, The Crimson has been one of the most memorable experiences of my time at Harvard College. We publish a newspaper five days a week (Monday through Friday) and have been around since 1873 (a pretty long time!). Every issue is the result of the hard work, dedication, and countless hours of many Harvard undergraduates—from the dayslotter (the person who pitches stories) to the reporters, editors, advertising managers, designers, photographers, and the proofer (the person in charge of the paper for the night)—and that’s not all! We have a total of 11 boards—News, Editorial, Business, Arts, Sports, FM (our magazine), Photography, Design, Video, Blog, and Information Technology—all staffed by Harvard students.

The fall of my freshman year I “comped” the New Board (the comp is The Crimson’s training process) during which I learned how to report and write news stories (for my first story, I got to Skype with a businessman from the Philippines who won an award from Harvard Business School). I spent the next two years as a beat reporter (which meant I was in charge of a specific area of reporting) on the Faculty Team. I loved being able to cover the sciences, especially by running our biweekly Science Page “The Cutting Edge,” which let me communicate exciting discoveries and thought-provoking issues in science and health to our readership—my favorite article was a feature I wrote on the doctor-patient relationship.

The fall of my junior year, I participated in the shoot process Punit is going through now and after a lot of schmoozes (a kind of interview with an outgoing executive) I became one of the News Executives. This meant I was part of a group of undergraduates who kept the News Board running smoothly—from pitching and editing stories to mentoring writers on our teams and being in charge of the paper for a night. Although this often involved pouring over newspaper pages for typos and inaccuracies until the early hours of the morning, its an awesome feeling to see the printed paper in your House’s dining hall the next morning and know you were the last person who looked over those pages and (tried to) make sure everything was perfect.

Right now, my time on The Crimson is approaching its end—once the new guard (including Punit!) is elected, I’ll be done. (My guard is the 137th guard, which means when we were executives in 2010, it had been 137 years since The Crimson was founded). This past week, I did the opposite of Punit, sitting in my dining hall from 9-5 interviewing all the juniors “shooting” for positions on the News Board. It’s bittersweet, especially for an activity that has taken countless hours since the beginning of my freshman year, forging friendships and camaraderie—many of us who are now News Execs have been together on The Crimson since freshman year.

If you have any questions about The Crimson, feel free to ask me in the comments below! If I had to repeat my time here, I would join the Crimson over again without hesitation.

(Also, because I thought it would be fun, you might have noticed that all of my blog posts are titled with the name or lyric from a song. This title comes from the first of The Lord of the Rings movies, The Fellowship of the Ring. In high school, my friend and I once stayed up watching all three extended editions in a row (a good 12 hours!) I love the series, and try to read the books once a year.)

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This fall brought the first of the lasts: my last first day of fall semester, my last move-in to my beautiful single in Mather House, my last Activities Fair. It was bittersweet, and I can’t believe I am already a senior!

Every semester at Harvard since my freshman fall, I have taken four classes, which is pretty normal. This year, one of my classes is Molecular and Cellular Biology 99, a full-year indivisible class for my Honors Thesis (most classes, however, are a semester long). Taking MCB 99 means that I am expected to go into my lab for at least 15-20 hours a week (in reality, a lot more) and take three other classes each semester. Having a lighter course load allows me to devote plenty of time and energy to my thesis project! At the end of our first semester in December, we are graded on the introduction and outline of our thesis, and at the end of spring semester, on the actual thesis! It’s pretty exciting to know that in March my thesis will be submitted J

As you can see from my course schedule below, my life looks pretty empty. However, lots of that time is spent in lab or extracurriculars, so it fills up pretty fast! Actually, I have very few hours of actual class time this year compared to previous years. As a science concentrator, many of the introductory and mid-level classes have lecture, section, and lab, which meant that freshman through junior year I could have as much as 25 hours of class a week.

My class schedule for senior fall

Psychology 16: Developmental Psychology is taught with the Graduate School of Education. We get to learn about how children develop from birth—how they attach to their mother, how they learn language, how they express emotions, and how they learn to lie! We have readings before lecture each week and have to write three papers throughout the semester, which isn’t too bad. Since I’m a Psychology secondary field, the class counts as one of my three electives for my secondary.

Psychology 1861: Developmental Psychopathology—you may have noticed a trend—I’m really interested in child development! This class looks at psychological problems and mental disorders in childhood and adolescence; for example, we have studied depression, anxiety ADHD, and autism. It is by far one of the best classes I have taken at Harvard, even though it’s four hours straight every Thursday (an hour of section followed by three hours of lecture!) What’s really nice about upper level classes is their size—this class has about 20 people, so we get to know each other and the Professor and Teaching Fellow really well. Although three hours seems like a long time, it goes by pretty fast—we normally cover lecture slides, several student presentations, and often have a guest speaker or get to Skype with one of the researchers we read about!

United States in the World 11: American Health Care Policy is, not surprisingly, about health care in America. It is a General Education class, and like many Gen Ed classes, meets twice a week for one and a half hours with a one-hour section once a week. Since I don’t have a background in health policy, it is really interesting to gain some understanding of our health care system and what the recent reform actually means!

Life Sciences 1a: An Integrated Introduction to the Life Sciences: Chemistry, Molecular Biology, and Cell Biology—I’m not actually taking this class (I took it freshman fall) but like I mentioned in my previous post, I’m one of the upperclass facilitators, so I have to either attend lecture or watch the lecture videos and read the notes to prepare for the student study networks where students can ask us about the class and get help on their weekly problem sets.

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So what do Harvard students actually spend their time doing? Although I can’t speak for everyone, here is what my typical day was like as a freshman, and, in the next blog entry, now, as a senior. Freshman year I relied on my Harvard planner, but since those aren’t being given out anymore :(, I am an avid user of Google Calendar. The ability to color-code my life makes running from classes to lab to meetings much more fun, although if my gmail decides to be temporarily unavailable I am in trouble.

Here is a typical week in my life, as seen from my gcal:

I’ve been told that the background makes my calendar much more confusing, but I love polka dots! Also, my Saturday looks deceivingly empty, but it is actually the day when I get most of my studying done—I try not to schedule any other meetings on Saturday so I can be as productive as possible.

My life wasn’t so exciting (or crazy) freshman fall, when I was just getting a feeling for what college in Boston was like after coming from a public high school in Tucson.

Alissa’s Day (Fall 2007)

5 a.m. My first alarm goes off. I set multiple alarms at least an hour apart so that I’m fully awake by the last one. (I also got up extremely early freshman and sophomore year.)

6 a.m. My second alarm goes off. I turn it off.

6:15 a.m. My third alarm goes off. I actually get out of bed in my double in Weld, one of the freshman dorms in Harvard Yard.

6:20-7:00 I go on a run around Harvard Square—if I’m not awake yet, the chilly air definitely does the trick.

7-7:30: I eat my yummy hot breakfast at Annenberg, the freshman dining hall that is basically a castle. Sundays are my favorite because I get to make Veritaffles! (otherwise known as waffles with the Harvard crest on them)

7:30-9:30: I catch up on reading. My productivity was at an all-time high fall of freshman year.

10:00-2:00: Lots of class! Depending on the day, I head to Life Sciences 1a, the gateway class for all the life science concentrations, First Nights, an amazing General Education class that studies five pieces of music, Math 19a, a math class about modeling for the life sciences, or Expos, the required expository writing class for freshman.

2:00-300: Time for lunch—meals are definitely one of the best parts of the day, especially when you eat with friends and get to hear everyone’s stories. In fact, one of my best friends just informed me that he might as well be a goldfish because he will “basically just eat until he dies.”

3:00-6:00: I would often head to The Crimson because I was comping the News Board and learning how to write and edit news stories. Once I started working in a lab, I would head over to my bench and do experiments. Although I haven’t made any exciting discovery yet, I have learned a lot about how the brain works and how to do basic science.

6:00-7:00: Food again, this time dinner.

7:00-9:00: Actual homework time! I would often do my problem set for Math 19a or revise yet another draft of my Expos essay while catching up with my roommates.

9:00-10:00 Hot shower and procrastinating until I go to bed (ie. checking my email, crossing off things in my planner, and checking my email again)

Today, as a senior, I’ve hopefully become a little bit wiser, and my circadian clock has shifted a few hours forward.

Alissa’s Day (Fall 2010)

7:00 a.m. First alarm. I generally ignore it and go back to sleep.

8:00 a.m. Second alarm. I wake up and turn it off.

9:00 a.m. Third alarm, and I get up! I then grab my glasses, pick up my Macbook from next to my bed, and check my email.

9:30-10:00 Shower to wake me up, check my email one more time, grab a toasted bagel with cream cheese from Mather House Dining Hall, and catch the Mather Express Shuttle to the Yard.

10:00-11:30 a.m. I head over to the Graduate School of Education for my Developmental Psychology class. I’m getting a secondary field in psychology, and I think it’s really cool to learn about how babies develop!

11:30-1:00 p.m. I make my way to the new Northwest Lab Building, where my lab moved the summer of 2008, drop off my backpack in the undergraduate room, and do some cool science at my bench—here’s my bench in a low entropy (surprisingly clean) state the week after we moved in. There are now a lot more bottles and tubes!

1:00-2:30 p.m. I head over to the Science Center to sit in on the Life Sciences 1a lecture with my bagged lunch from FlyBy (I eat a lot of PBJ sandwiches). Yes, I took the class freshman year, but I’m now a facilitator, which means I help freshman in the class with their problem sets and teach them how to draw amino acids like proline.

2:30-5:00 p.m. Back to lab. As a senior concentrating in Molecular and Cellular Biology, my fourth class is research for my senior thesis, so I end up being in lab 7 days a week taking care of my cells. Luckily, two of my blockmates John ’11 and Jeremy ’11 work in the same building so I always have a friend there! John ’11 is doing cool stuff with stem cells and Jeremy ’11 gets to go to Costa Rica to catch monarch butterflies.

5:00-6:00 p.m. Dinner with my friends Kevin ’11 and Eric ’11, both also board members of the UAC! We think of ideas for our spring break trip after our theses are turned in (theoretically) and try to figure out why our experiments aren’t working.

6:00-9:00 p.m. I head over to the Crimson, where I am one of the Senior Night Editors (SNEs) for the next day’s paper. I edit three different stories and then walk down Plympton St. to Quincy House

9:00-10:00 p.m. I hold the Harvard Premedical Society’s weekly board meeting as current President, and the board members update everyone on events like our surgery simulation and our volunteering and mentoring program.

10:00-11:00 p.m. Kevin ’11, Eric ’11, and I get some bubble tea from Boston Tea Stop and talk about our medical school interviews and the hardest questions we’ve gotten from interviewers. We hope we get in somewhere soon!

11:00-1:00 a.m. We head to one of our rooms and do work for a couple of hours. On any night, Kevin ’11 might be doing a literature search for his thesis introduction, I’m doing readings for my other psychology class, Developmental Psychopathology—which is awesome!—and Eric ’11 is redesigning a website.

1:00 a.m. I set my alarm for the next morning, rinse and repeat.

I actually get most of my work done on the weekends, and as you can see above, spend my weekdays between class, lab, and extracurriculars. It works for me, but everyone balances their college commitments in different ways. It’s busy, but it’s ridiculously fun and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

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