Goodbye, 2018!

White Mountains, NH

2017 was life-changing, but 2018 was nothing short of a rollercoaster. In 2018, I read, wrote, learned, traveled, made big decisions, took risks, and invested in many relationships that were important to me. 2018 brought this sense of urgency in everything that I did. Perhaps it was the sentimental feelings that came with graduating, or even just the general desire to seize my youth, but I felt that there was just so much to learn, to see, to process, and to grow towards, and that I needed to do it all now.

Perhaps the following reflects that sense of urgency in the things that ended up filling my year. So here I am, reflecting on some defining moments and themes of the last 365 days. Here is my 2018 through five different lenses: 1) adventure, 2) sounds, 3) reads, 4) science, and 5) faith:

2018, by adventures
If there’s one object I used the most frequently in 2018 (besides my daily essentials), it would have to be the AWAY suitcase that I got for Christmas last year (thanks Mom!). I spent every weekend from January to March flying out for grad school interviews. It was an exhilarating, yet exhausting time. I distinctly recall dragging my suitcase up the narrow staircase of our apartment after each return from the airport, and subsequently collapsing on my soft, carpeted floor 😛 But despite the obvious exhaustion, these were some of the best months of my life, and were moments in which I knew that neuroscience was my calling (I know, cheesy.). I met some incredible people on these visits, many of whom are now in my cohort and have become my close friends.

Besides traveling for interviews, I also had the privilege of spending most of my summer abroad: first to Southeast Asia with some close girlfriends from college, and then to China to visit relatives–some that I hadn’t seen in over five years, some that I had never even met before. In China, I went backpacking alone for the first time in the Wuyi Mountains. It’s hard to even begin describing the sense of wonder and aloneness I felt as I wandered in fog and amongst bushes of tea plants. It was eerie, yet invigorating. There’s something calming about rural China. The air is clear; the pace of life, slow. I felt so much peace, being alone. It might have been the most peaceful moment of this, otherwise chaotic, year.

Upon my return to the States, I did some hiking with friends in California and Colorado, enjoying the company of people that I knew I wouldn’t get to see in a long time and celebrating the engagement of two close friends! Then, a couple weeks before I moved to Boston, my family took a road trip from New York City up to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, where I somehow tricked them into doing a 10-hour hike with me. No, we did not bring enough food or water. Yes, we survived 🙂 Let’s just say it was a great family bonding experience, and that we never took precious H2O for granted again…

After having traveled so much in the first half of the year, I was relieved to finally settle down in cozy Cambridge, MA. Besides our program’s student retreat at Woods Hole and a short weekend trip to NYC for my best friend’s birthday, I snuggled up in my new home and thanked the heavens for not having to live out of a suitcase anymore 🙂

Sometime in late-September, a late-night conversation with a close friend led me to book a spontaneous trip to Seattle, and so I spent a weekend there in early-December catching up with college friends, eating delicious food, and falling on my butt a hundred times while learning to snowboard.

All in all, in 2018 my suitcase and I saw:

  • Boston, MA
  • New York, NY
  • San Francisco, CA
  • Berkeley, CA
  • Stanford, CA
  • Princeton, NJ
  • Baltimore, MA
  • Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
  • Bangkok and Phuket, Thailand
  • Singapore, Singapore
  • Hong Kong, China
  • Xiamen, Longyan, and Songxi, China
  • Wuyi Mountains, China
  • Denver, CO
  • Providence, RI
  • Lincoln, NH
  • Woods Hole, MA
  • Seattle, WA
  • Austin, TX

2019 is sure to bring new adventures! As of now, I’m looking forward to my first trip in Europe (Portugal!), as well as escapades to Nova Scotia, Canada, Denver, CO, and Phoenix, AZ. I am so thankful that grad school has provided me the flexibility to travel more, and though I haven’t gotten around to writing any travel blogs, perhaps I’ll find the time to document one of my trips sometime next year 🙂

2018, by sounds
If you know me, you’ll know that music (especially classical music) is a huge part of my life. Songs and pieces have defined periods of my life for as long as I can remember, weaving themselves into the very experiences that they happen to coincide with.

They always said college would fly by, but the sentiments that filled my last few months at Rice seemed to drag on for an eternity. Many of these emotions were so perfectly captured by the Emerson Quartet‘s performance of Barber’s String Quartet No. 2 that I saw in April. It would be the last performance in Stude Hall that I would see as a Rice student. Words are lacking when it comes to depicting the tug-of-war between anguish and relief that the Quartet so beautifully painted during this intimate performance. In many ways it paralleled the heights of happiness and depths of heartbreak that I had the privilege of experiencing during my formative four years in Houston.

Moving from Houston to Boston was such an exciting choice for me–I knew that I would miss the arts scene in Houston (Museum District, the Menil, Rothko Chapel, Houston Symphony, etc.), but I also anticipated Boston’s own beautifully-curated selection of music and art. I was beyond thrilled to find out that HMS-affiliated students get free tickets to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and was floored by their performances of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite, and Mahler’s Symphony No.2 and No. 5 this Fall season. These were sounds of invigorating new beginnings.

But perhaps the most unexpected musical experience I had this year was with a bunch of Episcopalians and spiritual hipsters at the beautiful St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. Thanks to some spontaneous decision-making, I found myself attending Compline, an evening choral service that attracted the religious and non-religious alike. People flooded the cathedral, some sitting in the pews and others lying on the hard floor, taking in the beautiful acoustics as a male choir sang holy creeds, Gregorian chants, and passages from the Psalms. I’ve always loved the drone of ancient monastic chants and the unique quality of Gregorian modes, but to experience it in 2018 in a church full of diverse individuals made it all the more sacred, peaceful, and oddly unifying in our, otherwise divisive, modern society.

These are only a few snapshots of the sound bites that consumed my memories in the past year. Other noteworthy artists included SALES, the angsty Daniel Caesar, and the lovely Ariana Grande. Oh, and as always, a good sprinkle of some old 2000’s RnB.

May 2019 bring more symphony concerts, more jazz(!!), new artists, perhaps a festival or two, and even a healthy dose of silence every now and then to prevent sounds from becoming noise…

2018, by reads
I’m so glad 2018 was the year in which I started reading regularly again. I’ll be the first to admit that reading books was one of those things that always fell second to reading other things that seemed more digestible (in length), like the news, academic papers, blog posts, etc. However, I must say that the content of books, unlike short articles, tend to stay in my thoughts for much longer and are more likely to leave a lasting impression on me, which makes them all the more rewarding 🙂

In 2018, I had the pleasure of reading:

  • Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg
  • Deep Work, Cal Newport
  • The Power of Habit, Charles DuHiggs
  • The Formula, Lazlo Barabasi
  • The Bright Hour, Nina Riggs
  • Reborn, Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963, Susan Sontag
  • The Future of the Brain, edited by Gary Marcus and Jeremy Freeman
  • Advice for a Young Investigator, Santiago Ramón y Cajal
  • Your Brain is a Time Machine, Dean Buonomano
  • The Meaning of Marriage, Tim Keller
  • A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis

In all honesty, I wish I had a little bit more organization and diversity in terms of my reading list. I usually find myself reading books 1) that my friends suggest to me, or 2) that reflect things I’m thinking through. My list seems to reflect my wandering in pursuit of optimal productivity and success, my searching for the perfect thesis topic, and contemplative angst about meaning and value of life and life events, haha. Anyways, having noticed these trends, I want to mix it up a little in 2019 and go back to some classics–Steinbeck, Orwell, Huxley, Woolf–and definitely more philosophy–Camus, Kuhn, Plato, Nietzsche.

2018, by science
I could probably write a whole separate post about my first semester of grad school, but I figured I could just write a post reflecting on the whole first year, come July. What I can say for certain at this “first semester” mark is that interviewing for and entering graduate school broadened my outlook about the field in so many unexpected ways.

Starting back in January, I had the amazing privilege of meeting and talking science with some of the most respected PIs in neuroscience. I learned so much just by listening to them describe their recent work and by asking each one of them for scientific advice. Maybe one day I’ll write a more organized post about this, but for now, here the top three themes I gleaned from all of the solicited and unsolicited advice I received:

  1. Choose a lab where the questions and papers excite you, where there is freedom for innovation and risk. Don’t always pursue the current “hot topic” in the field, because trends quickly change.
  2. Solidify your computational skills!
  3. Find scientific and social communities that will support you.

I had a massive crises choosing where to attend grad school, but looking back, I must say that the advice my undergrad PI gave me was 100% correct: in a sense, it doesn’t really matter where you choose to get your PhD. What matters is what you make of your experience.

I went into interviews with a story woven by my past research experiences: I wanted to “understand the computations underlying the transformation of behaviorally-relevant sensory information into purposive actions.” But once I was in, I felt an urgency to have to learn everything at once. The blessing (and sometimes curse) of being a scientist is that so many things interest you! In the past few months, I’ve dabbled in information theory, reinforcement learning, and even some behavioral economics; yet, it feels as if the more I learn, the more I realize how much I have yet to learn. I still don’t really know what I want to study, and my folder of potential thesis topics is kind of all over the place. While there’s not much of conclusion for me in terms of what I’ll be studying for the next five years, I’m cherishing the time I have just to explore in my rotations.

In August, I published my blog post on the PhD application and interview process and was thrilled to see it reach so many people (1.7k and counting!). It was my first content piece that I was truly proud of, and I found myself excited every time I received another email requesting for more advice. On the subject of mentorship, I found awesome new spaces to mentor and to teach again, two things I really missed doing ever since I left Rice.

Grad school has been challenging, yet so rewarding. I feel so incredibly privileged to be given the freedom and support to tackle whatever questions that interest me. However, as many have written about before, it can also be a time of massive imposter syndrome, isolation, and even depression. My classmate and friend shared this blog post with me a few months ago, and I found it so accurate to my own feelings of inadequacy. But the good news is, it’s unlikely that anyone is alone in these thoughts. I thought opening a forum for personal stories and discussions would be a great idea, and so with the support of my program, I hope to bring a chapter of Growing Up in Science to Harvard in 2019 🙂

I’ll wrap this up by saying that PI advice point #3 is sooo true. It’s increasingly apparent to me how important it is to have social and community support throughout grad school to ensure a productive and happy PhD. As for me, I’m glad to have classmates and roommates who openly discuss these issues, and thankful for the academic communities at Harvard and MIT that are both collaborative and scientifically rigorous.

I look forward to joining a lab in 2019, kicking my imposter syndrome in the butt, and hopefully writing more science stuff on this blog! 2019 will see my second time attending Cosyne (which I hope to blog about again). When that time comes, I hope to have much to share about how computational and systems neuroscience has changed in the three years since I last attended 🙂

2018, by faith
There is a lot I can write about in terms of my faith and spirituality, but perhaps one of the main questions that defined my year with regards to my belief system was meaning.

Some backstory: for those that don’t know me well, I was raised in a Christian family and later on came to adopt the faith as my own. With that statement comes a lot of backstory, several bouts through atheism, and lots of questions (that still linger). Today, I am thankful to have joined a church in Cambridge (Aletheia Church) that is full of intellectual energy and passion for Biblically-sound teaching.

I’ve always liked asking “why?” (perhaps the biggest reason I’m pursuing science today), and this year, I found myself repeatedly asking the question (to myself and others), “why is there meaning to anything?” People differ in their understanding of meaning in life; some people settle for the belief in that there is none. This year, I became very close to a friend of mine who enjoyed involved discussions about anything from the historicity of Jesus’s resurrection to probabilistic explanations for subjective evidence in religion. (Sorry, that was a mouthful). At this point, my friend is an agnostic (and btw, probably one of the smartest people I’ve ever met). However, he also ascribes to the idea that he should believe whatever makes the most sense, which is an outlook that I really admire. Recently, we discussed why there was meaning to anything while sipping cocktails in Manhattan:

So, people say they pursue their passions because it gives them meaning and a purpose in life. But isn’t that all arbitrary at the end of the day? Because what if we assign meaning and purpose to something we like and are good at in order to give ourselves motivating factors? 

But why is it that when we attain the next “best” thing, there is always a feeling of emptiness, of needing more? Why is it never enough? What if there was objective meaning, real truth, and we just haven’t found it?

Why is it that laws exist, and that they mean something? Why is it that we can even describe biological systems using math, and derive meaning from it? Why, even in science, do we conclude that “we see response y to manipulation x, and this means…” Is this simply manufactured objectivity?

Why, if there was no Creator, did something come out of nothing? Simply by probabilistic chance? Like the multiverse theory? And does Occam’s razor do anything for us when it comes to understanding why we’re even here in the first place?

I thought this conversation was pretty representative of the various thoughts about meaning that I sifted through this year. I know my stream-of-consciousness was about as inconclusive as it gets, but perhaps one day I’ll find the headspace and resolve to write about the answers that I’ve reached. My mom once told me that thinking too much can be torturous, and though I agree with her to some extent, I would say that these mental exercises have helped me better understand why I believe what I believe and to practice a faith with full conviction; a faith that is not blind.

I know that this particular section was quote focused on this one particular aspect of my faith. There is so much more I learned this year with regards to the central values of Christianity–love, grace, sacrifice, forgiveness, redemption… But for what it’s worth, I guess what I really wanted to put out there was that though I am a practicing Christian, I will be the first to say that I haven’t figured it all out in terms of my religious beliefs. Knowing that, my hope is to create more opportunities to understand different world views in the new year, and in particular how they ascribe meaning to our ephemeral lives. And if anyone reading this is ever curious about why I’m a Christian or what it really means to be one (as opposed to what certain political figures make it seem like…), I would love to chat about it.

And…that’s it! If you happened to make it this far into this post–wow, thanks for being an audience for my inner monologue. Some conclusive-ish thoughts: 2017 was about giving thanks and 2018 was about finding independence. This was a year filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. I was stretched and challenged in so many ways, and became ever the more grateful for the people in my life that supported me through it all–family, friends, classmates, roommates, and mentors–these are the humans without whom I would be nothing.

Though new years are really just arbitrary time-markers, I knew it was important for these next 365 days to be even more focused and energized than the last. My hope and prayer is that 2019 will be a year for discipline in every aspect of my life.

With love,


1 thought on “Goodbye, 2018!”

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