Thursday, September 30, 2004

Great picture of me

.... in an article on Catholic all-boy schools. [Scroll down a bit and read the caption for the picture on the right].

And here I thought I was an adult black male in grad school. Imagine my surprise when I found out that I'm actually a Hispanic ? Indian ? sixth grader.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

And the award for shittiest customer service goes to ...

Mathworks, the makers of Matlab software, for encouraging software piracy by not giving their customers any other options.

For one of my courses, I need to use Matlab [a mathematics program] a lot. Now, the base version of Matlab doesn't come with all the bells and whistles, you have to buy those extra. Fine, I can understand the desire to not give everything away at once. For my next homework, I need a set of functionality that I don't currently have, so I went to their website to purchase this extra "toolbox", as it's called. And that's where things started getting silly: their website informs users of their Student version [which I have -- the commercial edition costs $1900 ...] that "
We've just released a new version of our product. The old Student version functionality is currently no longer available. We expect to make a new Student version available sometime in October."

In other words, "If you use our Student version and need to upgrade your functionality in any way, you're screwed until we release the new version and charge you again for it".

To make sure I wasn't just misinterpreting what's on their website, I called customer service. The conversation went something like this:

Me: "I have your student version and need to get an extra toolbox"
Customer Service Rep: "... Currently unavailable .... Not sure when new version will be available ... blah blah ... Apologize for any inconvenience"
Me: "So, basically, I'm screwed ?"
CSR: "Well, not exactly in those words, but, yes"
Me: "Does this make any sense to you ?"
CSR: "I just say what they tell me to say"
Me: "You realize that you're pushing people towards piracy, right ?"
CSR: "uhm, mumble, mumble, I ... uh ... I just say what they tell me to say ... What you choose to do ... uh ..."

End result: one new person [ie me] who won't ever purchase anything from this company again, unless I have absolutely no other choice.

Time to pursue, uhm, alternative options for getting what I need.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Rockstars of science

The Scientist has an article on synthetic biology titled "Cells by Design". What I find interesting about the article isn't so much what's in it as what's not in it, namely any mention of either Drew Endy or Tom Knight, the two people at MIT working on this. It mentions things like the Synthetic Biology conference, the BioBricks effort and rebuilding the Mycoplasma genitalium microbe's genome, all of which were/are headed by Drew and Tom, but not their names. That seems a bit odd. My guess is that it was a very conscious choice -- Drew especially has gotten a lot of press but hasn't published any papers in this area for the last few years, so I suspect that whoever wrote the article took the approach of "Until he actually publishes some real science, there's no need to give him any more publicity" ie kind of a reverse Anna Kournikova [never won a major tournament or cracked the top ten in tennis, but lots of media attention] effect. Personally, I have no doubts that he's going to publish some kick-ass papers relatively soon -- his lab is up and running, the idea of Synthetic Biology is seeded pretty widely and there's a scientific community around it, so he's got a foundation on which to build and start doing some hardcore science.

I thought this was an interesting reminder of the fact that science is still very much a human and social enterprise, with the same sorts of forces at play as in any other field of human life.

Of course, I could also be totally off-base in my speculations and talking through my hat.

Monday, September 27, 2004

"My crystal ball sees a lot of math in your future ..."

My recent experiences reading papers about mathematical models of biological systems can be summed up by something like this:

[start reading the section describing the model]
"Ok, I understand where that equation comes from ..."
[
read equation, do a bit of algebra in my head]
"Ok, I understand where that equation comes from ..."
[
read next equation, try to do it in my head, fail, scribble a bit on a piece of paper]
"Ok, got that bit"
[
read next equation, scribble a lot, finally get it]
"Uhm, ok, I guess"
[
read next equation, scribble a lot, don't even get close to it]
"Ok,I'll just take your word for that"
[read next equation, have zero clue what they're even talking about]
"I guess it's time to skip to the next section ..."

So, it's become pretty clear that I'm going to need to learn a bunch more math if I want to be in a position to understand and critically analyze existing models as well as build my own. The high-level list of math that I think I need is

- linear algebra [always thought this was boring, so never wanted to take it as an undergrad]
- statistics & probability [beyond "what is the probability of a die showing 4 after one throw ?" ;-)]
- differential equations, both ordinary and partial [I took one course on ordinary differential equations, but all the stuff I covered takes up just the first half of the introductory, undergrad course on differential equations offered here ...]
- multivariable calculus [learned some of this in college, so hopefully it shouldn't be too hard to relearn]
- nonlinear dynamics [that's the theory underlying all those pretty pictures of chaos and fractals that were so popular a few years ago]

In other words, it's a depressingly long list. If I wanted to take courses on all of these, I'd be here a really long time, so that's not really an option. If I'd known this is where I was going to end up, I'd have traded a couple of my "oh, why not ?" undergrad courses for more useful material ;-)
I suspect that I'll take a couple of courses and just have to learn the rest myself as I go along. Fun times ...

Is The Institute becoming a kinder, gentler place ?

Two data points make me wonder whether MIT is moving away a bit from its notoriously hard-edged attitude towards education:

1. The class I'm picking up after dropping graduate biochemistry has its first problem set due Oct 5th, a month after classes started. That's pretty much unheard of. And it's not even a difficult problem set -- in an hour, I've already managed to get about 50% of it done. That also seems unusual for a graduate class. I almost feel disappointed ;-)

2. One of the mandated classes for the Bioengineering PhD students is BE.430 ["Fields, Forces and Flows in Biological Systems"], which basically attempts to cram everything a bioengineer might find relevant about electromagnetism, fluid mechanics and heat and mass transport into a single semester. Given that each of these areas is normally a full course [or more] in its own right, that's obviously a tall order, and I'd heard that it was a pretty rough course. The people taking the class got their first problem set a couple of weeks ago and it basically kicked their asses. Now, I would have guessed that the professor's response to their complaints would have been "Life is hard, wear a helmet" [ie "deal with it"]. However, he apparently responded by telling people that he'd heard the previous problem set was difficult, so he was going to make the next one easy [and actually did so]. Maybe the next problem set is going to be a real bear again, but the mere fact that the professor relented, even a little bit, is surprising to me.

Maybe MIT is becoming a kinder, gentler place, just like Microsoft ;-)


Thursday, September 23, 2004

Bait and switch

After 2 weeks of my grad biochemistry course, I've decided that I'm going to drop it and pick up another course. It's not because of the workload -- that's actually been much less painful than I feared and I've been doing ok on the assignments. It's because I'm missing the big picture -- since I never took an undergraduate biochemistry course which would tell me "what we know" [ie what the major biochemical reactions and mechanisms are], it's a bit hard to get very much out of a course that tells me "how we know what we know" [ie that tells me how to design experiments to figure this stuff out]. It's kind of like learning how to build or repair a car engine without really knowing what its for, or how to drive.

The sticky bit is that I have to pick up another course two weeks into the semester. Thankfully, I've found one that I think I can make up without too much trouble because it's a quantitative course [ie there isn't a whole lot of reading I've missed] and the first homework in the course was assigned yesterday and is due in about 2 weeks [which, btw, is pretty much unheard-of around here -- most courses pile on the homework right from the get-go]. The course is called "Systems Biology" [7.81] and is also about building computational models of biological systems. What I like about it is that it covers a lot of different systems and scales ie it's a bit of a survey course, which is always useful when starting out in a field.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Summary of the first complete week

Here's what I've figured out after my first complete week of classes at The Institute:

- You definitely get your money's worth as far as education is concerned. There's an incredible amount of material packed into each lecture. I have to write furiously to keep up and at the end of each one, I have 3-4 pages packed full of equations or notes on the slides used by the professor. The problem with having to write as fast as you can just to keep up is that you don't really have the chance to think hard about what's being talked about or recall much of what the lecture was about. I guess that's what the problem sets are for; they definitely force you to think about what was talked about in class and try to extend it to apply to the question being asked.
- The workload [3 classes + a lab rotation] seems to be the equivalent of a 60-70 hour work week. I'm trying to treat it as much like a job as possible ie I'm trying to get the majority of my reading and homework done while on campus so I don't have to work very much at home. That's in contrast to most of the other students I've talked to so far, most of who have no work experience -- they can't actually fathom the idea of doing "real" work during the day, beyond going to classes, and rely on getting it all done at night.
- The fact that in graduate classes virtually everybody either gets an A or a B and grades generally don't really matter [unless you totally flunk a course] means there's much less pressure to get every last point out of a problem set. That in turn translates into needing to know when you've reached the point of diminishing returns, beyond which the amount of time required to get those last few things absolutely right just isn't worth it.
- While there probably are people in my classes who are orders of magnitude smarter than me, they're not in the majority. I can hold my own and things that I don't understand tend to confuse other people as well. That's a bit of a relief -- I was worried about being the class dummy. Well, strictly speaking, in my grad biochemistry class, I probably am the class dummy, but it's not because everybody else is smarter than me, it's because a lot of it has to do with experimental procedures which I'm simply not familiar with. When it comes to the more quantitative stuff, I'm right there with the rest of the class. The twisted thing about it is that I think I was actually more confident coming in than a lot of other people are, having survived 7 years at MS among lots of very smart people -- apparently a lot of students, especially those who didn't go to MIT as an undergraduate, have lots of doubts about whether they really belong there, whether they were let in by mistake etc. So if I was a bit worried, I wonder what it must be like for somebody who doesn't have that sort of self-validation to fall back on.

On to the next week ...

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

O'Reilly FooCamp does biology

It's the circle of blog, or something like that: I skim Robert Scoble's blog; he just blogged about attending O'Reilly's FooCamp, at which Drew Endy presented a session on building biological systems and I'm about to start a month-long rotation working on modeling gene expression levels in Drew's lab.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Smelly critters, glowing critters and wise elders

Last night we were treated to an olfactory feast, sort of -- we had two skunks fighting outside our apartment. We're three floors up and the smell still woke me up. It's quite amazing that something that small can smell that bad ...

And, while we're on the topic of critters that do weird things, the Hawaiian bobtail squid is a pretty weird and amazing critter. It lives in symbiosis with luminescent bacteria and uses them as camouflage at night. It lives in shallow water, and so would be visible in moonlight, except for this nifty trick: it senses the amount of moonlight hitting it and adjusts the light it reflects from the bacteria living inside it such that it doesn't cast a shadow. And, since it has to feed the bacteria, which is a drain to do, it squirts them out in the morning, when it goes to sleep, and then re-ingests them in the evening, when it wakes up. The bacteria themselves are pretty amazing: they only glow if there are a lot of them, via a phenomenon called "quorum sensing". In quorum sensing, the bacteria actually "communicate" with each other and then, depending on their number, decide whether to take a particular action or not. Not only cuddly, light-emitting bacteria do this: cholera bacteria use this mechanism to sense when there are enough of them that they can probably overpower the immune system. If there are, they emit their toxin that causes the diarrhoea etc associated with cholera; if there aren't, they just chill out until there are enough of them. The innovative mechanisms Nature has come up with continue to surprise me [and will probably do so forever] ...

I learned all this today at one of the weekly seminars held by the Biology department. Not only was that seminar illuminating, it was also populated by "smart old dudes" -- there were a bunch of professors who must have been in their 70's and 80's sitting in the front row. They all had snow-white hair and proceeded to interrogate the seminar speaker after her presentation. I just found it a weird juxtaposition to have them sitting in the middle of a bunch of people in their 20's and 30's -- not something you see a lot, at least in the corporate world.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Pictures of our new surroundings

Friday, September 10, 2004

It's confirmed: biochem is going to put the hurt on me

The first problem set for my graduate biochemistry class was just posted, and has exposed the depth of my ignorance. From a brief look at the questions, I don't even understand what's being asked in about 60% of them, so first I have to go figure out what the hell they want to know and then I get to start on actually figuring out the answer. Most of the problems seem to be of the "Design an experiment to determine X" or "Explain the apparently anomalous results of experiment Y" type, which is rather problematic for me, given that I know virtually nothing about the techniques used or the design and interpretation of experiments in biology.

The only saving grace, and admittedly it's a very big one, is that the problem sets in this class aren't actually graded. But I still have to do them or I'm going to get slaughtered on the exams.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Day 2 of classes at The Institute

Day #2. Only one class today, Biological Engineering 420 -- Biomolecular Kinetics and Cellular Dynamics. The course description for this is:

Fundamental analysis of biological rate processes in terms of approaches based in chemical reaction kinetics. Topics include binding and hybridization interactions, enzyme reactions, metabolic cycles, gene regulation, receptor/ligand systems, intra- and inter- cellular signalling, and cell population dynamics.

What that means, in plain English, is:

- 20+ hours of homework a week
- writing a lot of code to solve differential equations in Matlab
- a problem set every week, due on Thursday. I've gotten used to the whole one-problem-set-a-week-starting-now bit, but the kicker about this one is that apparently it will usually be the case that you need the material that's covered in class on Tuesday in order to do the homework that's due 2 days later, on Thursday. I think that's sick and wrong -- it basically means that you should count on spending lots of time on Tuesday and Wednesday frantically trying to finish off the homework.

I've also started using the "office space" we've been assigned. It's in the basement and consists of two [windowless] rooms with a bunch of desks lined up against the bare white walls and some very, very old equipment [like a circa 1970's computer screen] randomly sitting around. Absolutely nothing else in those rooms. Very warm and cozy ... I'm starting to get a full appreciation of the "Adversity makes you stronger" philosophy that seems to permeate "The Institute", as it's apparently called by the cognoscenti [ie students & faculty].

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

We are Grateful to the Dead

... for giving us something as cool as the Forest Hills Cemetery, which Christina and I visited a couple of days ago. It's a 10-minute walk from our apartment, yet another cool park-like thingy [in addition to the Arnold Arboretum and Jamaica Pond] that's near us. Our area of Jamaica Plain is definitely Where The Green Things Are.

Anyway, back to the cemetery -- the people who are buried there were pretty serious about reminding the living that they [the dead] used to be alive [or, as Christina pointed out, reinforcing that they're now dead]. The vast majority of the graves aren't marked by something as trifling as just a tombstone, but by rather large, ornate sculptures in metal and stone and mausoleums, all set in very pretty surroundings. For you Lord of the Rings fans -- imagine what a cemetery in Rivendell or the city of Gondor, with their imposing architecture, would look like and you'll get a pretty good idea of what this cemetery is like. Or, an easier way to visualize it is to just check out the pictures at this link ;-)

One of the best things about it is that it's very quiet -- it's not exactly a place where lots of people go to hang out and picnic, so it's the perfect place to just walk around, look at pretty things and just chill out. I'm looking forward to checking it out during the fall, when the leaves are changing color and in winter, when everything is covered in snow.

Back into the classroom

First day of class yesterday. I checked out 4 classes:

8:30-9am: Sat in on first 30 mins of undergrad biochemistry class (5.07). Lots of people, pretty much starts with a problem set handed out that's due next Wednesday, and then a quiz on Friday. A look at the syllabus shows that this course is going to cover a lot of material at a pretty rapid pace ie it's a jam-packed survey course. While it's probably useful material to know, it's not something I'm super-excited about.
9-11am: Graduate biochemistry class (7.51). The instructor said up front that this is not intended to be a graduate version of the undergraduate class ie it's not a wide-ranging survey course packed full of facts that need to be memorized. Rather, it's intended to teach us how biochemists think and how they approach problems. The lecture itself was relatively easy to follow, though I felt like I was about half a step behind most people in the class when it came to answering the questions the professor asked, but I suppose that's to be expected since I haven't learned how to think about this problem space yet. All in all, I'm optimistic that I'll be able to stick with this course. Of course, the professor did say that he was going to start slowly and then ramp up, so maybe my optimism is a bit too early ...
noon - 1 pm: Sat in on probability class (6.431). Another large class, with lots of undergrads, that also had a problem set handed out that's due next week. Don't think I'm going to take this course, I was mainly checking it out in case both biochemistry courses don't pan out.
1pm - 3pm: Microbial physiology class (7.21). Seems like a pretty relaxed course -- there are only about 20 people and the professor says that they "occasionally" give out problem sets that aren't graded, that there will be three exams of which one will be open-book, that he's not really concerned about grades and that since he doesn't have a set amount of material to cover, he's happy to spend more time on particular topics of interest. Now that's my kind of class =) Another point in its favour is that part of the course is taught by Boris Magasanik, who is in his eighties and was basically around at the dawn of molecular biology, so he'll be able to give a good historic perspective.

So, 2 good courses, 2 bad courses. I'm not sure yet whether I'll be able to take 7.21 without having an 80-hour week because of the load due to my 3 other classes and lab rotations. It'd be a pity if I couldn't at least sit on it because it sounds like a really interesting course, all my lab rotations will be with people working with bacteria and/or other microbes and who knows how long Magasanik is going to keep teaching the course ...

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

T-12 hours and counting

In just about 12 hours, at 8:30 am on Wednesday, it's going to become serious -- I'll have my first class and the new chapter in our lives will have fully begun. Exciting, but also a bit scary.

At least I didn't spend today doing a bunch of school-related stuff, which I was going to do until Christina, bless her, put things into perspective for me by saying "Look, today is the last day for 5+ years when you don't have to think about classes, homework, research or a thesis. Do yourself a favor and don't think about school today". So I didn't -- we spent the day puttering around Somerville, the neighborhood I used to live in when I worked in Boston for a year. We walked by my old place and the owners seem to have decided to plant some fruits and vegetables but not actually look after them, so the garden looked overrun, with tons of fruit and vegetables just asking to be picked. Never one to be asked that question twice, Christina had a good time picking some raspberries, peaches and tomatoes right off the vine/tree/shrub/whatever. Other than that, the neighborhood still looks pretty much the same, nothing very exciting to report there.

Tick, tock, tick, tock ...


Sunday, September 05, 2004

How much are an arm and a leg worth in dollars, Mr.Publisher ?

The publishers of textbooks are highway robbers, plain and simple. To date, I've shelled out close to $400 for textbooks, and that's for only 2 classes. To wit:

"Biochemistry, Vol 1: Biomolecules, Mechanisms of Enzyme Action and Metabolism", by Donald Voet: $119.95
"Biochemistry, The Expression and Transmission of Genetic Information", by Donald Voet: $33.71
"Organic Chemistry", by JohnMcMurry: $155.00
"Receptors: Models for Binding, Trafficking and Signaling", by Doug Lauffenburger: $65.00

Grand total: ~$370, for 2 classes. That's just absurd.

The largest share of the insanity by far came from the textbooks for biochemistry [the first three]. My biochemistry class is going to require a delicate balancing act on my part: biochemistry requires a knowledge of organic chemistry, organic chemistry requires a knowledge of some basic general chemistry and the last time I took any chemistry was over 12 years ago. So, basically what I have to do is brush up on my basic chemistry so I can sit in on the organic chemistry class without being totally lost so that I can, in turn, take the biochemistry class and have a chance of passing it. Oh, and I'm going to try taking the graduate version of the biochemistry class and drop back down to the undergrad version if I'm totally out of my depth in the graduate version. [The downside of the undergrad class is that it doesn't count against my course requirements and I'd be taking it with all the grade-grubbing, super-eager-beaver premed students ...]

The combination of trying to handle the biochemistry class, another class I'm taking that's apparently going to require 20 hrs of homework a week, a third class [which is a paper-reading class and so will hopefully not be too much work] and my lab rotations is going to be, ahem, interesting.


Thursday, September 02, 2004

All models, all semester

No, not the Cindy Crawford/Linda Evangelista/Giselle Bundchen type. Rather, computational models of biological systems. They've got curves in them too, but they're less likely to get people excited than the curves on the other type of model.

What I'm referring to is the way my first semester is shaping up. I have to do three one-month long "rotations" in different people's labs, where I basically figure out what the folks in that lab are working on, how I feel about it and hopefully do some of the work myself. The idea is that you do a rotation in the labs of three faculty members you think you might like to do your thesis research under and then pick one of them as your thesis advisor at the end of the first semester.

So far, I've lined up rotations in two labs: one in Drew Endy's lab [working on synthetic biology] and one in Doug Lauffenburger's lab. Doug's lab is working on computational models of various cell processes, like the decision to die vrs reproduce, how stem cells decide to become liver cells vrs heart cells vrs brain cells etc, and they're using various types of models. My rotation in his lab is going to consist of taking two models [partial-least-squares and Bayesian networks, for anybody who cares -- I'm not quite sure what those are myself ;-)] that have been used to analyze a particular data set and see whether I can extend them a bit and re-analyze the data set. So, it'll be a useful introduction to two types of models. Similarly, in Drew's lab, I'm going to be playing with a model they've built and use it to analyze some data that's being generated in the next month or so. So, that's a third type of model I'll learn about.

And, as if that's not enough, I'm taking a class, Biological Engineering 420 ["Biomolecular Kinetics and Cellular Dynamics"], that focuses on yet a 4th type of model, namely coupled differential equations and chemical kinetics to analyze various processes. Hence, all models, all semester.

I'm not sure where my third rotation will be yet, but I think it might be in Tom Knight's lab. Tom Knight used to be an electrical engineer/computer scientist, but about 10 years ago decided that the future was in biology, so he basically turned into a biology graduate student, took a bunch of classes and is now also working on synthetic biology. He's mainly doing experimental work, taking apart one of the smallest organisms discovered to date that is capable of self-reproduction on its own [ie viruses don't count], called Mesoplasma florum, and attempting to put it back together to figure out the way it ticks. It's a simple organism, with "only" about 600 genes, so it's reasonable to think that it's possible to construct a full-fidelity model of what all its genes and proteins do and their interactions with each other. However, at the moment, he's mainly doing experimental [ie lab bench] work, so working in his lab would allow me to satisfy the experimental part that's required in my lab rotations.

I'm the stranger your mom told you not to talk to

I was sitting on the subway today when a group of young children [probably in the 6-8 year age range] got on the train, together with the teenager supervising them. A little boy sat down next to me and started looking at the newspaper I was reading ["Newspaper" is a bit too fancy a name -- it's a rag called "Metro" that's distributed for free on the subway and has sound-bite news] and asked whether he could have it. Wanting to be friendly, I asked him where he and the other kids were going, in response to which he just put his finger to his lips and shook his head; there was also a little girl sitting across from me who told him "You're not allowed to talk". I didn't really understand what was going on, so I just shrugged and went back to reading the paper.

A couple of minutes later, I gave him the paper, in response to which he first said "Thank you" and then turned to the teenager supervising them and said "The stranger just gave me the paper". Hearing myself referred to as "the stranger" was when the penny finally dropped for me: he, and all the other kids, had been told not to talk to strangers on the subway, and that's why he couldn't tell me where they were going.

The screwed-up thing about it was that I almost felt like I'd done something wrong by talking to the little boy, as if I was actually trying to figure out where they were going so I could kidnap him or do something equally vile. A disturbing reminder of the fact that there are enough twisted people out there that kids have to be careful who they talk to, and that they have no way of telling who means them harm, so they just have to assume that anybody who talks to them has evil intentions, even if it's somebody as utterly harmless as me. Pretty sad.


Projectile milk squirting

... is actually an official category in the Guinness Book of World Records, according to this story. Words fail me.

Enter the Bosnian Dragon

According to this story, some Bosnians want to put up a monument to Bruce Lee:

``Lee is a true international hero and is a hero to all ethnicities in Bosnia and that's why we picked him,'' Gatalo said

The idea is so off-the-wall that I find it simply outstanding. I'm also a Bruce Lee fan, so I heartily encourage putting up statues of the man. Maybe it can become a trend -- let a thousand Bruce Lees bloom in all ethnically-troubled areas of the world: Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, Chechnya ... [unfortunately, the list keeps getting longer].

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

It has begun ...

... well, sort of.

The last couple of days were orientation for the [4] new students in my program. First day was basically an overview of the academic requirements of the program and some discussion with faculty members about what courses to take and the second day was administrative stuff [health insurance]. Impressions so far:

- Students don't get dental insurance of any sort. None whatsoever. You can't even pay extra to get it, it just doesn't exist through the school. Apparently, they looked into it and it wasn't considered "cost-effective". I guess that means you'd better hope you have no issues with your teeth while you're in school. Of course, you can't even check whether or not you have issues by going for a check-up without paying for that yourself. As a wise ex-teacher of mine would say, that's "weak-style", maybe even "extremely weak-style".
- If you go to a non MIT-medical doctor/hospital for anything except emergency care, you're going to pay for it yourself. The tricky bit is that there's no clear definition of what is considered "emergency" care [which is covered if you go somewhere other than MIT medical] vrs "urgent care" [which isn't], though I did manage to get the health services person to concede that multiple gunshot wounds to the torso probably counted as an emergency. Good to know, should I ever find myself in that unenviable position ... Now I really understand what people meant when they said Microsoft has great [health care] benefits.
- I'm definitely the fossil in the class. Two of the other people just finished up their undergraduate work and the third one graduated in 2001 and then spent 2 years working on a Master's degree. In other words, I'm at least 5 years older than all of them and 8 years ahead of them in real-world experience. I think Christina and I are going to be spending a lot of time with folks from Sloan, who tend to be much closer to our age and set of experiences, just so we don't feel like old fogies.
- It's a bit weird to be basically the same age as some of the professors on the advisory faculty committee. My first reaction is to regard them as peers, but I have to keep reminding myself that we're not really peers -- they're much further along in this arena than I am. I just hope none of the younger professors insists on protocol and that I call him/her Dr.So-and-so, because that might be a bit much for me, but I get the sense that that won't be a problem.
- Classes are going to be an interesting balancing act. Because it's an interdisciplinary program, there are lots of classes in biology, comp. sci., mathematics etc that look interesting and useful, but we have to balance taking classes with working in research labs, preparing for qualifying exams [at the end of the second year] and being a teaching assistant [which can apparently range from doing basically nothing to coming up with the homework and tests and grading them]. So, we're all in a position where we want to take a bunch of classes but don't know which ones we'll have time for, which ones are really relevant and what order to take them in. I've mostly stopped bellyaching about it -- I have a set of classes I'm comfortable with for the first semester and by the beginning of next semester I expect to have a much better idea of what I really need/should take. I'll start worrying again if by then I still feel like there are too many classes I need.

All in all, so far, so good.