I am attending a German-American career fair and conference at MIT this weekend. As I strolled through campus my first night in Cambridge, I reflected on what I knew about MIT: mainly that it was a well-respected institution, but that its programs tended to resemble technical silos: graduates emerge as experts in their fields, but have few skills to operate in cross-disciplinary environments outside their own. Still, as an undergraduate in Engineering and Public Policy at Lafayette College, I had once considered applying to MIT’s graduate program in Science Writing. Tonight I almost wish I had. Cross-disiplinarity has arrived in full-force at MIT and my field of sustainability studies is leading the way. The path I ultimately chose, however, has offered me differently rewarding opportunities and I still benefit from MIT’s OpenCourseWare today.
MIT is a place of BIG IDEAS: the kinds of ideas that keep minds awake at night. I barely slept a wink this weekend–not because I was out in the bars (ha!)–but because my mind was racing from idea to idea to idea: a neural network of future research. What would happen if I combined Idea A with Idea B and cross-pollinated them with Ideas X, Y, and Z? Idea A is, of course, intrinsically linked to C, D, and E, and Idea B builds upon the foundation of Results F, G, and H from the famous scientist-team KJI. Imagine the collaborations, the journal articles, the impacts!
I remember my first national conference: Society of Women Engineers (SWE) in Detroit. It was 2002 and I was just finishing my first year of undergraduate engineering coursework. I had a relatively firm grasp on the fundamentals, but as one of the few females in my class, I struggled to find mutual support. At the SWE Conference, I was suddenly faced with an entire conference center full of female engineers, plus two male allies. My mind exploded. Where did all of these women come from, and why were we so segregated in schools and workplaces across the country? What stories did each of these women have to tell? In what ways have they struggled, triumphed, and persevered? How are our collective experiences reflected in one another?
Most of the remainder of the conference highlighted corporate presentations, and although I wasn’t particularly interested in employment as a freshman, seeing smart women in positions of power still left an indelible mark on my mental list of goals: do well in a “difficult” profession, and once you have a foothold, support the other women climbing up below and beside you. I still have those goals, and others, today.
When I returned to campus after the conference, I realized something had changed. I had changed–my perception of the future had changed–but there was something else, too. I found myself simultaneously inspired yet lost; I had been exposed to all of these new ideas, but lacked the tools with which to bring them into fruition.
That week, I was talking with one of my favorite math professors and he said to me, “I often return from conferences depressed. Shifting quickly from BIG IDEAS to the mundane can be disorienting. The day-to-day tasks lose their meaning; they are overshadowed by the world’s BIG PROBLEMS, which we must solve NOW,” (my paraphrasing).
Yes. Exactly. He put my experience into words I had yet to discover. How do we bring world-changing ideas into fruition without losing ourselves in the burden of the mundane? How do we retain the brilliant momentum of conference conversations once we return to campus and interact with peers and colleagues who question what all the fuss is about? How do we distinguish ideas borne of sheer enthusiasm and little substance from precious nuggets that will launch a future research career? (For that last question, we just know!)
For some of us, intellectual attraction is in our bones. We vibrate at frequencies complementary to the ideas around us. MIT might never play a role in my future (or it might), but either way, I am glad to have given it a chance to show me what it had to offer. My perspective has been forever changed.