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Reflections on Undergrad

My guilty pleasure is watching day in my life videos…or any other type of cheesy reflection videos. Here are links to some of my favorites from Matt Zhang and Anna Fang. One thing I wish there were more of were long written form reflections. I love reading and I would have loved to read through someone’s experience going through various parts of their life in a more formal setting than Twitter or Reddit, and perhaps more structured, formal, and public than a diary or journal.

I recently finished my last classes at Johns Hopkins University, and am officially graduated as of December 31st 2021. The last 3.5 years have been incredibly rewarding, special, and ones I will never forget. I am so grateful for the friends, mentors, classmates, and professors that I have had the pleasure getting to know.

This post will be quite long. I’m going to try to regurgitate every important thought I’ve had about Hopkins that I’ve ever had. If you read until the end, gold star, but I would like to see you go touch grass sometime today as well. The reason I am writing this is that I am trying to be more intentional about remembering the life I’ve lived. The other day, I went through my photos and it made me so incredibly happy to see the experiences I had forgot about and the growth I’ve had as a person. I’m hoping to archive and centralize all my thoughts about my undergrad experience so I can relive this experience forever and ever. It was that special :)

Applying and Pre-College

JHU wasn’t my first choice, as I am a Baltimore native and went to a high school within walking distance of campus! However, I got rejected by most of my ‘reach’ schools and was deciding between Carnegie Mellon, JHU, and a full ride at University of Maryland. I ended up choosing JHU because I got into the BME program and because my parents have tuition remission benefits from Hopkins, money wasn’t an issue. I truly didn’t think much during the application process about going to Hopkins and I really thought I’d go somewhere else. The decision to stay was somewhat of a dissappointment actually; I hate to be pretentious but my honest thought was that Hopkins was a safety given my proximity and the fact that both my parents worked there.

After I got in, I did SOHOP, an overnight visiting program for all accepted students. I also got the chance to walk around campus a fair bit after school since I was so close. SOHOP was a great experience that gave me a nice taste of what the campus culture and feel was like. My springtime walks through campus, seeing students laugh and mill about made the place feel beautiful, warm, and welcoming.

Over the summer before my first semester, I got a research position in Dr. Jordan Green’s lab down at the medical campus. I spent the summer doing research and tutoring at the local math center.

I’m a huge planner, and I remember as soon as I committed to Hopkins, I went through the entire club catalog planning out extracurriculars, and the entire course catalog to plan out my entire 4 year plan. These were somewhat useful activities, but as an 18 year old, you really don’t know what to think pre-college. You just don’t have the perspective to be able to choose activities and classes.

Once class registration happened and I confirmed my classes for the Fall, I remember feeling excited, but quite nervous for the rigor of college coursework. Another useless thing I did was try to learn chemistry before college because I thought the intro class would be too difficult and I didn’t have a great chem background. My high school was incredibly easy and as we were an IB school, few APs were offered. In fact, I only took AP Calc AB and to pass out of Calc II in college, I had to take a placement test over the summer.

When I moved in and did orientation week, the first group of friends that I made was my FYM (first year mentor) group. Grouped by residence, you and roughly 20 other kids get shepherded through o-week by an upperclassman and you learn all about their experience at Hopkins and you get to interact and make friends with those in your group. I’m still great friends with several of the people from my group. Its incredibly easy to make new friends in the first couple of weeks if you are mildly competent at holding a conversation. Theres just something about being an excited little freshman.

Freshman Fall

I lived in AMRIII, Building A in a triple with my roommates Joe and Mario. It was a tiny room and we slept in lofted beds with just enough space for a desk and drawers underneath. It was pretty cramped but pretty fun getting up and down from bed every night and morning. The big downside was that we shared a bathroom and had to wake up to each other’s alarms. I had close friends in the building, but from what I’ve heard AMRIII isn’t the most social. I’d recommend Wolman or AMRI&II. Most students are on a dining plan and I lived right above the dining hall so it made meals super convenient.

My freshman fall, I took Introductory Chemistry I, Intro Chem Lab I, Intro Physics I, Intro Physics Lab I, Calc III, Intro to Computing, and BME Modeling and Design. I also registered for this zero credit ‘help’ class meant to provide supplementary material to students in Intro Chem, but I quickly dropped after about two weeks. My expectations coming in were that anything above a 3.6 was considered good. I thought my major would be hard, I thought my classmates would be geniuses, and I didn’t think my high school prepared me for college rigor. My first ‘welcome to Hopkins’ moment was getting in the 60s for my first Calc III and Intro Chem midterms. I eventually improved a lot though, learning how to study, ask questions, make study sheets, and take tests. I ended freshman fall with a 3.84, with As in everything except a B+ in Calc III. I really enjoyed chem lab actually and since I’d never done any real chemistry before it was cool to play around for the first time.

Freshman year I remember was incredibly hectic. I originally came in pre-med along with 70% of the freshman class. I didn’t really know what that entailed and honestly didn’t think too much about career stuff; I mainly just tried to survive. I tried out and interviewed for basically every club I was remotely interested in. At one point I was concurrently in like 6. Of course I whittled these down over the course of the semester, but doing the interviews and initial meetings helped me meet lots of new people and see how to run effective teams. A couple of clubs I’d recommend: Hippocrates Medical Review (helps you learn how to write), Osler Medical Symposium (or some other speaker series club to teach you how to be professional and interact with semi-famous people), any of the dance/singing/hobby clubs, some select professional clubs like A-Level or Salant. When you join a club, there are going to be so many stupid meetings you have to go to or dumb logistical things you have to do, that you want to make sure that everything else the club provides is worth it.

A big thing from freshman BMEs is interviewing and getting on to Design Teams, the flagship design program that the BME department always brags about. I was interested in some of the more advanced teams that were spinning out into more legitimate companies. I interviewed for Treyetech, an eye surgery medical device spinout and Kubanda Cryotherapy, a medical device company developing a CO2 based cryosurgery tool as an alternative to surgical resection. I eventually joined Kubanda along with 2 other freshmen BMEs. To be honest I didn’t do much except attend team meetings, and those I took way too seriously.

Freshman Spring

In the Spring, I took Introductory Chemistry II, Intro Chem Lab II, Intro Physics II, Intro Physics Lab II, Differential Equations, Safety in Engineering, and Gateway Computing: JAVA. Very cookie cutter boring engineering schedule :(. None of these classes were that bad except for the Safety class which was both incredibly boring and borderline misinformation at the same time. Got another math class B+ and picked up a few A- grades in Physics, Gateway, and the Safety class.

I remember becoming more and more interested in math and computer science. The engineering -> CS pipeline was bustling with activity in the spring as many kids (including myself) realized that coding wasn’t really that hard and pay for these jobs was quite insane. There were rumblings of kids 1st year out of college making 250k annually at Google. I know now that these are rookie numbers (kidding). But anyways, I got swept up into wanting to maybe become a software engineer or data scientist or machine learning / quant type of person. So I updated my 4 year schedule to reflect my new interest in math. Here it is in a google doc. Over the summer, I took Linear Algebra. It was my third or fourth priority for the summer and ended up getting a B+ in the class. Bleee.

I honestly can’t remember too much from Spring 2019. I recruited for A-level and bombed the interview so bad. I did do a lot of research, and did get some strong results. I joined MedHacks and we hosted a Mini-MedHacks event that was really fun. Otherwise, I think I spent my Spring busy with classes, clubs, jobs, design team, and hanging out with friends.

Sophomore Fall

Sophomore year was a grind plain and simple. In the fall, I look Molecules and Cells, Intermediate Programming, Statistical Physics, Linear Signals, and Discrete Math. I remember my intense resolve to get an A in math, as until then I had gotten a B+ in every math class I had taken. As it turns out, I traded an A in math (Discrete was fun for me!), for a B+ in Intermediate Programming. Intermediate made me realize how tedius software engineering actually is and in essence killed any remaining desire to become a SWE. I appreciated the technical experience and the time I was forced to spend learning how to Stack Overflow things and write and debug code cleanly. My favorite class of the semester by far was Molecules and Cells, which was a packed cell biology course with frequent reference to applications in biomedical engineering research. Statistical Physics and Linear Signals were fun because it was with the rest of the BME class and having lectures/office hours/exams with everyone gave me a weird sense of community and camraderie with my classmates. Larger lecture classes like these will be something I miss most about undergrad.

The very beginning of the year was hectic because we hosted MedHacks at the end of September. The last minute planning and logistics behind this compounded with exams made the beginning of the year quite tricky. I also started working at JHTV, the tech transfer office at Hopkins. I wouldn’t recommend working at JHTV even though the pay is somewhat high and it might be cool to have an on campus job. The work is boring, repetitive, and doesn’t really have any business value that you get to realize.

Sophomore Fall was also when I first tried to attend recruiting events. Looking back through my calendar, I see lots of Deloitte, Bain, Accenture, T Rowe Price, etc. I went to a ton of info sessions and tried to ‘network’ by cold messaging people on LinkedIn and over email. I got to talk to some interesting people, and I did end up doing some interviews with Merck, Regeneron, and Booz Allen Hamilton. Eventually, I chose to a research internship through the SENS Research foundation. Hopkins has a very interesting recruiting culture, I’m not sure if its the same at other schools, but poeple are very very intense about internships and jobs during the Fall. During your Sophomore year, you should already be pretty acclimated to the Hopkins academic environment. The next step is expanding your horizons past Hopkins by attending information sessions, meeting new people, and finding cool non-Hopkins things to involve yourself with.

I applied and was chosen to be a design team leader and I remember this being a big moment for me. I was excited to learn how to lead a team, do a real project, and get immersed in a clinical environment. Between the fall and spring, I took a Design Team Clinical Immersion course where I got to shadow interventional radiology and opthalmology. This in my opinion is the coolest part about the BME design team program - getting the confidence to walk in to an OR and say you are an engineer, without actually needing to do any engineering.

I lived in Charles Commons, where most second year students do. My suite was a double and honestly was quite nice. I’d recommend living in Commons if you have the chance to. Sophomore year, ate a lot of sushi and curry from Bamboo Cafe (RIP). Nolan’s which is in the Charles Commons building I remember being alright but nothing spectacular. Sophomore Fall I cut down on a lot of clubs that I signed up for in Freshman year (I would recommend doing the same).

Sophomore Spring

Sophomore Spring was super hectic as well. I had to manage design team recruitment, my new role as a co-director of MedHacks, a heavy courseload, on top of existing committments. I think when you’re that busy, you start to really not care about classes or the general social structure of college anymore. No more need to pretend to be deferential to upperclassmen or to pretend to study hard. Just do as much or as little as necessary and you’re good. This was an important lesson for me. In college, nothing is really worth optimizing 100%. Early on in college, I resolved to go as fast as possible and do as much as possible to really understand what my limit was, or expand my limit if I could handle it. This semester really stretched me and I’m grateful for it because now I have much more bandwidth to handle more things.

In the Spring, I took Introduction to Probability, Metaphysics, Nonlinear Dynamics of Biological Systems, Systems Biology of the Cell, Models and Simulations, Systems and Controls, Brain Behavior and Cognition, Research for Credit, and a Design Team Leader course. I didn’t get anything out of any of these classes except maybe Metaphysics and Models and Simulations. Metaphysics was cool because it was a new framework of thinking that I didn’t get from any of my previous courses. Models and Simulations was cool because it provided some mathematical framework to thinking about things that I had an intuition for but no way of otherwise formally describing.

If it wasn’t for Covid-19 shutting everything down. I don’t know how I could have survived with a half-decent gradebook. While it got incredibly boring, it also gave me room to breathe after a 2 month long sprint to start the year. Over the summer, I took Introduction to Business. It was taught by Lawrence Aronhime who has a reputation as quite a strong teacher at Hopkins. I’d highly recommend taking classes based on the professor who is teaching the course rather than the course description. Even the most interesting subjects can be made boring by bad professors and the great professors can make any class one that you look forward to going to.

Junior Fall

Junior year was when I realized that most people at the school aren’t innately super smart. They just went to high school that pushed them and had peers that they could compete with to better themselves. Most of the people I’m actually impressed by at this point from my school are the ones that continued to rise to the top and improved throughout their time at Hopkins. I think college is a gradual experience of finding new people to look up to, and this constitutes personal growth.

Junior fall, I took Molecular Evolution, Introduction to Statistics, Computational Cardiology, Biomedical Data Science, Cell Engineering, and Biomedical Design Team. I loved this semester academics wise and especially enjoyed Molecular Evolution (taught me a ton of molecular biology), Computational Cardiology (taught me about heart anatomy), and Cell Engineering (taught me all the cool ways cells could be manipulated). Data science was cool because it was a good refresher on Python and some packages that I use very commonly today, but it was too easy to be a course I would wholeheartedly recommend.

Design team was a love hate story. I hated the structure of it and the faculty who ran it. I thought they were unnecessarily strict and didn’t know what they were doing/tallking about. These feelings are probably a direct result of my experiences in venture which have taught me not only that flexibility is key to building strong teams (there are no hard rules), but also the steps that are actually critical to building products, not just the textbook regurgitated garbage that they were feeding us. So I hated the BME part of the program, but I loved working with our clinical sponsors and my teammates. I felt energized and felt that we were making an impact. I strongly recommend finding a project to lead that empowers you to feel this way; it does wonders for your confidence. Design team in the Fall was also great because we recruited 3 new freshman onto the team, filling us out as an 8 member group.

Socially, this semester still sucked because I was stuck at home for most of it. There are benefits to having a schedule that you set each day and that you can consistently repeat, but it is much less dynamic. You lose out on friends (and enemies) to motivate you and in general you are much less open minded. I did start working at a local diagnostics startup in Baltimore though, and this really helped me stay active and feel productive. I was able to be very productive for this company as well, and working there was a really foundational part of my college experience; I learned a lot.

I also TAed Molecules and Cells which was a fun experience. This was my first time TAing and it interesting to be on the other side of the student teacher relationship. Preparing for and holding section, hosting office hours and review sessions, and responding to questions on Piazza was very busy, but still fun. I’m someone who has to drop everything and answer questions as soon as I get them and I began to develop this reputation as a TA.

Junior Spring

Junior spring, I took a seminar in Epigenetics, Foundations of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, Nucleic Acid Sequencing, Cell and Tissue Engineering Lab, Biomedical Design Team, and Research for Credit. None of these classes were that interesting, all were quite underwhelming to be honest. The upside was that they were all very easy.

I also TAed Biological Models and Simulations and a high school BME class Hopkins put on. My experience TAing these classes was okay, not great. I learned that to be a good teacher, you need to care much more than the majority of the students care about the subject material. Theres a balance between feeling like you are disappointing people when their grades aren’t guaranteed As, with knowing that you need to uphold the rigor of the course. You can’t make everyone happy, especially when kids aren’t really trying that hard.

Spring was when our design team starting making real and concrete progress. We were allowed to shadow and go into the hospital. We were able to design and build prototypes that underwent clinical testing. Again, the structure of the program was annoying to deal with, but this was outweighed by the tremendous progress we were making and finally the ability to hang out in person as a team. One of the things I learned as a leader is to stop trying so hard to manage team dynamics and workload, especially if you have a team of busy and productive students. You need some intensity, and can use yourself as a role model. But, its counterproductive and unhealthy to constantly monitor the Google Drive activity tracker to see if people are doing work.

I made substantial research progress and presented in lab meeting for the first time. It was really gratifying to be asked to write a paper and to have your work be well received. Just to reflect a bit about how research went for me during undergrad, I spent the first two years working under heavy supervision of a graduate student working on multiple projects and learning skills. I then spent the last two years of undergrad leading my own projects and becoming an independent researcher. I think there are a lot of merits to this approach both from a publication standpoint and from a personal development standpoint. During the first two years, you work on lots of different projects and as a result you not only gain lots of different skills, but you also get your name put on many different papers. Then, when you are mature enough to lead your own projects, you have two years to come up with an idea and execute on it. At this point you can figure out if you like leading your own stuff or being a support character or what kinds of work you’re interested in, etc. This could lead to one or multiple first author publications that will help during grad school interviews. Lots of caveats here of course - my mentor is amazing and incredibly supportive of me, the lab I was in gave you freedom to work on whatever you want, covid gave me a good stopping point to think about new projects.

I got super lucky with my undergrad research experience so I’d recommend reaching out and learning from as many others as possible. Coming into research as a first year undergrad, you just simply don’t know anything. And unless you have smart friends or mentors who can guide you, the only way to gain understanding is by doing and over time reading enough papers to know what you’re doing. That takes time, so try to get an unfair advantage by talking to people.

What would I do differently? A couple things:

  1. I’d think hard about location and the relative benefit of working at a med campus lab versus working at a lab close to home. Commute can be quite tiring and can be a major hinderance to longer experiments.
  2. I’d be more selective about projects and talk with the PI or contact in the lab about working on a Nature level paper. My personal opinion is that quality>quantity and learning how to write a high quality manuscript is preferred over the experience of being first author.
  3. I’d start reading papers much earlier. If papers are too hard, try graduate school theses. Starting to read was a major level up for me as a researcher.
  4. Don’t be shy. Ask for recommendation letters, present at lab meeting, and be friendly with those in your lab. Also, email other scientists and get on Twitter.
  5. Find friends that are interested in research. It can be quite lonely and I would say even that it should be a consideration for picking a lab or research topic. You can talk with them about interesting papers/experimental results and they will motivate you when you’re feeling down.

Over the summer, I took Microeconomics. This was a fun class taught by a super organized grad student who clearly cared about the subject. I loved it but think the theory is still kinda hand-wavy.

Senior ‘Year’

My last semester, I took Data Mining, Applied Statistics and Data Analysis, Optimization, Culture of Medicine, Biomaterials II, and Research for Credit. Data Mining was a joke since I already had decently extensive data science experience and was concurrently TAing a class called Biomedical Data Science in the BME Department. Applied Statistics and Data Analysis was a fun challenge that finally taught me what statistics is all about. After pass-failing Intro Prob and Intro Stat earlier, I really wanted to prove to myself that I could excel in statistics and earn my major for real and I was so glad to get an A in the end. Optimization sucked but I took it with my roommate which was fun. Culture of Medicine and Biomaterials II were both very fun classes that I would highly recommend.

I also TAed Computational Cardiology this semester which although was one of my favorite classes when I took it, was at times a struggle to teach. Theres nothing like forgetting everything you’ve learned and needing to re-learn it hours before teaching it in section. Apologies to the students in my section, it wasn’t my best!

Senior Fall was by far the best semester of Hopkins for me. Outside of the pure joy of just seeing my old friends every day and interacting with people in person again, I met so many new friends. I had a social life, I went to the gym and exercised, and still managed to do well in my classes. Lacking was excellence in research or other extracurriculars, but those honestly aren’t the most important thing when you’re about to graduate. I highly recommend finding a group of friends to regularly hang out with on a weekly basis, it does wonders for your mental health. I also highly recommend finding a or multiple gym buddies, there is no way I’d be as consistent without them.

I worked on a bunch of new projects, both self initiated and also those that I agreed to work on externally. I think its really important to continually involve yourself with new projects as learning opportunities. Not only is it somewhat more exciting to work on many smaller projects instead of the same projects for an extended period of time, you also learn very fast breadth wise.

I think another reason I loved senior year was that everything I was doing was something that I was doing because I liked it, not just because it would help me somehow. During undergrad you’re going to have to take out the trash and wash the dishes for much of your time, there really isn’t any way around it. Its just…so much more enjoyable to not do that. Several solutions to this I guess (in order of feasibility):

  1. Have a mentor that shows you the path of least resistance
  2. Train yourself to like things that are good for you
  3. Work on the less glamorous things with real friends that you trust will help you when things are tougher
  4. Become insanely smart and good at what you do that you don’t need extra stuff to make you look good

Summary of Major Advice

  • Most of the things you ever would need to know you can learn from your friends, the internet, or books. See classes as a way to have fun, meet new people, or to practice technical skills
  • Don’t do BME or AMS. Do CS and Bio and fulfill the premed requirements. If you do want to be BME, don’t be so try hard about it, just do the minimum and get out.
  • Do a lot more shadowing and talking to professionals.
  • Find who you look up to and want to be like one day, talk to them, and figure out the path that helps you get there
  • Its a bit cliche but the more often you feel uncomfortable about your own progress and path, the faster you’ll pick yourself up and being the best version of yourself. This isn’t to say you should aim to feel horrible all the time, however. Confidence is a learned skill that hugely contributes to your success. It shouldn’t be weird to think that you are and will be the best in the world at something or some combination of things.
  • Being an ‘engineering major’ doesn’t really mean anything. I never saw engineering students gain anything interesting from the engineering curriculum that you couldn’t get from being a non-engineering student.
  • There isn’t really a point in taking a ridiculous number of classes. Take the few required classes to graduate, excel in them, and graduate early.
  • Do your best to learn how to learn
  • Do as many internships, research rotations, etc that you can, but make sure you get something concrete out of each experience. Be intentional in terms of what you want out of it.
  • Join clubs because you like the people in them, not for any career oriented reasons.
  • Find some hobbies or activities that you do consistently. College is a time of constant flux and you need something to keep you grounded.
  • Find some friends that push you to be better but also respect and admire the work that you do
  • The school career office in my experience was quite horrible.
  • Professors can be quite stupid, don’t be surprised when you realize thisg

There was a lot to celebrate from my time at Hopkins. I participated in 6 clubs, and became president of one of them (MedHacks). I thought about and pursued all types of career paths including IB, VC, PE, consulting, medicine, SWE, data science, trading, quant, ML, biomedical engineering, and all different types of academic research areas. I joined several early stage startups (Kubanda Cryotherapy, Capsulomics, Zafrens, and now Avidea Technologies), held several VC internships (Alix Ventures, Johns Hopkins Tech Ventures, Compound, Longitude Capital), and TAed 6 classes. I led a successful BME design team, mentored underclassmen via the school’s Biomedical Engineering Society, and served as a founding board member of the SNF Agora Institute for Global Democracy.

I graduated a semester early Tau Beta Pi with a 3.88 GPA, double majoring in Biomedical Engineering and Applied Mathematics & Statistics. I made Dean’s List every semester eligible and averaged over 20 credits a semester. I won awards including the David T. Yue Memorial Teaching Award, the Provost’s Undergraduate Research Award, the Bisciotti Prize for Student Entrepreneurship, and was a Johns Hopkins Business Plan Competition Finalist. I spent 3.5 years working in the Green Lab, working on 5 projects, co-authoring multiple papers, and executing on an original project idea that I’ll be first author on.

A huge thank you to my friends, family, and mentors without whom none of these accomplishments would have happened. I’m taking a victory lap now because at times this was quite a grind and its my last chance before I need to start doing actual real solid work that I’m sure will humble me materially.

Please reach out to me with any questions. I want to pay it forward as best I can and I would love to meet with ambitious younger students who want to chat.

Published Feb 12, 2022

Harvard-MIT PhD Student