by Matthieu Komorowski
During the fall and winter of 2016/2017 and as part of my PhD in the Department of Surgery and Cancer, I am visiting the Laboratory of Computational Physiology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. Here are three things I learned from my visit at one the world’s top institutions.
First, “Humans were meant to dwell in dark airless places, illuminated by a flickering glow, interrupted periodically by the janitorial staff, checking for signs of life.” (formula from MIT Alumni Janet Cahn). In September, I moved to a flat in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with two PhD students in computer science. A week in, I realised that I hadn’t seen my flatmates even once. In the morning, I woke up alone, worked what I felt were solid hours (roughly 8AM to 8PM), then came home to an empty house, and headed to bed before midnight – still alone. I soon came to realise that they had a very different schedule than mine, getting to work at around 10AM but working until 1 or 2AM. Whilst an extreme case, it is not rare for MIT students to work extremely long hours, neglecting social interactions and using coffee creamer as a source of nutrients. In essence, my flatmates endorse perfectly the lifestyle of the beaver, MIT’s formal mascot. As presented to former MIT President Richard Maclaurin by a student of the class of 1898: “Of all the animals of the world, the beaver is noted for his engineering and mechanical skill and habits of industry. His habits are nocturnal, he does his best work in the dark.” (Technology Review, vol. 16, 1914).
Second, don’t watch TV in the US. Fox News will show you clips pointing at Hillary’s emails controversy, and priests arguing about abortion laws and same-sex marriage. Switch to CBS and you’ll see pro-democrats commercials over and over again, with interviews of a nuclear missile site employee together with clips of Trump saying “I love war” and “I want to be unpredictable”. To say the least, witnessing the show of the presidential election from the inside has been… entertaining. Being French, I am somewhat used to election debates avoiding the important questions (employment, social protection, health care, foreign policy…) and focusing much more on the candidates’ personalities (or lack thereof). But the Americans take it to a whole different level. Politicians use proven marketing techniques, like those ads that tell you how much better they are than a specific rival product (“our 4G network is 200% faster than AT&T!”, “our battery lasts 6h longer than the iPhone! ”) instead of plainly disclosing their features (“our battery lasts 20h”). But after all, I guess that this is also what elections are about: for the candidates, to seduce voters; for the opposite party: to discredit the opponent by putting into light potential scoops and fetid files.
Third, don’t say “I like Winter” in Boston. In the last days, temperatures have been plummeting and are fast approaching the freezing point of water. We are soon expecting the first snowfall. Whenever I tell locals that “I don’t mind the cold” or even worse “I like snow”, they stare at me in horror, like I said that I worship Nicolas Cage’s performance in Bangkok Dangerous. Snow is no joking matter. Two years ago, Boston drowned under 9 feet of it, making it the snowiest season on record. Everything -literally- froze and people got locked inside their houses for days or even weeks, surviving on tin cans and Netflix.
As of right now, I’ve got exactly two hours of daylight left, so I’m off to make the most of it. Winter is coming.
Top left – In front of MIT’s emblematic Maclaurin building.
Bottom left – Hiking the White Mountains in New Hampshire.
Right – At the top of the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower in Chicago, 1353 feet up.