So about a year or so ago, I was looped into an email chain with current and crufty MIT bloggers. A super familiar name popped up in the chain: Bryan Bryson. My advisor in biological engineering and one of the most equally down-to-earth and inspiring people I have met during my time at MIT. Why was he responding to this email thread? And why was he on this mailing list? Because (*que suspense music*) … my advisor was a blogger himself during his time at MIT!!! How cool is that? You all should totally go check out his blog posts, they are filled with all kinds of advice, puzzle hunt archives and artifacts of his time as an undergrad (and grad student!) at MIT. So naturally, we had to do a blog post together! With this blog post, I’m pulling inspiration from something that Prof. Bryson used to do back in the day: Q&A. In our many conversations, I’m always intrigued by the similarities and differences in our experiences. What is and isn’t common in the lives of a MIT senior and a MIT Alum and now MIT Assistant Professor?
(P.S: Answering these questions was super therapeutic and it was nice to check in with myself, so I encourage you to ask yourself these questions as well!)
How are you doing today?
Bryan: Great! I am almost finally done with watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy (finally). I resume teaching this week and managed to cross most of my tasks off of my to-do list this weekend.
Afeefah: All things considered, I’m doing pretty good! I got my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine recently and to be completely honest did not think I would be in this position a year later. Like many people, I’ve been riding on a pessimistic train and I finally feel like I see some kind of tunnel at the end of the road. I also have finally found the right balance between being a full time college student and spending my time with my family and contributing at home.
How many hours of sleep did you get last night?
Bryan: Eight — this is not an exception. Everyone who knows me that I prioritize my sleep. I vehemently opposed all nighters in college and now, 14 years from graduation, I prioritize sleep even more.
Afeefah: I got about six hours of sleep last night, which is lower than my usual. I’m generally pretty strict about getting at least eight hours of sleep per night and if I don’t have anywhere to be I will happily sleep for longer.I never pulled an all-nighter during my time at MIT, largely because I physically am incapable of it. Last night, however, I caught up with my cousins and by default that means going to bed late.
What is something that you take for granted?
Bryan: I sometimes assume that my grandparents will live forever and therefore I don’t need to call them regularly. I am working on making it a weekly practice to have Zoom dinner with them to check in and see how they’re doing.
Afeefah: 100% good health. I’ve been trying to get into a consistent workout routine but I always prioritize other things over it. Recently, I’ve had one of my friends be my accountability buddy and that’s been really helpful but I have a long way to go.
What is something that you’re struggling with right now?
Bryan: I struggle with how to be an advisor, honestly. There’s no one size fits all solution, and at the core, my dream is that all of my trainees go on to succeed. How to work with them to make that a reality takes a lot of energy and thinking for me because they all work on different problems and have very different personalities. How to customize my practice for each trainee requires a lot of thinking.
Afeefah: Recently, I’ve been struggling with understanding how to effectively translate empathy to the actions I take towards other people. I was reading this article the other day about how we can be discriminatory in our empathy. We subconsciously deem certain groups as more deserving of our empathy. Or alternatively, the empathy we feel for some people can be more demeaning than it is empowering. I’ve been thinking a lot about what a good ally looks and how empathy factors into that.
What happened in the last dream you remember?
Bryan: Honestly, it was probably me dreaming up an experiment. I guess they say you are fluent in a language when you dream in that language, so what does it mean when I dream up an experiment in the middle of the night?
Afeefah: My memory in general is pretty bad so I guess it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that I don’t remember having any dreams recently. I vaguely remember having a dream where I was sitting inside one of those dome shaped theaters with a bunch of people I know from the different parts of my life. Kind of like a crossover event of my life.
What’s one thing you’ve learned in the past month?
Bryan: Scientifically, I saw an amazing talk from a speaker from HHMI Janelia that has made me rethink some of my governing assumptions about cell biology. Personally, I learned a lot about growing citrus. My fiancee and I started an indoor “jungle” so to speak during the pandemic, and now, we have taken up growing a range of citrus: grapefruit, lemons, yuzu, etc.
Afeefah: Medicaid was implemented in the 1960s when a lot of hospitals were still segregated. From its very beginning, however, Medicaid ruled that hospitals that discriminated could not participate and receive funds. This kickstarted the wide desegregation of hospitals across America. This served as yet another stark reminder of how parts of our society, even the ones that are meant to serve people, often follow money and not necessarily what the ethical and right thing to do is.
What is one of the hardest decisions you have had to make? What helped you make it?
Bryan: I think the hardest decision I’ve had to make is to give up on a project. When I applied for my faculty job, I believed I had a really great research project in mind to reframe our understanding of bacterial infection of immune cells. Unfortunately, after a lot of really well-designed experiments, it just turned out that the tools we needed in order to pull off the dream version of the experiment just didn’t exist, and we didn’t really have the bandwidth to invest in the project any further.
Two things helped me make the decision. The first I have to realize that projects in my research group require the time and energy of a trainee and it is very important to put them in a position to do their absolute best, and asking them to spend energy on a project where we didn’t have the right tools was a losing proposition. I also realized that we had so many other exciting lines of research going on that it was okay to let this one go on the shelf. We never totally abandon projects; we just shelve them for a later date.
Afeefah: One of the hardest decisions I had to make was leaving my lab back in my sophomore year. I genuinely enjoyed the project I was working on and the people I worked with, but I was struggling to balance my course work, was not making time for myself and was turning into an absolute zombie. At MIT, I’ve constantly felt the pressure to make the most of every opportunity available because otherwise wouldn’t I be wasting this crazy lucky chance I have? As I’ve learned the hard way, that’s not sustainable. We weren’t built to do every possible thing. Prioritizing is key and it’s important to prioritize yourself. In many ways my poor well being at the time made the decision pretty clear. What I did learn however is that sometimes you have to step away from even the things that are good for you and you can do that without burning any bridges. Do I regret the decision now? To be honest, yeah sometimes. But then I remind myself that that was the best thing I could have done for that version of me. And life moves on.
What’s the last TV show you binge watched?
Bryan: The Queen’s Gambit.
Afeefah: This is Us. It is so freaking wholesome and emo and it makes me cry every single time. 10/10 would recommend.
What’s a piece of advice that you give to other people but don’t follow yourself?
Bryan: Good question — I actually dole out a limited set of suggestions, and these are the ones that I probably follow most regularly.
Afeefah: Don’t give value to what others think of you. Easier said than done.
What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve gotten from someone?
Bryan: Professional – I get a lot of advice that I should focus on my lab being known for “that one thing” (TM), and I haven’t been able to embrace that fully. I am really invested in a range of questions, and I want to work on them all right now. Personal- Easily the worst piece of advice I ever received was to date someone who was not known for being nice because I was a nice person and I’d be able to help this person grow. NOPE!
Afeefah: Just breathe. I appreciate the reminder to keep pulling in air to my lungs, but “just breathe” usually makes me panic even more.
Are you still in touch with people from high school? From college? If so, how do you keep up with these relationships?
Bryan: High school — not really — I superficially keep up with two to three, but high school was 18 years ago, and I’m a very different person than who I was in high school and I’m also 1700 miles from home so I don’t see these people regularly.
I made my best friends in college and grad school. I text them as if they still live down the hall. I baked a cake that reminded me of a friend from college, so I sent them the photo, then we started looking for recipes together for a birthday cake for her son. I go on vacations with my friends from college and grad school. I see them as frequently as I can. Whenever I am in their respective cities, I send a group text.
Afeefah: I went to a really small high school and had known my graduating class for many many years. So when I graduated I really thought nothing would change and we’d always be in touch. The inevitable reality is that we all ended up in different places and became busy with our own lives and with growing into our own individual selves. Especially during the beginning of college we all kind of fell away from one another but now that we’re all graduating from college we’ve been in touch again. I’ve also held on to a few close friends that I’ve kept in touch with pretty consistently throughout. As for college friends, especially in the time of COVID it’s been a lot of zooming, game nights, movie nights, virtual zoom parties. The friendships I’ve made in college feel a lot more deep than many of the ones I made in high school. The way I go about keeping up with people is pretty chaotic honestly, it’s kind of just whenever I’m reminded of a particular friend which is pretty frequently. At least once a week I ask myself who I haven’t heard from in a while and reach out.
What’s a nice thing someone has done for you?
Bryan: My friend and colleague sent me a pie for Pi Day unexpectedly. That was a great surprise.
Afeefah: This was probably like 6 whole years ago now, but this one time I was waiting at Starbucks for the baristas to make my drink and there was one other guy standing nearby waiting for his drink too. Our drinks came out at the same time and he went to get his first. He realized that the other drink was mine and picked it up and brought it over to me and it was honestly just so nice.
How do you get through moments of uncertainty?
Bryan: I actually write everything out and map out my thinking. Then I find someone to talk it out with (my fiancee, my mom, my lab, my extended science family). I also remind myself of my previous moments of uncertainty and on the whole, I realize that I made it through alright.
Afeefah: My faith plays a huge role in this. I’ve been going through the med school application process this past year and it has been brutal. The only way I’ve been able to get through rejection after rejection and pure uncertainty of what to do next has been having faith in the fact that God is in control of my plans. At the same time, I try to give myself breaks from thinking about the future and I try to ground myself in the present moment. I’m soaking in being a senior at MIT and living at home.
What Is Your Favorite Ice Cream Place?
Bryan: Is it cheating to say my house? I honestly don’t know the last time I bought ice cream. When I graduated from college, I bought myself an ice cream maker and taught myself how to make ice cream. Bringing homemade ice cream to a gathering is my party trick.
Afeefah: In Boston, hands down Toscanini’s. But my all time favorite has to be the Braum’s chain in Texas. It gives me major southern comfort feels.
What does self-care look like to you?
Bryan: First, SLEEP. I refuse to disrupt my sleep schedule. I make it a priority to exercise 5+ days a week. On Fridays, I order cheesy bread from Dominos. I sometimes enter auctions for rare plants. When not in a pandemic, I make it a priority to go on 4 weeks of vacation a year. When I need to calm myself down, I reorganize my clothes according to color. I try to cook dinner regularly. After 7pm, I try not to look at work and instead find something to watch with my partner.
Afeefah: For me self-care does not have to be anything elaborate, it’s just prioritizing time to check in with myself and do a vibe check on how I’m doing. This usually takes the form of aimlessly laying on the ground, having a skin care routine, really vibing to music, calling up family and treating myself to good food.
What is the strangest place you’ve fallen asleep in?
Bryan: Not necessarily a strange place, but I fall asleep easily if I’m physically still, so after I take my seat on a plane when it is boarding, I can usually fall asleep BEFORE the plane takes off
Afeefah: My secret super power is being able to fall asleep anywhere and everywhere. I’ve fallen asleep on airport floors multiple times which I realize is actually not the most sanitary and maybe also not that strange.
What is a memory that makes you instantly smile?
Bryan: Any family vacation.
Afeefah: On my last night on campus, I went chairing in the MIT tunnels. Somehow, it was my very first time chairing but I would have it no other way.
What has your relationship with Imposter Syndrome been like? Have you found a way to deal with it?
Bryan: Imposter syndrome is a demon that must be slayed. I’ve now realized that it comes in two forms, external and internal. I’ll elaborate.
External is the form where people ask you “are you in the right place?” “Are you sure you can do that?” — this is when people are imposing their assumptions about your abilities on you. Frankly, for me, there are a limited number of people at this stage of my career who can ask me these questions and for me to take pause: my mom, my fiancee, and my grandpa. At this stage of my career, I don’t have time to deal with these folks. I have to focus on me, and I am now at a point where I have limited energy for folks who want to challenge me on my abilities.
Internal imposter syndrome is the nagging itch that never goes away. It is coupled to the external because we all have a personal history with asking ourselves “can I do this?” When people ask us similar questions, it only serves to fuel the fire of the internal.
Dealing with the external is easy — avoid those people who are going to be a drag on your energy and belief in yourself.
Dealing with the internal is a bit harder. Firstly, I would like to normalize going to therapy as a way to deal with it. It was helpful for me. I also realize that being honest with myself about growth areas is a way to deal with imposter syndrome. Academia is full of experts of various flavors, but no one is an expert on everything, and recognizing we all have something that we do not know and are working to learn is important. This allows me to see myself at the same level as others in my journey as opposed to preventing myself from belonging to a community of scholars. I am just like all of my peers: really smart about a small number of topics and learning the rest.
I’ve also found that great mentors can be powerful here. Those people who can see how amazing you are who are willing to work with you to help you see yourself the way that they see you.
Afeefah: I came into MIT with major imposter syndrome, I spent four years at MIT with major imposter syndrome and I have a strong feeling I will be graduating from MIT with major imposter syndrome.
MIT was the only “dream school” and out of state school I applied to. During the college app cycle a select few people knew that I was applying there. It felt like such a moonshot and I figured the fewer people knew the better. Through CPW and through my freshman year at MIT, I felt really out of place because it felt like the others were so certain and firm in their place. Connecting with the upperclassman really helped me in that moment because they had all gone through the realization that the people at MIT are not a special breed of intelligent humans, each of them had their own strengths and weaknesses. As freshmen get used to being in this environment, many (including myself) initially felt the need to portray their most accomplished and polished selves and not their most authentic selves. Eventually, once we started talking to one another about the things we were worried about and struggling with, we realized that we all came with our own baggage. I think the only real way to cure imposter syndrome is to talk about it.
Another thing I’ve started doing (this is something that my dad makes me do and now I do it a lot on my own), is recite the things I’ve accomplished so far to myself. In the last episode of This Is Us, one of the characters says something along the lines of “if you’re struggling to believe in yourself, just remember all of the great things you have already done.” I think that a huge side effect of imposter syndrome is belittling the things you have worked for and accomplished. As hard as it is, it’s important to undo that, because the reality is you are the only person that can really and truly be your own cheerleader. You have to be able to hype yourself even when no one else is watching. And as I say all of this, I am currently dealing with severe imposter syndrome as a potential incoming med student. I don’t know if imposter syndrome ever goes away, but I do think that overtime you’re able to create tools that work for you and help keep it in check.
What is your go-to pick me up after a long day?
Bryan: Depends! A really long day: I order Chinese food from a local restaurant. Scallion pancakes, fried rice, and General Gau/Tso’s chicken can restore me.
A mildly long day: Gummi bears.
All other days: playing 90s music in the kitchen while cooking and recreating dance moves from the music videos engrained in my head.
Afeefah: A good laugh. That is literally all I need.
If you had the ability to see numbers floating above people’s heads, what would you want that number to be a measure of?
Bryan: Emotional intelligence
Afeefah: On a scale of 1-10 real-time irritability. I do that thing where if someone I’m talking to is in a bad mood, I by default believe that it has something to do with me or something that I’ve done even though 99% of the time it isn’t. I think that in theory it could be helpful to get an objective sense of someone’s irritability beforehand for my own personal sanity. But also also I think it’s helpful feedback to know if I contribute to or reduce someone’s irritability.