Sun’s Out, Guns Out

Students I saw on campus were washed up at the shore and stressed and hurting. When you’re in a state like that, the set of solutions to a differential equation suddenly isn’t that important anymore. So as the days went on, I sought to further a sense of purpose and community in my life and work.

Sophomore year of college has come and gone; it is now time to stumble into summer plans, despite having taken my last exam of the quarter six days ago. That Monday’s final was for Human Behavioral Biology, and looking back, it would have been like any other exam if not for a surreal element I noticed. See, it’s been nearly four years since I first stumbled upon a Reddit post about Robert Sapolsky’s YouTube playlist, and I’m proud to say that since then, I’ve matriculated to Stanford University, where I just completed his course as his student. Truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. My one regret about it is that I never spoke with Professor Sapolsky informally to thank him for how much he’s influenced me. Due to family matters, he had to be conservative with his exposure to students, and thus lectures had to be remote.

“This pandemic is old,” he had said on the first day of class as his dog barked faintly in the background (which we jokingly referred to in the chat as a cocker spandrel). “It has been a disaster.”

When I watched a video of him in 2018, I was enraptured by his nimble wit, compassion, and fluent ability to teach for understanding and purpose. More than an hour elapsed and the first lecture in the YouTube series was over. For some reason I had the sensation that he had deeply tapped into preexisting curiosity that spoke to how listless I felt at that time in my life. It was a kind of educational experience that I had been lacking. Without sparing a moment, I purchased a copy of his book Behave, which contains lots of overlapping content with Human Behavioral Biology. I am glad I had the privilege to formally take the class this past spring.

The workload was more laid back than the rest of my spring coursework, but somehow I learned so much more than I did in nearly any other course I’ve taken in college. It almost sounds too good to be true, as if Sapolsky were concocting some kind of pedagogical sorcery, but I’m reminded that while intense suffering can be an element of growth, it isn’t always. Sometimes learning can be a joyous activity. Schools have a way of enforcing artificial pressures that take can away all the fun, in my opinion, chipping away day after day until all but drudgery remains. I don’t believe that any educator seeks to do this to their students, but it’s easy to fall prey to this pattern that is so antithetical to education and development. The artificial pressures never seem to remain at bay for long, and after so many years of enduring drudgery like this, it’s people like Professor Sapolsky who keep me going.

He knew that the webinar format was less than ideal, stating that the pandemic has been “a disaster for everyone and it has been a particular disaster for people in your age group, for all sorts of reasons, including screwing up all sorts of aspects of what is most important and best about college for you.” It’s true, yet he made the best of the situation, and for that I am grateful.

At times I fear that the ripple effects are as uncontrollable as they are longstanding, especially when my age group could use a morale boost, not more doom. For example, I heard a few times spring quarter being described as merely a “transient phase.” Students I saw on campus were washed up at the shore and stressed and hurting. When you’re in a state like that, the set of solutions to a differential equation suddenly isn’t that important anymore. Nervous laughter was common at breakfast in the dining halls, too, particularly during the first week of spring. I was no exception. Every time someone asked how it was going, I would giddily retort, “Nothing disastrous so far.”

Luckily, as the days went on, I continued to find community and purpose in various nooks and crannies of campus. For example, the Quantum Computing Career Panel in April surpassed my expectations and reminded me that differential equations do matter. Held at the William Gates Computer Science Building, droves of Mediterranean food were prepared for attendees, which was rather fortuitous given that I had not eaten anything that day until then. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to speakers Rodney Lessard, principal computational scientist at Schlumberger, and Ieva Liepuoniute, a chemist at IBM-Almaden Research Center. Lessard’s background in high-energy astrophysics resonated quite a lot, and Liepuoniute told us all about Qiskit and her daily routine at IBM in a very approachable, accessible, and interdisciplinary way that encouraged me to learn more or look for opportunities to get more experience in quantum science and engineering.

Phew. Anyhow, here we are in June. After a panicked Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday this week, I barely managed to pack my belongings randomly into several cardboard boxes. Before I could fully appreciate the observation that my room now looked the same as it did when I arrived in September, it was time to leave for San Francisco International Airport if I wanted to board my flight to Washington, D.C., where my summer internship would begin in just a few days.

Thankfully I made it to the gate that night with time to spare.

The red-eye flight from the West Coast to the East Coast is some kind of out-of-body experience. I was maddeningly fatigued but couldn’t quite get my mind to turn off for a few hours of shuteye once situated in the airplane. Then again, I wasn’t entirely awake either. I was in a haze. My most persistent memory from that night was of the looping clips from Dog (2022) on the display mounted to the seat in front of me. I must have watched Channing Tatum chase down that hound hundreds of times.

An upside to a flight like this, however, is that it has a way of snapping you onto Eastern Time the instant you see the sun rising out the window. As such, a second wind hit me, enough to get to the baggage claim upon landing and call another Uber. As the driver—Ronald was his name—helped me heave my luggage into the trunk of his Chevrolet Traverse, he said, “Yep, we’re definitely transporting dead bodies!” So at least I wasn’t the only one who thought the weight of my duffel bags seemed surprising for the volume.

Not a moment too soon, I arrived at my hotel, checked in, and collapsed into the bed. Phew. But not so fast. It can’t be that easy. Only a few hours of sleep were possible, for I had an appointment in the evening to receive the key to my apartment. Long story short, I figured out these details and have since checked out of the hotel and moved into the apartment with my sketchy duffel bags. A few other packages from California are expected to arrive in the coming days with my clothes, bedding, and daily essentials. For now, I have a few hours to get through some chores and hit the sack early so that tomorrow morning I’ll have a better chance of being sufficiently caught up on rest. It’s probably best not to show up to the first day of a job with bags under one’s eyes.

This has not been the most fun week I’ve lived, but through my inner dialogue and interpersonal interactions from one day to another, I’ve managed to preserve a degree of faith that I’m doing something right amid the chaos, not only for myself but for the people around me. Let the next day begin, come what may.