MHN: Breast Self-Exams

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Read my most recent article in the college newspaper:

“The jelly breast implant is used to teach the proper procedure for performing a Breast Self-Exam (BSE), which has been a method for detecting breast cancer since the 1930s. However, in recent years the benefits of performing BSE have come into question.”

Hungary Makes The News

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A friend from my semester in Budapest posted this video to our Facebook group. The video shows the metro station underneath Keleti train station, which runs service west to Austria and Germany, as it looked on 9 September. He said the news about the “Migrant Crisis” in Hungary feels really personal to him. I feel the same way.

Keleti was the closest station to my school, and the closest Metro 4 to my apartment. It was the area where I went to the post office, where I bought train tickets, where I drank espresso and did homework. It was home: how can it not feel personal?

In stark contrast to the video above, this is a photo I took of the station one year ago:

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The station was brand new; it felt way too modern and way too enormous. It was eerie and echo-y, built for far more people than used it. There were about three or four homeless people who regularly slept in this station, who would come in at night and be gone by morning. The difference between the Keleti I knew and the Keleti in the video resonates deeply with me.

I don’t want to make any real political comments on the “Migrant/Refugee/Immigration” “Issue/Crisis/Problem/Question,” but I will say that I’m not surprised it’s being dealt with so poorly by the Hungarian government. I’m not surprised that what is finally putting Hungary on international headlines is a barbed-wire fence, a kicking camerawoman, and a closed train station.

Hungary is the kind of place where it’s illegal to be in public without an ID, and if you’re annoying the police they’ll actually ask you for it. It’s the kind of place with no diversity: where 92% of the population is Hungarian, 99.6% speak Hungarian, and everyone is white. It’s the kind of place where the international immigration process literally involves a man sitting behind a desk using a glue stick to paste eighty dollars worth of postage stamps to a sheet of paper. Literally! A glue stick!

The Times described the political environment:

Hungary is not explicitly a poor country. But it is a frustrated, and frustrating, place — with its “seen better days” culture, antiquated manias and obsessions, barely functioning bureaucracy, tepid economy and corrupt politicians. (Noemi Szecsi, NYT)

I love Budapest, despite its problems. It is one of the places I still consider home, and I’m watching the news with a full heart.

Homesickness

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Drawing Space II (2)

I am out of my math element here. I’m in the BU bioinformatics REU, and the lab I was placed in is a biochemistry group.  My desk is literally in the middle of a chem wet lab, which is somewhat of an inconvenience as I like to take off my shoes and drink coffee when I program or do math. But, of course, that’s against lab safety rules! :P

I like the work that I’m doing, which is primarily writing scripts for a protein sequence clustering analysis program. I don’t understand enough biology or chemistry to tell you what type of proteins I’m putting through my programs or why we’re clustering them in these ways: to me they’re just numbers. I like it better that way, and see my programs as puzzles in which I need to trick the computer into outputting the groups of numbers that I want.

Being in the chem lab is kind of cool, if somewhat uncomfortable. The grad students around me are doing things with chemicals that I will never do and are far outside my range of knowledge. I’ve learned what a glovebox is, and have been able to see and appreciate the way chem experiments are very time, location, and temperature sensitive.

On Friday I took a break and walked across the street to the Mathematics + Computer Science building. Whenever I am working for a long time, I tend to take short mental breaks where I just sort of wander the halls and stare at the posters.

Outside my chem lab, I see symposium advertisements for “21st Century Genetics: Genes at Work” and research posters on “Reductive Activation and Catalytic Insights in Bacterial c Peroxidases.” In the math department, I saw their posters for SIAM and BSM, as well as a course descriptions list that I fully understand. It was very comforting. Home-y.

I think I’m going through a culture shock and homesickness of sorts up here in the chem department!
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Bio_Info REU Day 1

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Monday I found myself in a conference room on the tenth floor of the Life Sciences building, listening to my post-doc advisor explain his most recent project. Hundreds of issues of Nature and Science covered the bookshelves, and a wall of windows overlooked the Charles, Harvard, MIT, and the “infamous CITGO sign.”

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10th Floor LSEB

My post-doc said something that I was acutely aware was meant to be a joke. The biology reference went over my head, but I pretended to laugh anyway to ease the awkward.

I took notes while he was talking to me, but most of them consisted of things I was too embarrassed to ask about:

  • What does SSN stand for?
    sequence similarity network, not social security number
  • What’s the workflow?
    the order in which you run big programs? sort of?
  • What does “PI” stand for?
    principle investigator, aka the head of the lab. not 3.14159

I only have a NYS 10th-grade knowledge of biology. Yet this is the second time I’ve decided for some reason to join a bioinformatics research group.

For both projects, the first day has been the same: someone with a PhD in a biology-related field explains to me what they are working on while I try to keep my brain from exploding. It always makes me wonder why I’m doing what I’m doing.

Last fall, on the first day I met the Hungarian neuroscientists, for example, I spent the entire 2-hour research meeting thinking they were studying this phenomenon called SHARK wave ripples instead of SHARP wave ripples. I thought that was cute, and totally saw the resemblance between the SWR pattern and a shark fin in the ocean:

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(to be fair, their Hungarian accent was really thick)
These kinds of experiences make me worry that I don’t belong here, that I’m not going to be able to help with the project, that I will be annoyingly slow– IMPOSTOR syndrome.
I try to remember that this is an REU and the point of it is for me to learn. I’ve already been handed a textbook and five papers to read through! That should be a start!

More Math-y Adventures

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I started this blog a year ago to help me get ready for two adventures that involved a whole lot of high-level math, in two places I’d never been, with a lot of people I’d never met. I was preparing for my summer at SMP in Minnesota and then my Fall semester at BSM in Hungary.

A year ago, I was questioning my abilities in math. I was in the depths of my Real Analysis course which was the first math class I really struggled in and had to work for. I was incredibly nervous about spending the next summer and semester surrounded by all this high-level math and all those math geeks. What if I didn’t fit in? What if I didn’t like math that much? What if wasn’t smart enough?

A year ago, I couldn’t have imagined the ways in which SMP and BSM would change my life. I made so many new friends and met so many new people who I have laughed with, loved with, cried with, and worked with. These math people? They’re my people. I am now so confident in my math abilities and love of the subject. I’ve learned what it means to DO math, as opposed to just study it, and have found the joy in learning and doing as much of it as I can. I’ve become one of those people I used to joke about who read their math books for fun.

A year ago, I couldn’t have imagined I would ever feel that I’d “outgrown” my liberal arts math department. Even though there are still courses I haven’t taken, I’m jealous of my BSM friends who go to University and have more than two options of 300-level math courses, and I miss being in class with other students who want to use their math education to be mathematicians. The level of intensity I learned while at SMP and BSM makes me feel like I don’t really belong here.

I’ve spent this semester transitioning back into New England, suburban, liberal arts college life. I’ve been taking a math course on optimization, learning the headaches of debugging hardware in my robotics workshop, writing for my journalism class, and trying to finish up my music minor.

And now I am SO ready for more math-y adventures!

This summer I am going to Boston to work in a bioinformatics lab group. I don’t really know what I’ll be doing or who I’ll be working with, but I am excited to live in the city that my sister calls home, and to be part of a research group again!

Just like a year ago, I can’t know what’s coming my way, but I’m ready for the challenge.

Me and my sister.

Me and my sister on the Bp metro.

Back to the Liberal Arts Version of Math

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My professor goes through a proof during lecture that requires the definition of a convex combination.


Situation A: BSM, Game Theory Classroom:

He sees our blank stares and says, “What? Weren’t you required to take matrix algebras before you came here? Don’t you know what a convex set is?”

A number of students pull out theirs phones to look the term up as he proceeds with the lecture. We all receive an email later that day with the subject title “READ” and a link to an explanation of convex combinations that everyone will know before the next lecture.


Situation B: Smith College: Optimization Class:

She sees our blank stares and asks if anyone knows what a convex combination is. I’m the only one who raises her hand (thank you, Game Theory Professor).

The lecture stops and a full-out definition of convex combinations begins, complete with diagrams of geometric convex sets and explanations of the necessary set notations. We don’t finish the planned lecture for the day.


imagesI find the two versions of this situation quite representative of the difference between my Hungarian mathematics experience and my liberal arts mathematics experience. Honestly, I’m not sure which I prefer anymore.

On the one hand, it was very easy to get lost in lecture at BSM (e.g.: you just missed everything that was happening when you looked up the definition of convex combinations on your phone), but my current math lectures are so slow in comparison. People ask SO. MANY. QUESTIONS. Like, people ask questions about other people’s questions.

In Hungary, the professor might actually tell you that your question is too basic and needs to be talked about after lecture. And we covered so much more ground because of it. But… we covered so much more ground because you never fully understand everything that was being taught.

I can’t say that one mathematics experience is BETTER than another; they serve different purposes.

Although I’m definitely missing my Hungarian mathematics very much right now.

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Also, snow. So much snow. :o

From Hungarian Friends

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“Denial of past actions is the habit of dictators and stubborn preschoolers”
–at Memento Park.

Since my program was only for American math students, I spoke with Hungarians infrequently during my semester in Budapest. But when I did, I was fascinated by what they would tell me about their lives, their friends, their work.

Here are a few of the things which stuck with me most, in their words as much as possible:


On Minimum Wage:
“Budapest is cheap for Americans, not cheap for Hungarians. Minimum wage in America is so high. Here it is somewhere like 3 dollars an hour! I cannot live on that.”
Male, age 22, Temp. Jobs

On Homelessness:
“When I was in the States, I’ve seen the people sleeping on the streets. I thought, `In this country which is so rich and developed, how can they let other human beings sleep in the street?’ But now look at Hungary, look at Budapest. Since we have no money left to put into welfare, the same things are happening here.”
Female, age 50, Teacher

On Guns:
“I live in the ghettos in Budapest. It’s okay, it’s safe for a guy like me. I mean, if you’ve got a problem with someone else, you just fight him. Physical stuff. With your hands. You take him, he takes you, and you get it all worked out. But in America, everyone’s got a gun. You got a problem with someone, you don’t know what they’re going to pull on you. That is what scares me.”
Male, age 23, Student

On Language:
“Growing up in Hungary, I learned very young that not everyone speaks my language. I learned very young that after travelling just two hours, if I wanted to be understood I had to learn to speak something other than Hungarian. You feel like a child when you are in Hungary, having to do hand motions and speak in small words. Me, that is how I feel everywhere that is not home.”
Female, age 26, Medical Secretary