Dear World.

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In high school I was that kid. Who constructed a dresser-sized wood masterpiece out of plywood and stained it with mahogany finish… for a creative project about “my odyssey.” Most people got by with a paper, or a handily done poster. Not me. I made my dad tote that masterpiece of a chest all the way from my house to school. I coded books from front to back with a rainbow of colors. For that, I still remember the opening words of Ellen Foster. And one year when we were asked to devise a “personal project” — a capstone of the IB program– I had the grand idea of planting a big ol’ garden. I remember how it was a dream drawing up that project proposal and thinking about all the vegetables I wanted to plant, all the flowers I would buy. Not worried (or at all aware) of how much money, time, pure sweat, and joy that garden would gift and challenge me with, I drew up a plan that was ambitious to say the least. But no one ever stopped me.

I think about those projects a lot these days. I wonder mostly why my teachers never ever looked at me once and said YOU ARE CRAZY, child. What are you doing? I think about the smug glances my parents would give me. They never said no. But there were definitely those side glances. Those there she goes again moments. Yep, that’s our daughter.

Henrico wasn’t the richest school. We didn’t have a gazillion AP classes. But I had teachers who never ever ever told me no, even though they probably were thinking in the back of their minds where the heck is this kid coming from….? I know they worried. But they let me learn and do things as I wanted to. When I came up with these big elaborate projects for simple assignments, they just let me do it. When my classmates got snarky, they defended me. When my classmates grew complimentary, they humbled me.

I realize now how lucky I was. In high school, my teachers placed no limits on what I could do.

It is ironic to me then that as I sit at Harvard, a place filled with more opportunity than I ever could have imagined, more places to go, more people to meet than I ever could have guessed… it’s here that I suddenly feel limited.

In high school explaining the ways of the world was possible, an (attempted) explanation born of naiveté and optimism perhaps, but a possibility nonetheless.

Age and Harvard have gifted me (for better or worse) with more pragmatism. And some brevity too. I realize now how enormous the challenges of the world are. I’ve been frustrated by the push to pare down these problems, these big questions into simple, quantifiable variables that I can study. But I do realize the necessity.

Put simply, last year when I walked into a professor’s office and he asked me what I wanted to study, I said: the world. He chuckled. That’s what you say now.

But in high school, that wasn’t too weighty a proposition. The world wasn’t too big. Trying to explain it wasn’t an impossible feat. In college (and with age), it is enormous, spanning far wider than I ever could have imagined from my little room on Greenbrooke Drive. The people that fill it, the stories both told and untold, the conflicts, the wars, the peaceful resolutions, the problems still not fixed. The world is huge and while I knew that on some intellectual level as a high school student, youth kept me from really believing it.

The hard lesson of this year so far has been realizing that even as I have so many BIG questions, for now I must focus on just one. In a clutter crisis of a world inundated by news and social media and boundless human interactions, that is TOUGH. And narrowing my work here as an undergraduate to just one question is not easy. And while I am grateful for what this is teaching me, boy do I miss high school.

For now, I must leave you with two quotes that have been helping me in this process, as relayed to me by the anchor from the show I worked on this past summer– Fareed Zakaria… as was once told to him by his mentor (and former Harvard Professor), Samuel Huntington.

“You have to find a big independent variable and a big dependent variable.

If you’re trying to explain something trivial, who cares?”

“If you tell people the world is complicated, you’re not doing your job as a social scientist. They already know its complicated, your job is to distill it, simplify it, and give them a sense of what is the single, or what are the couple, of powerful causes that explain this powerful phenomenon.”

The benefits (and predicaments) of non-response.

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Today is one of those days (actually this is one of those weeks) that I feel like I could spend my whole time just doing emails and meetings and I’d still not make a dent on the stuff that needs to get done (and that in all honesty, I actually want to do.) Sometimes, I catch myself wondering how really important people do it– think about all the emails they must get!– and then I realize that those people generally have assistants to plan their lives out for them. Go figure.

Coming into this year, I became very intentional about how I’d handle email. My strategy has been to think very critically about the emails that need to be responded to and responding only to those that require it. But this, I’ve come to realize, has its trade-offs. For example, if someone emails me saying they can’t make it for a meeting, it’s read and deleted. If I responded to every email about a scheduling conflict, I’d go crazy. But that does mean that the person on the other end doesn’t get the reassuring “oh, that’s totally fine– thanks for telling me” they’d get if they told me in person. Left unsaid, I’ve learned that non-response can drive people crazy. I get that. I worry that sometimes people might perceive curt, short emails (or in this case, no email at all) as indicative of my being upset or angry that they can’t make something when in reality, I’m on an email cleanse and am trying to be rather intentional about those things that get responded to.

It’s been an exercise in self-restraint, don’t get me wrong. The amount of emails I get every day borders on ludicrous. The amount of words I’d type if I responded with my all to every single mail would mean I’d get by writing papers (and I mean papers) of responses, in effect having a conversation with my computer– not a person.

And then there’s the other thing about this kind of “responsiveness.” It has the effect of me being more plugged in to my headset and simultaneously flowing texting chains than the actual world around me.  In effect, it’s a kind of responsiveness that renders me not responsive at all– non-responsive that is to the things that really, really matter.

It’s a policy for myself that I worry sometimes makes me seem less accessible, less forgiving. But I’ve reconciled with it in this way: those people who understand me most, whose friendships I value highly– they get it. They understand that I’d rather have a conversation with them in person rather than via typed text.

Just some thoughts as we tackle this week– Happy Monday, sweet readers!

Everyone Needs a Walk in the Woods

Everyone needs a walk in the woods.

-Sury

After spending a beautiful fall Saturday at the Harvard Forest, I’ve realized just how right my  friend was when she uttered those words as simply as one might utter the fairytale ending of a familiar bedtime story. When I think about them now, I realize that it was not these fairytale endings in themselves that seemed so “true” and irrefutable to me at the time, but rather the simple fact that once they were told, the book would be closed, and they would give me the ability to usher in sleep until the morning arrived again. And that’s kind of the way I feel about taking a walk in the woods. The walk itself was simple and true like my well-worn fairytale endings, but what I loved most was the way in which it bookended my week, and let me usher in the rest I needed before Monday would roll around once more.

Let’s take a walk.

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The day started bright and early as our motley crew gulped down coffee and donuts and settled into the 1.5 hour car ride to the forest, a 3,500 acre tract of land complete with a museum, plenty of ongoing research projects, and beautiful fall foliage that littered the ground we would soon be trekking across.

We had also been asked to pack a lunch. So, naturally, several of the boys had ordered their favorite dish from Cheesecake Factory and decided to bring it along. As we stood in the welcome center at 10:15am, one began unwrapping his package and subsequently looked around for a microwave. “Should I microwave it in this?” he asked loudly, gesturing to a 100% plastic container. No one seemed to notice, since many were still clutching coffee and talking about the day ahead. I must have been silently shaking my head, because the boy who said it suddenly found my gaze and said, “Oh, no? Ok, better not.” I could only smile to myself. Ah well, boys will be boys. The pasta dish would have to be consumed at a later hour (perhaps after breakfast).

Besides the food we had packed, we were all well bundled in coats and sweaters in case the weather turned chilly and there were several bird identification guides littered among the group. Our biology class had come to spend a day observing the ongoing projects in conservation, environmental change, and land use in this historic forest. All I could think from the outset was how happy I was to be a part of that homey-log cabin feel that I associated with summer vacations in the mountains and the impending walk that we would be taking through these trees.

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If I had to sum it up, I’d say just how much a change of scenery means to me. And loving whatever environment you’re in, while you’re right there in the middle of it. There is only so much we can control in our lives, and aside from the people we surround ourselves with, I am a firm believer in using your feet to move to the places that will inspire you most, or at least teach you something.

I’m reading a book called The Diversity of Life for this same class, and it’s taught me quite a bit about this wide world I’ve been occupying for the last 20 years.  In the latest chapter, I learned that we have classified about 1.4 million species on Earth, but this still only constitutes about 1/10 of all life. And even in using rigorous scientific methods, we base these classifications on a surprising number of assumptions such that nothing can be truly “empirical” as we might have imagined scientific inquiry to be.

The Harvard Forest has been a long-term ecological research site since 1988 and the museum at its welcome center features a series of beautiful dioramas which depict the evolution of the forest over time from cleared land to farmland to repopulation by plant and animal species. Throughout the course of the day, I learned plenty of tidbits about the way the landscape had changed and would continue to do so.

For example, I learned that pine trees are usually the first to repopulate an abandoned field. I learned that bears have a remarkable physiology and that squirrels bite sugar maple trees in order to release the sap that oozes out in early spring. I learned that most of the lightning that occurs in our world is actually “ground up” and not the kind we see flickering above us in the sky. And my favorite–I learned that American Chestnut trees are known as “Peter Pan” trees because they never do grow up.

As we walked through those woods, I learned quite a bit about the environment that surrounded me, and I like to think it gave me a newfound appreciation for what it means to take a walk in the woods in the first place. Needless to say, I’d have to say that I agree with Sury: trekking through the woods really is something that we could all use every once in a while. It’s not like standing at the edge of an ocean and having that visceral connection to the sand beneath your feet as the realization that the world is incredibly, hopelessly vast washes over you–no, this is more like immersing yourself in the vastness of the world, and despite it all, feeling powerful enough to claim your steps within it.

When we got back to the welcome center, it was time for a quick lunch before we headed home. And I’ll lay your fears to rest here before signing off–the boys finally did figure out a way to heat up their pasta.

I’d say it was a successful day.

The First Few Weeks: in Snapshots

Strong hands, thick skin, and an open heart.

Maybe it’s because I grew up listening to her. Or because I was convinced from a very young age that Rose’s heart would always go on. Either way, I’ve always loved the story and words of Celine Dion. And this week, her new single has definitely been on repeat. It’s interesting to think of the timing, during this, the beginning of October and Fall’s characteristically loud announcement that it has finally arrived. It’s a season when the leaves are vibrantly displaying their last show before their inevitable recession into the Earth. And yet, Celine’s new single–“Loved Me Back to Life”–is not a song about impending hibernation, but rather rejuvenation. Her words–empowering, charismatic, chilling, and beautiful–have carried me through this week as I fall (as I always do) in love with fall, and remind me that even in a season leading to slumber, rejuvenation is always possible.

And so, just as this blog is being brought back to life at the beginning of a new school year, here are a few snapshots of what we’ve been up to!

Inesha presents Junior year with a question, or rather, a challenge: shall we dance? As the slightly antagonistic twin, I’d have to vary that statement just a bit. Let’s dance, certainly, but more importantly, let’s build on all the good that we’ve already got going (not as catchy, perhaps, but 100% true) :)

Breakfast of Champions

There are things we wish we could be there for. In person. Physically. There. Like seeing our little sister take on a skating competition and bringing home the gold. I still remember her on the ice at 5 years old. Ten years later and she wins the national ice dancing championships for her level. Boy, do we wish we could have been there. This video for now will have to do.

Till we can skate together again… Resh, we are so proud.

Unreasonably excited…by grapes

It’s the Friday before a long weekend, and I woke up feeling refreshed. I then walked into the dining hall for breakfast, and lo and behold, THERE WERE GRAPES.

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Now, for those of you who are frowning with confusion at the slight absurdity of my reaction (and the all caps font that I’ve felt necessary to include to express it), I will fully admit that my excitement at seeing these sweet purple orbs of natural sugar in the dining hall this morning is a bit unreasonable. Bordering on amusing, even. But nevertheless, I find it justifiable because in and of themselves, grapes are a novel affair for those of us in the campus breakfast-eating crowd. After all, in comparison to the more humdrum affair of apples, oranges, and bananas that exist at every meal and other occasion in Harvard dining halls, the sight of grapes has the ability to spontaneously become a sign that why yes, today is going to be a good day. (I assure you, I also wish that every other fruit would elicit that kind of reaction).

On a more meaningful note though, these grapes–besides adding variety to my normal breakfast fare–also brought back thoughts of yesterday’s Women’s Faculty Reception, hosted by The Seneca. It was a lovely and intimate gathering of Harvard women and their favorite female faculty members that was designed  to encourage reflection, discussion, and foster the spirit of collegiality that is so important on the campus of any academic institution.

Stephanie Khurana, one of the masters of Cabot House and an entrepreneurial guru of sorts, was one of the invited speakers. I’ve always enjoyed listening to her speak and on this particular morning of grape-induced happiness, I find myself dwelling on one of the things that she said that struck a particular chord with me. Perhaps you’ll find some inspiration in it yourself.

Sometimes it’s incredible how you can create value by making something just a little different than it was before.

Maybe it’s the strawberries that you turn into strawberry pie. Or the grapes that you add to the dining hall breakfast menu. (Or even something unrelated to food.) In any case, I think the lesson is the same:

you needn’t invent something new in order to create value, but in the process of creating value, it is very possible that you will have invented something not just new, but ingenious.

Eat plenty of fruit and have a wonderful long weekend, everyone!

The Season of Excess

The other day in my Anatomy and Physiology lecture, our professor was explaining to us how the body has evolved mechanisms to respond to a deficit in energy supply due to conditions such as starvation—namely, we have evolved the miraculous mechanism of fat storage. We have not, however, evolved a means of dealing with excess caloric intake. As I reflected on that concept, I realized that in so many ways the Harvard experience is all about excess, and the four years we have here are spent navigating through it. Of course, I must admit that the sheer abundance of resources is in many ways a blessing, but it can equally prove to be a burden.

Walking past the three Starbucks of Harvard Square, another three destinations for frozen yogurt, a multitude of libraries, frenetic bursts of construction surrounding the Harvard Houses, and the variable number of red bean bags lounging in the Science Center Plaza, I can’t help but feel excess in the very routes that I walk. It is a theme that I hope to explore in a broader research project investigating the latitude of the fragmented healthcare system in the impoverished state of Chiapas, Mexico later this spring. As I walk through the Plaza and one bean bag melds with a giant chess board and a too-large-to-be-inconspicuous foosball table lying at the side of the Science Center, thoughts about excess are very much on my mind. I wonder: how can we gain access to the resources we really need amidst such abundance? How much is too much and when does it cause our senses to be so inundated that we become numb to what we really need? You could apply these same questions to the fragmented healthcare systems that exist both in poor, rural communities in developing countries and also right here in Cambridge. When the system is over saturated with a multitude of providers, insurance companies, and avenues towards care, how is a patient to choose the right one? Even in resource-poor areas, such as Chiapas, the choice between a traditional healer, a social service year physician who works with a local NGO, and a government hospital can prove daunting to an individual who is seeking care. The system  starts to require a roadmap for use rather than being a roadmap itself. What results is a disgruntled and mistreated patient who suffers from an inability to manage the system for the sheet enormity of it. How ironic it is that the biggest challenge brought by excess is the issue of gaining access.

Of course, though, excess is not a “problem” that we are accustomed to discussing. In a field like global health, the lingua franca is the verbiage of shortage—be it with regard to supplies, healthcare facilities, transport vehicles, or medical practitioners. How can we change, or at least adjust, the prevalent discourse to account for the problems that excess can pose? Whether it be in the form of eager new medical residents, policymakers ready to wave their pens and radiate waves of change around them, or thought leaders who have many ideas about the way things should be done, there are so many points at which excess plagues our system—perhaps even more than scarcity can.

What is most troubling, though, is the tendency of excess itself to become entangled in a self-perpetuating cycle that we  can become accustomed to all too quickly. To address this, we might do well to identify the moment at which what was once excess  becomes merely adequate, to the point that we suddenly begin clamoring for even more.

And this brings me back to Harvard.

For me, the fall has always been the season that is most generous with lending its beauty to the routes I walk. And I’m so grateful for it. The season lightly taps the trees that fill the parks and House courtyards, almost as if giving its permission for them to let their leaves loose and release the bounty of marigold and red that has been yearning to be set free. Their descent is the signal of the end of the season of excess, and the harbinger of the winter months that warn of scarcity. Of course, the change of the seasons and its effects are far more poetic in my mind than would be represented on a Keeling Curve in my Evolutionary biology class, for example. The point, though, is the same. Excess, too, has its seasons. In the winter months, there is less vegetation eagerly photosynthesizing and spouting out oxygen. Thus, carbon dioxide levels rise. With the onset of summer, the opposite effect will take place. In some ways, it is a subtle shift, but the variation is there nonetheless. It is there when I read that Harvard, our veritable bastion of financial stability, is experiencing a budget deficit in the current season. It is there too when I hear my Professor lecture about the increasing rates of caloric intake among humans and its effects on our metabolic machinery. Perhaps we are in an evolutionary era of excess as a species.

In many ways, navigating excess is the perennial challenge in a world that is still in want of so much. To access the resources that we really need, we must first make our way through the clutter. In my mind, just understanding this is the first hurdle.

As for me, I will continue to navigate Harvard in my own way during these weeks of change—not just of the seasonal kind but too in a world where biochemical weapons are grabbing news headlines and national leaders weren’t able to prevent the United States government from shutting down. My worries seem minuscule in comparison to the ones that result from excesses of the hegemonic and prideful kind. Still though, as I put one foot in front of the other, I can’t help but wish that navigating the excesses of the real world was this beautiful.

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