Category Archives: The “Real” World

3,636 Miles, 10 Weeks, 2 Homes, and 1 Great City

As I venture through my last summer as a Hopkins student, I am beginning to realize that writing about my highly anticipated abroad adventures is much harder than I originally thought it would be. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time, and I’ve jealously read so many others, hoping to feel and portray the same magic that they have over the last few years on this website. I’ve sat down to write this blog several times, and I’ve deleted what I’ve written every time, because none of it seems to entirely encompass everything I’ve seen, felt, and experienced in my first few weeks across the pond.

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A quaint row of homes just behind my residence hall

This Friday will mark exactly one month since my arrival in London. I’ve seen so much and crossed so many things off the “London Bucket List” note that remains open on my computer, but I’ve also found time to make a “London Bucket List” and spend a few days binge-watching Mad Men. Yesterday, I got on a tour bus to take a solo day trip to Stonehenge and Bath, and the woman sitting next to me on the bus asked how long I had been in London. When I told her I had been here for a little over three weeks, she looked at me and said “Wow, that’s a long time.”

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The infamous Big Ben. I love him.

I think that what she said is true. Being on that bus was weird yesterday, because I felt out of place. My visa says short-term student, but my lab schedule is variable. The people in the residence hall I live in see me as new (and lucky — a lot of them are still taking exams and I’ve been done for over a month now), and I don’t necessarily feel like a tourist anymore either. I still stop in the middle of the street to take a picture when I see something I don’t want to forget, but I don’t need to use Citymapper to navigate campus or South Kensington anymore. Being on that bus made me realize that I’m not on vacation, but I’m not a long-term resident either. I don’t really know where I fit in this city with a population of 8.6 million people, but I do know that I’ve appreciated every minute, even when I’ve been homesick or lonely. And that has happened.

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The Queen was in the day I took this. It made me feel very properly English.

My journey to this point cannot be spoken about without a brief discussion of the Vredenburg Scholarship. I’ve written about the Vredenburg Scholarship before, but it’s worth mentioning in this blog that it is one of many opportunities Hopkins gives to its students to study abroad. For people like me who can’t swing a semester for any number of reasons, this couldn’t have been more perfect. The Vredenburg Scholarship funds students with a major in the Whiting School of Engineering to participate in research, internships, or service projects related to engineering anywhere in the world. The scholarship covers up to $8,000 for 8 to 10 weeks, including funds for airfare, housing, food, any program fees, books, supplies, and a flat amount to go to any cultural sights of interest.

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The V&A, around the corner from my current dorm

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Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I in the National Portrait Gallery

My top destinations for about as long as I can remember were London and Paris — simply put, I like cities and I’m a travel newbie, although I don’t think I’ll still be able to say that after this trip. Since I haven’t dusted off my French in about three years, that eliminated 10 weeks in Paris (though it didn’t eliminate a weekend trip, I’ll be there in July) and left me with London. It became such an obvious choice. Imperial College London is ranked #2 for Chemical Engineering in the U.K. and #6 in the world. In the last three weeks, I’ve started training in basic cell culture techniques, cell counting and viability assays, and I’ve developed a (very) rudimentary protocol for preparation of cell extracts. My project for the summer is a small part of a larger project to develop a cell-free protein synthesis system to optimize production of therapeutic glycoproteins. My “job” is to help with optimization of the cell extracts, but I’m still in the early stages, so I have yet to determine exactly what that entails.

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The Queen’s Tower, the only original building remaining of the original Imperial Institute at Imperial College London

The best part about this summer is how much I have been able to do. For my entire life, I’ve lived in New York, but since I live in the far reaches of Queens, the city that never sleeps is largely unavailable to me unless I carve out a chunk of a day. Here, I live in central London, and the entire city is right outside my doorstep. Until July 1, I will be living in South Kensington, less than a 5 minute walk to Imperial’s main campus, and after that I will be about 35 minutes away in Waterloo — a touristy, but trendy and central location nonetheless. I imagine that living in central London is something like living in Manhattan. There are endless opportunities and places to explore at a stone’s throw away (sometimes even spitting distance).

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My first afternoon “tea” where I got iced coffee instead

Thanks to my location, traveling couldn’t be easier. I’ve been to many of London’s museums, including the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Modern, the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Science Museum. I’ve also seen plenty of iconic sights, like Westminster Abbey and Big Ben, the Tower of London, Millennium and Tower bridges, the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at Buckingham Palace, Carnaby Street and Soho, Piccadilly Circus, Hyde Park, and Sky Garden. I’ve also seen a concert at the O2 Arena, had afternoon tea, traveled to see Stonehenge, drank cider in Somerset County, and eaten a Bath bun.

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The Roman Baths in Bath, UK

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Stonehenge, which was both confusing and surreal in Salisbury Plain, UK

Perhaps the best part about being abroad are all of the things you couldn’t possibly learn unless you experience them yourself. People don’t tell you that the tube is tiny and generally not air conditioned. The only exceptions to that are the Circle and District lines, but they are a bit slower than the Piccadilly line, which is the alternative in Zone 1. Each tube line has a fun but uninformative name, like Jubilee or Bakerloo, and the tube cannot be called “the train”, because there is also a train system separate from the tube. None of the streets are numbered, and everything in London is “walking distance,” even though that means that an hour walk is completely normal. I still don’t know what the proper response to “Cheers!” is and I still can’t define “cheeky.” Apparently, I have an accent (who knew?) and the way that I say “weird” is weird.

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Telephone booth carcasses near Leicester Square, so sad

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Lopsided but important photo of Westminster Abbey

Even stranger, the cars drive on the wrong side of the street, but the city of London knows that. At your feet at every crosswalk, it tells you which direction to look before crossing. There is a 5p charge for a plastic bag at most stores to encourage people to reuse their own bags. Primark sells everything from carry-on suitcases to clothes to home goods, and all at incredible prices. The average cocktail here costs £10, or $13, and student unions often feature bars because most people are of drinking age when they go to college (which they call uni here). Iced coffee is scarce and air conditioning is even scarcer.

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Cider from Somerset County at The Old Green Tree in Bath, UK

There are so many things about this city that I’ve learned in just a few weeks. I thought that going to college made me an independent adult when I left home for Hopkins three years ago, but for those of you who fancy yourselves independent people, I challenge you to travel 3,636 miles away from everyone you care about and explore a new place entirely on your own. It’s made me realize that I love my friends, but it’s also made me realize that not having familiarity doesn’t stop me from doing what I want to do. I have gone to each of the places I mentioned earlier completely alone. I took my phone and a portable charger, and I went, and for that, I’m pretty damn proud of myself.

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Millennium Bridge, for my fellow Harry Potter fans!

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Alt-J at the O2, I feel like I paid for a concert but I also got a lights show. Truly an incredible experience.

But here’s the real kicker in all of this: I didn’t think it was possible, but I think I’ve found a better place than New York City. I love you, London, and I can’t wait to see what the next 6.5 weeks hold for us.

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View south of the Thames from Sky Garden, cheers to more like this one!

On Planning Your Summer

When the snow is falling and temperatures dip below freezing, my friends are dreaming of white sand beaches and tanned skin. I revel in putting on my winter coat and the stillness of a cold, gray day. Maybe I’m a freak, but I prefer winter to summer. I’d rather be bundled up and wrapped in a blanket drinking hot cocoa than feel sticky sweat on the back of my neck on a humid August day. Still, while I’m living in bliss every winter, I am forced to think about the summer months looming ahead because whether I like it or not (I don’t), my last summer as a college student is approaching.

What this meant for me was that I had to plan my sweaty days well ahead of time. Every field of interest has relevant research and job opportunities, each with different deadlines. In my experience, engineering research and jobs often have deadlines as early as mid-December, and most are closed by the end of January. After an initial survey of the opportunities available to me in December, I decided that my first choice would be to pursue biology-oriented research abroad by applying for the Vredenburg scholarship, which Hopkins engineering students can apply for.

The decision almost made itself. I’ve dedicated this year to finding travel opportunities within my means, which translates to seeking out scholarships for educational reasons. There is a wide variety of majors at Hopkins that lend themselves to semesters abroad or even a year abroad, but mine led me to a search for a summer abroad because a semester just didn’t seem feasible. An opportunity to spend a few months in a different country and gain some academic perspective into a new research topic provided the appropriate academic component of a study abroad experience, while also allowing me to continue doing research, and (best of all), live in a foreign country.

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Hyde Park, London (I will be living across the street.)

After an extensive search and an even more lengthy application, I decided that I wanted to study at Imperial College in London, England this summer. Because I’m planning to attend graduate school and pursue a PhD in chemical engineering or a similar field, a research position felt like the right fit. I get to attend a fabulous university for ten weeks and conduct research on the synthesis of therapeutic glycoproteins, all while living in central London on my own.

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From one library to another, Imperial College library

I never thought I’d say it, but I can’t wait for the sticky summer days to get here, because that means I get to embark on my study abroad adventure.

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Majestic London skyline, I’m ready for you.

Confessions of a College Summer

With July heat reaching record highs in New York and the air conditioner in my house reaching maximum usage along with it, summer is in full swing. We’re a little bit more than half way through, and I’ll be back in Baltimore in less than a month (but not before my first trip to the Florida Keys — I miss you, Izzy!). I’ve been spending my summer in the city, but working a full-time desk job has given me a lot of time to think, and one thing is for certain: the first summer after freshman year of college is a shock. You go from complete independence to living with your family, where time seems as though it has been standing still. For the first time in your life, it seems like time travel is possible; all of the people that you know and love from home are back, and despite a week or two of adjustment, you initially feel like nothing has really changed. Then you realize you’re a whole lot different. Even though you might be living the way you did before you left, you’re leaps and bounds smarter, and you’ve picked up more than a few new habits.

I may be speaking in third person here, but I’m totally talking about myself.

I’ve done some things this summer that I never would have dreamed of last year, but I’ve also done some things that remind me how short one year is. Freshman year is weird like that, but I’m learning that the summer following it is just as much a part of the experience as the fall and spring semesters.

So there are a few things that have helped me come to this realization.

  1. Different: I’ve gone out of the country. Before this year, I never would have been able to travel internationally, simply for financial reasons. Now, based on the sole fact that I turned eighteen, I was able to travel 6,000 miles to Israel for free. I can thank my new “adulthood” and my first year of college for that.

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    Coffee in a foreign country

  2. Same: I’ve held a full-time 9-to-5 desk job. Since this is my second year at this job, there’s no change in my daily routine, but my Excel skills now allow me to blast through spreadsheet assignments, so I get things done much more quickly. All of the credit goes to Physics I/II Lab and Professor Gray on that one. I’m even getting fancy with those ab$olute reference$.

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    Coffee in a not-so-foreign country

  3. Same: I’ve bought three pairs of shoes. I swear I’m trying to save the money I’m making, but sometimes a girl needs shoes. Sometimes it’s three pairs in one month. Shoes always have been and always will be my favorite thing to shop for. No apologies — after all, the rest will certainly be going toward textbooks, the lunch buffet at Akbar, and Brody coffee throughout the school year.

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    I have no shame.

  4. Different: I read a four hundred page novel in a day and have finished four books in the past two weeks. I started high school a bookworm, and left not having read a book of my choosing for at least two years. Having so little time to read in the past few years, especially this last one, has made me realize how great it is when you find one of those books that you can’t even put down long after you’ve finished it. Two weeks ago, I read All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, and I’ve been picking up one book after the other ever since. I hope that I can bring that habit back to school with me, because it’s a much more rewarding procrastination technique than Netflix. Speaking of which…

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    Read this from cover to cover in 12 hours

  5. Different: I’m addicted to Netflix. My sisters have been telling me for years how amazing Netflix is, but with the exception of Criminal Minds, I don’t think I’ve ever watched a television series all the way through. When I got my wisdom teeth out over spring break, I discovered Netflix, and my life has been changed forever. Since then, I’ve finished House of Cards, Breaking Bad, and I’m spending the summer working my way through Bones. I spent all of Saturday watching it and finished the first season. I’m ignoring the warning signs here, obviously.

Finally here’s the real kicker, and probably the most productive part of my summer.

Different: I learned how to drive, passed my road test, and am waiting to get my official driver’s license in the mail. Last June, I sat in the Jamaica DMV for six hours to get my permit, but as a city kid, I wasn’t really taking it too seriously, and I just wanted state ID. I figured while I was at it, I might as well take the permit test instead of getting a non-driver’s ID. After making countless friends with licensed drivers at Hopkins, I decided it might be helpful to learn how to drive. It would be an easy way to extend the independence I found at school back in New York, especially if I needed frozen yogurt and my mother refused to take me. I’ve been in that situation before, and now it will never happen again. My first licensed drive was with my sisters to the nearest Red Mango.

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Licensed and dangerous. PSA: If you live in the tri-state area, stay off the roads.

My love for frozen yogurt is another thing that hasn’t changed, but it’s one of few.