I graduated from Williams almost two years ago. I packed up I bags and was promptly kicked out at 5 PM on Commencement Day. I had finished my chemistry thesis, which I had been working on for three years, completed the biology and chemistry major with a concentration in biochemistry and molecular biology, taken all the necessary requirements (EDI, writing intensive, quantitative, PE, and divisional), developed the most wonderful friendships and mentorships, and, above all, learned about myself.
Struggle—that was the one word that best described my time in the Purple Valley. As a shy person, socializing had never been a forte of mine, but I quickly learned that I had to engage my entrymates, who came from disparate backgrounds with entirely different tastes, interests, and personalities. I gave it a good try by spending my first semester parked in the common room with my never-ending supply of chemistry and calculus problem sets. Sadly, I grew tired of trying to fit into my entry’s heavy drinking culture. I also grew tired of trying to become comfortable with the insular Koreans of Williams and the radically queer Queer Student Union. I didn’t even know that I technically counted as a first-generation student. Even Williams hadn’t thought so, as I was not invited to attend the first-generation student orientation like some of my peers from similar backgrounds. Now I wonder if it would have made a difference if I had been invited to participate in the summer science program or had the direct support of the dean in charge of first-generation students. Eventually, I grew tired of myself, a trans* person of color who happened to be a confirmed Catholic. I retreated more and more into my scientific studies
In academics, I had no one to blame for not succeeding other than myself. Or so I thought until not very long ago. Science was so exciting, but my courses were always better than I. Regardless I suppose, I became a staunch pupil of biology and chemistry, and struggled greatly to make it with half-decent grades in up to 3 lab courses a semester. After a discouraging attempt with the English department in British literature, I failed to develop any other serious academic interests outside of Division III, taking 24 Div III courses out of a total of 32! In the weeks before graduation, I wondered sometimes if I was even a liberal arts student. Why did Williams choose me? Why was I at Williams?
I think almost all students at Williams ask themselves a variant of these questions at some point in their undergraduate career. Some of us find our true lifelong passions by participating in extracurricular experiences that help us discover new opportunities, some of us prepare for our careers by adhering to the unofficial pre-med curriculum, for instance, and some of us learn how to solve problems in our lives and communities by taking courses that give us terminology and perspective. But as I have already alluded to in the title of this article, I have been always a little slow and my education a little too fast.
I graduated almost two years ago, which is about the exact amount of time that I have been working as a technician in a lab in Cambridge. My job promised me over $30K and an opportunity to study cancer. My steady employment also required that I follow the rules of scientific and corporate fiefdom. I report to my postdoc supervisor, who reports to an administrative director, who reports to the principal investigator, who reports to the senior leadership board of directors. In contrast to Williams, where options abound, I focus solely on studying cancer, which restricts me from thinking about how quantum behavior influences stochastic dynamics, which can heavily control the behavior of chemical and biochemical molecules that make up living organisms and therefore cancer; or how biofilms created by bacteria resemble tumors. Many of my colleagues and mentors have been trained by the most prestigious scientists and are capable of thinking of cancer biology in ways that I cannot even comprehend. But, somehow, even in a scientific world that is constantly championing interdisciplinary approaches, not everyone thinks about cancer biology the same way as I do. For this, I thank my Williams education.
What makes Williams different is that the institution guarantees that you will encounter disciplines and people in one confined place that add up to a multitude of different experiences and ways of thinking. The product of 6 long years has led me to enrolling as a Biology PhD student at MIT in my renewed commitment to studying biology and chemistry within the microbial sciences. My time at Williams has given me the clarity to recognize the oppressive privatization of science, in which academia must bow to the priorities of economically profitable applications and justify the rationale of understanding nature by fitting into the context of curing human disease or other marketable products and services. Academia is a tough crowd, but I refuse to sacrifice my principles and personally allow capitalism to take over science. My own identity, which I refined at college, and friendships have taught me that I must stand up. I must speak out in support of black lives, women, the trans* community, Muslims, undocumented immigrants, and many, many more.
One particular example of black oppression in science is of the Gardasil vaccine, which does not protect against the most common HPV subtypes detected in African-American women and is hence less effective than it is for white women. How dare we claim that research is used to benefit all members of the population? My liberal arts education gave me the gift to see beyond the confines of discrete disciplines and connect myself to the world around me. As a child of immigrant parents, student of excellent teachers, and friend and ally of minority communities, I deeply care about educational access, fighting oppression, and dismantling social injustices and prejudices. This is what I learned at Williams. Now that I’ve caught up to where its BA has led me, it’s up to me to return the favor.