The university as a four-year Fourier Transform

Inspirational wisdom from an anesthesiologist

Yesterday afternoon I arrived from the 2017 Annual AAAS Conference. Interviews, networking, dinners, parties were only the skeleton of the experience. Handing out curved-corner business cards, sipping coffee with world-renowned journalists, and partying with funky scientists filled in the rest. And of course, the Northeastern-style seafood was pretty cool too. And, as my undergraduate years come to a close, the culmination comes like a roll of the dice.

I’ve spent the past three years ranting about everything. From business-like motives to the liberal arts to a general philosophy of life, things suck. And these things haven’t gone away. But I chaos brings order. Struggle brings wisdom. And resourcefulness brings ingenuity. Over the past five days at the 2017 American Association for the Advancement of Science Conference, things were dire. With rallies in the streets and speakers repeating the phrase “now more than ever”, there’s a need for truth at every corner of today’s society. The emphasis on the need for policymakers, journalists, and scientists to let their voices be heard in the current political climate couldn’t have been overstated.

Educating the public on the need for scientific research in all areas got people fired up. The post-truth search for objectivity and facts have taken center stage in mostly every debate.

But, as I listened to speakers in the Hynes Convention Center and watched the sunrise on Boston Bay, I wanted to make sense of the world by myself. It seemed like math. 
Mathematical functions help us make sense of the world. The Fourier transform is a mathematical function that shows the different parts of a continuous signal. It can be used to convert from time domain to frequency domain. Fourier transforms are often used to calculate the frequency spectrum of a signal that changes over time. This processing solves equations for uses in cryptography, oceanography, and recognition of speech or handwriting.

A Fourier transform shows what frequencies are in a signal. Fourier transform of the sound waves of the musical note frequencies.

Many signals can be created by adding together cosines and sines with varying amplitudes and frequencies. The Fourier transform plots the amplitudes and phases of these frequencies.

It’s the type of transform that takes a function and turns it into something you’ve never seen before.

College is much the same way. Spending years of introspection at a desk twists yourself so much you forget who yo are. The way you evaluate other people, the thoughts that catch your interest, and the struggles of the world need a different set of tools to measure them. Finding the right system of equations or problem-solving method of looking at the world are all part of Aristotle’s crafty advice. And, if science is going to offer anything to world, the value will come after a thorough analysis of why we need it. Education on theories of evolution would an empathetic soft-spot for human cognitive biases. Research on space exploration would need to instill a wonder and curiosity to remain relevant.

Yesterday morning, I had a phone interview with a post-baccalaureate position at the National Institute of Health. I spoke My interviewer, Ryan Dale was a bioinformatician looking for a new trainee. After the interview, I took the subway to the airport so I could get home. When I was on the subway, I ran into a friend of Ryan Dale. We exchanged contact info and talked about science. It was spurious, surprising, and serendipitous!

Anyone else who would have had this experience would have praised the importance of random encounters. But why did I need reassurance that random walks can be transformed into order? Making beauty from from chaos is what drives me through everything. And, even with the undeniable necessity of chance, there are so many understandable factors that aren’t so evident. I roll the dice and sip my coffee. But I remember the rest of the universe at work.

I’ve heard a lot of advice. From the good, the bad, and the ugly, I’ve always wanted to put these words of wisdom into context that makes sense. No matter what I’m learning or thinking about, I’ve wanted to grapple with ideas before accepting them as truth. Even innocuous advice on networking or self-acceptance seem absurd and difficult for me to believe. It’s easy to repeat mantra like “It’s not about what you know; it’s about who you know,” without realizing the limits, context, and culture that infect what we say.

Talk about the need to question ideas and search for truth is cheap. Seemingly innocent science rhetoric to stand for “truth” can hide smugness and naïvety. Until scientists can learn to get off the supposed moral high ground of intelligence, the rest of the world won’t trust them one bit. It’ll take communication with precision, empathy, and reason to get there.

One piece of advice that has stuck with me is that you can’t plan out your whole life, but, if you make the right decisions at the right times, things will make sense when you look back on them.

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