Student Life

Clemmie Mitchell from Scotland taught English in a Tanzanian village school.

Clemmie Mitchell from Scotland taught English in a Tanzanian village school.

How would you spend a year between high school graduation and your first year at MIT? Several members of the Class of 2018 took that gap year opportunity and their adventures ranged from teaching in a Tanzanian village to working in a San Francisco startup on the verge of acquisition.

These gap students will join the students admitted on Pi Day, March 14. Only 7.7 of these applicants were invited to join a talented and diverse class hailing from 50 states, with a quarter identifying as members of underrepresented minority groups and 17 percent as the first generation in their family to attend college.

For her gap year, Clementine “Clemmie” Mitchell from Scotland opted for travel.

Mikayla Murphy, who is using her gap year to study Chinese in Taiwan, is learning about local culture.

Mikayla Murphy, who is using her gap year to study Chinese in Taiwan, is learning about local culture.

“Deciding to take a gap year, after having been accepted to MIT, seemed like the perfect scenario for me,” she says. “While intellectual development is undoubtedly essential for a fulfilled existence, the idea of freedom and exploration has always thrilled me.”

Her first stop was living with a Tanzanian family, teaching English to school children and teachers in an impoverished district, and taking part in village life from communions to cooking. “The family, the school children, and the other characters in the village, with whom I became friends, showed me the essence of happiness,” she says. “It does not stem from things but rather from relationships.”

Her next stop was Australia where she backpacked through rugged terrain and worked at a cattle station, tending animals, mending fences, and caring for an elderly woman. “By living entirely within my means, with no more than my back-pack and an open mind, I was able to understand how little was ‘enough.’”

Then she traveled to the French Alps where she focused on improving her skiing and conversational French, doing odd jobs from nannying to selling lift passes. Next, she is working as part of the crew on a sail boat, crossing the Atlantic from the British Virgin Islands to Gibraltar.

Herng Yi Cheng leads an origami math workshop for Grade 8 students in Singapore.

Herng Yi Cheng leads an origami math workshop for Grade 8 students in Singapore.

Herng Yi Cheng, during his gap time, completed the two years of mandatory national service required of male Singaporeans. And, while his days were mostly occupied with clerical work, his nights and weekend have been devoted to his passions—origami and mathematics.

“I’ve been folding origami for about a decade,” Cheng says. “As a math enthusiast I’ve been researching the mathematics behind origami techniques for five years and counting.” Besides his own research, he has conducted workshops on origami and math for elementary school students and helped organize a public exhibition with the origami Singapore group. Since his national service concluded in January, he has more time. “I recently returned from a design workshop in Malmö, Sweden, hosted by Tetra Pak®, where nine other artists and designers from various backgrounds and I brainstormed new designs for paper packaging.”

Cheng knows what he wants to study when he arrives on campus. “MIT has a team at the forefront of research in computational origami, including Professor Erik Demaine, one of the leading origami theorists. Besides learning a solid foundation in math and computer science, I hope I can learn more about origami research from the experts at MIT!”

Peter Downs pictured with the Locu team, cofounded by Rene Reinsberg MBA ’11, Marc Piette MBA ‘11 plus Marek Olszewski and  Stelios Sidiroglou-Douskos, a former graduate student and a post doc.

Peter Downs pictured with the team at Locu, a company  cofounded by Rene Reinsberg MBA ’11, Marc Piette MBA ’11, and other MIT community members.

Peter Downs from Philadelphia says he embarked on his gap experience spontaneously. “The May of my senior year of high school I started interviewing for programming jobs based in San Francisco because I was curious to see if I was good enough to be hired into a full-time software engineering role. It was mostly just for kicks but I received a decent offer and ended up flying out there to start work in June.”

Although this first company quickly failed, he soon joined the San Francisco office of Locu, a company founded by MIT alumni and graduate students. When they were acquired in August 2013, he put off MIT one more time to “ride out the acquisition.”

Downs feels he picked up some important skills that will help his planned computer science studies. “I think that I’ve also gotten much better at working with people and even managing projects: last summer I had an intern of my own, who is currently doing her MEng in CS at MIT. I feel like I’ve been well prepared to apply what I will learn at school to a real-world context.”


Guest blogger: Lydia Krasilnikova ′14, Admissions blogger

Like geese, my family migrates when it gets cold every year, to Miami for New Year’s and a Green Christmas and to Myrtle Beach for Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. I think what we eat at Thanksgiving captures a wonderful picture of our cross-cultural family identity. Thanksgiving dinner this year was borscht with garlic and rye bread, turkey with homemade plum sauce, and farina cake.

Bubble tea

Bubble tea

Over the past semester I asked my family to teach me how to cook the foods I love, and I’ve been trying to make most of them during actual work weeks. I was surprised that they are almost all very easy to make, and that it’s possible to have a real dinner without taking real time away from studying. Most of what I ate freshman year was cereal and skim milk.

In celebration of my new steps toward real adulthood, here are the 42 (plus or minus a few) recipes that encompass most of the foods I love. This blog post is mostly for me but it is also for you, in case you want to learn some fast, diverse recipes to get you through the semester.

30. Bubble tea

If you don’t know what bubble tea is, you will when you get to campus. It is sweetened milk tea with tapioca bubbles. It is addicting. It is sold at the Student Center for $3 a serving.

Effort: 2


  • Tapioca bubbles
  • Honey or fruit preserves
  • Tea
  • Milk
  • Bubble tea straws


1. Buy tapioca bubbles [on Amazon]. I store them in a zip-lock bag in the freezer so they don’t dry out. You can buy fat straws on Amazon as well.

2. Boil water in an electric tea kettle or on the stove, as much as you can imagine you and your friends drinking in one sitting. Add several (three to six) bags of whatever tea you want to drink. When the tea is done steeping, move the pot or the tea kettle to the fridge to cool.

3. Boil water in a pot. Once the water is boiled, add a very small handful of tapioca bubbles for every two people. They will expand in the water.

4. After five minutes, remove the tapioca bubbles from the water and put them in a cup. Cover them in honey or fruit preserves. I think fruit preserves work better than honey, but other people (sample size two) disagree.

5. After a while the tapioca bubbles should have soaked up some of the honey or fruit preserves. Distribute the tea, add milk, and add the tapioca bubbles. Drink with a bubble tea straw.

Real bubble tea is prepared with some powder instead of just tea and milk. I haven’t figured this out yet and I’m probably not going to, because I’m happy with tea and milk, but you might want to.

For the full post on the MIT Admission website and all recipes, begin with Part I.

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In 1983, it took 2,280 pounds including three student bodies, to squash this 2.06 pound balsa-wood model bridge.

In 1983, it took 2,280 pounds, including three student bodies, to squash this 1.06 pound balsa-wood model bridge.

Guest Blogger: Debbie Levey, CEE Technical Writer

Bridge-building contests have some history at MIT. Mostly recently, MIT students began competing at the National Steel Bridge Competition sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2007. Today, they are contenders—they have placed second nationally for the past two years.

As part of a capstone class each spring, Civil and Environmental Engineering Department seniors split into teams to design and build strong, light bridges out of simple materials that could be used to replace washed-out roads or crossings in remote areas. Since 2001, students have created 10-foot-long bridges contrived of wood or recycled materials, laced together with steel cables, just outside the student center—and for the final test, they must bear one ton of concrete blocks.

Earlier still, Civil Engineering professor John Slater ’78 initiated a model bridge building contest for the January IAP session in 1983 to mark the centennial of the Brooklyn Bridge. Three-students teams received a kit of parts, instruction, and lab time for building suspension or cable-stayed bridges to span a river. The IAP description promised “substantial cash prizes to the top three entries with the highest combined scores in strength, deflection, weight, innovation, and aesthetic appeal.” After being examined and discussed, each bridge was then weighed down until it shattered.

“The inevitable explosive bridge failure made for a fun event,” said Slater. These bridge contests, no longer offered, remained a popular IAP event for years.

A Tech Talk photo of Lars Rosenblad ’85, SM ’85; Philip Michael ’84, SM ’86, PhD ’92; and Ling Chow ’84 documented their effort. After their 1.06-pound balsa wood design carried all the available weight in the Perini test lab (1,840 pounds), the three students crowded onto the deck to add their cumulative 440 pounds.

Finally the bridge collapsed under 2,280 pounds—and both Rosenblad and Michael report that they still carry small scars from banging into the metal column as they tumbled down with their bridge.

Michael recalled doing research on bridge designs before they started building. “Cable-stayed bridges had really risen to prominence, but given the choice of materials [in the kit], we couldn’t figure out a reliable means to tie cables into our bridge decking without the risk of having them pull through. Instead, we adopted the several-millennium-old arc as the basic design element. The one element we adapted from the cable-stayed design was to attach cables to the bridge towers so that any load would simultaneously pull in on the towers to keep the bottom of the arch from spreading outward. Those cables were inelegant but hardly weighed anything and worked extremely well in tension.”

Even though their bridge proved strong and light, low scores in the appearance category pushed them down to a fifth-place finish. Lars acknowledged that “our bridge was judged to be exceedingly ugly.”


In case you missed our top stories on Slice of MIT this month, here are three of the most-clicked posts. Click on each link to read the full story.

  • MIT’s Senseable City Lab debuted Skycall, an “urban UAV,” this month, which may one day give campus-tours or meet more urgent needs of city-dwellers.
Photo: Senseable City Laboratory.

Photo: Senseable City Laboratory.

  • MIT’s Hobby Shop reopened after undergoing extensive renovations. “Now we have opportunity to make it the first class 21st century maker space MIT students deserve,” said shop director Ken Stone ’72.
  • Mark Radka ’81 was one of dozens of alumni who reached out through social media to give advice to MIT sophomores this fall. “Forget what you told parents or high school teachers, and future salary,” he advised. “Figure out what really interests you, grabs your imagination, fires you up. Then choose.”



A women’s dormitory, McCormick Hall, was built a half-century ago on the banks of a river named for a man near a bridge named for another man, on a male-dominated campus preparing graduates for male-dominated fields.

A hall built just for women in 1963 and later expanded to the two towers that students (still all-female) live in today, McCormick has become an integral part of the MIT experience for its residents. More than 300 alumnae gathered there to celebrate that, and mark McCormick’s 50th anniversary, last weekend.

Alums collaborated on a commemorative quilt celebrating McCormick Hall.

Alums collaborated on a commemorative quilt celebrating McCormick Hall.

The weekend celebration, which included a panel of distinguished alumnae and an evening reception and dinner, stirred memories in alums who came from as far as Thailand and across the United States.

Anne Street ’69, SM ’72, member of the MIT Corporation and former president of the MIT Alumni Association, helped organize the event.

“Without McCormick Hall when I was there, MIT would have had no women students,” said Street. “Without McCormick Hall now, MIT would have no place for those women who prefer a single-sex living situation.”

“I wanted to help bring alumnae together because it gives me chills to see gals rekindle friendships that nurtured them through failed quizzes, tough problem sets, disappointing lovers, and being far from home,” Street said. “Even if we have not been in touch with other McCormick gals since graduation, they are still our sisters.”

MIT alumnae have long had challenges finding equal career opportunities both on and off campus, challenges that benefactor Katharine Dexter McCormick sought to alleviate in advocating for its existence. Female students have begun activities and programs, both curricular and extracurricular, to support one another at MIT, but since 1963, McCormick has catered to the most basic need for space and solidarity.

After living at McCormick for three and a half of her four years, Karen Arenson ’70 pursued a successful career in journalism, becoming a writer and editor for the New York Times for three decades.

Arenson led a symposium of McCormick alumnae on Saturday afternoon. Panelists included Barbara Gilchrest ’67, Monisha Merchant ’99, Pat Callahan ’75, Chiquita White ’85, Jasmina Aganovic ’09, and Hanna Jethani ’14. They discussed their careers and aspirations in engineering, entrepreneurship, and science.

Arenson observed some of the long-term trends that the panel uncovered.

McCormick Hall.

McCormick Hall.

“Our early McCormick residents were mostly white Americans,” she said. “Later decades included more minorities and more international students. The diversity in careers was interesting too: on our small panel, we had a doctor, a banker, a science researcher in big business, a woman in the political world, a woman who founded her own online company, and a student who has spent summers working at NASA and ridden in the zero-gravity plane. Plus me–a journalist. But all of us felt a growing sense of confidence and empowerment after four years at MIT–and in McCormick.”

“I [also] loved learning more about Katharine Dexter McCormick,” Arenson said. “Professor Margery Resnick gave a fascinating keynote reporting that [McCormick] had to earn a bachelor’s degree at another college before she was allowed into MIT. We were all lucky that she was so tenacious.”

To commemorate the memories of 50 years past, Judy (Frankel) Lemire ’81 organized a memory quilt, to which alumnae added squares they designed at home ahead of time or on the spot as memories emerged from the past.

“It ties the past to the present, and allows each of us to recollect on our time at McCormick,” said Lemire.

Watch a video celebrating McCormick’s 50th on TechTV.


Graduate students and graduate-degree holders are taking part in a ritual long enjoyed by MIT undergraduates—the release of a new version of MIT’s signature ring. The latest design for the grad rat, the first in five years, was introduced September 5, and it is packed with symbols that evoke contemporary MIT life.

new grad rat ring design

Tiny symbols bear witness to the past five years.

The new design was developed by ring committee chair Katia Shtyrkova, SM ’13, now working on her PhD, and six team members who surveyed graduate students and worked with a graphic designer at Balfour, the class-ring company. Together, they hammered out a design that respects MIT traditions while incorporating symbols important to current students.

“MIT has an iconic ring,” Shtyrkova says. Officially called the Standard Technology Ring, the brass rat and grad rat are widely known, even in popular culture. Just ask Tony Stark why he sports his in the Iron Man movies. The ring is recognized in social and professional situations, she says: “I can’t tell you how many people I meet because I wear my ring.”

presentation of ring design

Ring Committee member Daipan Lee introduced the new design on September 5.

What symbols were chosen? The students surveyed wanted to commemorate the Higgs boson discovery, so a portion of the CERN logo is reproduced on one shank. In the bezel, pictured above, are “buddy beavers”—three small beavers swimming just behind the traditional beaver, representing the importance of friendships.

What’s essential to MIT students? A coffee cup and an open box represent the number one and two most-cited items in the survey: coffee and Dropbox, the free online storage system founded by Drew Houston ’05, coincidentally the 2013 MIT commencement speaker.

On a more somber note, 4/15, the date of the Boston Marathon bombings, is carved into the traditional tree stump, which bears an MIT police officer’s badge honoring Officer Sean Collier.

Current MIT graduate students and all alumni who have earned graduate degrees can order the new design in a variety of metals; it will be customized to include graduation year, department, and degree. Learn about the symbols and order a ring online.


President Reif at convocation

President Reif greets the Class of 2017 and their families.

Students entering MIT this week range from the 1,116 first-year students enrolling in the Class of 2017 to a cadre of physicians and health-care workers beginning MBA programs to learn management skills for the changing health-services field.

President L. Rafael Reif welcomed first-year students and their families to the campus community at an Aug. 29 convocation ceremony and evoked his own first days at MIT as he assured them they would soon find their own sense of home on campus.

“When I first arrived here, I knew almost nobody,” the president said. “My home was a long way away, in Venezuela. I felt excited to join this amazing place—but I had plenty of worries: Would my work be good enough? Would my English be good enough? Would I fit in? … But very soon, I came to feel that MIT was my home—and that this community was like an extended family.”

Learn about the Class of 2017, with a record low admission rate of 8.2 percent, through student profiles and this demographic snapshot:

• Male 55%, female 45%

• US citizens and permanent residents 92%; states represented: 48

• International citizens 8%; countries represented: 52

• Ethnicity: African American 7%; Asian American 29%; Caucasian 39%; Hispanic/Latino 15%; Native American 1%; and Other/No Response 1%

• Public school graduates: 67%; 865 different high schools represented

• Greatest distance traveled: ~10,500 mi from Melbourne, Australia

Read an earlier Slice post on those admitted to the Class of 2017 and get more facts from the MIT Admissions office Class of 2017 page.

The looming changes spurred by Affordable Health Care Act are inspiring health professionals to expand their management skills to work effectively within the changing health care system, according to Sloan press release:

“I strongly believe that the healthcare field is the next economic ‘boom,’ similar to the boom in the ‘90s and mobile communication over this past decade,” says Alan Christophe, a Roslyn, NY, native who spent about three years working in the pharmaceutical and health care industries before enrolling in MIT Sloan’s MBA program. “Healthcare is the most fragmented industry in the U.S. and I believe it is fragmented because of management deficiencies in the private and public sector.”

Learn more health care and management at Sloan.

And what advice does MIT Dean of Admissions Stu Schmill ’86 offer to all new students?

“First, do something that you have never done before as this is the time to get into the habit of trying new things. Second, you must find some activity that you can do regularly that recharges you. It might be playing a musical instrument or playing your sport, going for a run or cooking a meal, participating in a club or just hanging out with friends, but regularly doing something that relaxes and balances you is critical in the intense MIT environment. Otherwise, stay connected with your friends and advisors, and have fun!”


Guest Blogger: Miri Skolnik, Assistant Dean, Office of Undergraduate Advising and Academic Programming

MIT sophomore Paola Ruiz is majoring in materials science and engineering

MIT sophomore Paola Ruiz is majoring in materials science and engineering

Sophomore Paola Ruiz is a long way from home. Growing up in a low-income neighborhood of Los Angeles, Ruiz was not just the first one in her family to go to college, she was also the first to graduate from high school. Being the valedictorian in a graduating high school class of almost 2,000 students, Ruiz was clearly intellectually worthy of a university like MIT. But her family had never heard of it before. In fact, when she first told her Dad that she was accepted, his first question was, “What is MIT?” After some explanation, his next question was, “Where is Massachusetts?”

Like Ruiz, many first-generation students are pioneers in their family, navigating the uncharted territory of college. For these resourceful students, breaking new ground in the world of higher education offers the key to upward mobility, not just for themselves, but for their entire families. As Ruiz states, “having a college degree, particularly from MIT, will allow me to help my family, and ensure that we have more choices and better opportunities and an easier life than what my parents had.”

First generation students in the peer mentorship program, holding a poster of MIT’s president, L.Rafael Reif, who is also the first gen in his family to graduate from college.

First generation students in the peer mentorship program, holding a poster of MIT’s president, L.Rafael Reif, who is also the first gen in his family to graduate from college.

First-generation students, defined as those who will be the first generation in their families to graduate from a four-year university, comprise about 15 percent of MIT’s student body.

Over the past two years, a new program called the First Generation Project, has provided these students with a sense of community, a chance to network, to share advice, and to raise awareness about the common experiences of first generation students. Among those common experiences are managing the two worlds of home and university, worlds that may present competing demands and senses of responsibility. Another common challenge is deciding about majors and careers when there is no precedent for such decisions in their families. Learn more about the First Generation Project.

Are you a first generation alumnus/a who is willing to share your experiences and professional path? If so, please email Miri Skolnik—she’d like to talk to you.


Just as Anime Boston is filing the streets with cosplaying fans this weekend, The Tech has published an eight-page special section on what MIT students like to do for fun. An undergraduate survey revealed fandom pursuits, cosplay costuming tips, plus literature, film, and TV favorites. Download a PDF for statistics and visuals or enjoy a few highlights:

Iron Man suit

The Iron Man suit was created by Brian Chan ’02, an instructor at the MIT hobby shop. Photo: The Tech.

Time to Pretend

Editor Jessica Pourian reports that 30% of surveyed students say they have dressed up as a character, for example as Harry Potter or Dr. Who. While many may casually throw a Gryffindor scarf over their shoulders, others plunge deep into costume play or cosplay. Constructing great costumes can be timeconsuming, so some students and parents are concerned cosplay could interfere with classwork. One student said her parents called it a “time sink” but begged for photos afterwards. Read the article to learn how students pick characters and construct costumes.

Faculty Interviews

Find out what Robert Langer and other professors like to watch on TV. Or find out how Flourish M. Klink, a lecturer in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, has built a life around fandoms.

Fandom by the Numbers (see the PDF):

• Top rated among 30 TV/film titles: Harry Potter, The Avengers, Lord of the Rings, and Batman

• Hogwarts home of choice: Ravenclaw is most popular with 45%

• Favorite original pokemon character: Charizard

Star Wars vs. Star Trek: Overall, Star Wars triumphed (with 3.76 over 3.47 on a five-point scale) but Trekkies prevailed in certain living groups and one course.


Guest Blogger: Debbie Levey, CEE Technical Writer

With a student body notable for athletes as well as scholars, MIT’s 33 varsity sports provide the most intercollegiate offerings among the country’s Division III schools. The Engineers have won 22 team national championships and produced 34 individual national champions, plus 23 Olympic athletes. Within the last 10 years alone, students accrued 464 All-America honors.

MIT's victorious tug of war team: R. M. Clement, 188 (clockwise from top left); H.G. Gross, 1888; F. L. Pierce, 1889; and P. H. Tracy, 1890.

MIT’s victorious tug-of-war team: R. M. Clement, 1888 (clockwise from top left); H.G. Gross, 1888; F. L. Pierce, 1889; and P. H. Tracy, 1890.

Although it has slipped from collective memory, one of Tech’s arguably most thrilling games occurred in 1887.

“The defeat of Harvard’s tug-of-war team by our four untrained and inexperienced men is the greatest athletic feat which the Institute has ever accomplished,” trumpeted The Tech in March 17, 1887. “…We have scored many triumphs in the same line, but never when it was so entirely unlooked for, and under such unfavorable circumstances.”

A photo of the champion tug-of-war team was published in The Tech‘s April 28, 1887, issue with this caption: “We take great pleasure in presenting the readers of THE TECH a phototype of our victorious tug-of-war team, which pulled the Harvard University tug-team 2-1/2 inches.”

When MIT decided to enter the 1887 meet just two weeks before the event, it took a full week to round up four volunteers for a team. They only managed three hours of practice together, while The Tech reported that Harvard’s team “pass the 16-pound shot for fifteen minutes every afternoon.” In addition, MIT’s team fell below the weight limit and therefore lacked the advantage of having all possible pounds where it really mattered.

This untrained and lightweight MIT team faced an opponent with the formidable reputation of “the champion team among colleges.” Then as now, MIT’s victories over Harvard proved particularly sweet.

Alas, tug-of-war contests were on their way out. In 1891 the MIT Athletic Club  joined Harvard and other prominent colleges in dropping tug-of-war from the sports roster. In the following spring, the American Intercollegiate Athletic Association officially replaced tug-of-war with bicycle racing.

While tug-of-war remained an Olympic sport until 1920, college competition peaked in the 1880s. Time magazine wrote in May 27, 1940, “Though few U. S. citizens can remember or believe it, tug-of-war was once the most popular of intercollegiate sports.”