Straight paths bother me. As my mom recalls, I once wandered away from my dad’s watchful eyes and was seen seconds later across the courtyard mistaking a dead cockroach for a piece of candy. I was two. [Sun pictured above speaking on the Sustainable Development Goals at the United Nations in New York, 2016]
The official answer as to why, at age 15, I hopped on a plane from my hometown in China to Singapore without hesitation was to pursue a scholarship program. Yet there was always something about wandering itself that captured my psyche—a random walk along a fitness landscape that might just lead to a slightly better view. I didn’t stay put in my college years at Princeton, either. A few study-abroad trips in Europe and internships in Asia and Africa later, I still found myself in a stage of agitation. I remained in a constant search for something that would turn my world upside down only to make me eager to do it again tomorrow, anew. It was not until I renewed my lease at MIT last summer did I realize that this, after over a decade, was going to be my first time to live in the same room for more than a year.
I’ve now lived in that room for two and half years—the most “settled” I’ve been in my adult life. Naturally, my innate nomadism must find other outlets when physical expedition isn’t an immediate possibility. As if by grace, the location of my office just above Dewey Library exposes me to a constant stream of intellectual crossfire— when historical institutionalism from building E53 meets regression discontinuity from E52 or when mutually assured destruction from E40 intersects system dynamics from E62.
Arriving at MIT with the plan of studying great power politics, I wouldn’t have imagined venturing into the political economy of information and tech innovation at the two-year mark. A daydreamer who got lost trying to walk a straight path wakes up in a jungle of cryptically numbered buildings, casually picking the brains of the most brilliant and melting them all into something new—weird at times, but always new. Courses on science, technology, and public policy, varieties of capitalism and the economics of discontinuous change have been especially pivotal in my making what would have otherwise been an ill-advised about-face. One night of inspiration turned into two. Before long, tempering the interdisciplinary edge in the east-most corner of campus proved to be the most therapeutic alternative to getting incoherently inebriated on a Saturday night. A dozen gulps of breakfast tea at midnight, two mind maps spread in front of me with a splash of numbers sprinkled across the computer screen, ideas throb palpably under my temples and I know the Universe is, for once, mine.
Of course, wandering doesn’t always lead to serendipity. Getting off track more often than not entails exactly what it is—getting off track. The imaginary treasure off the beaten path may well turn out to be a pile of trash, and the cruel beauty of interdisciplinary research lies in the very real danger of it going precisely nowhere. But the process of searching can be just as rewarding as the ultimate discovery, only more addictive.
Nevertheless, it’s reassuring to have a voice of wisdom when one gets too absorbed in an idea that is most likely a dud. Now that my parents are oceans away, my adviser Professor Kenneth Oye has graciously assumed the duty of pointing it out just when I’m about to mistake a dead cockroach—of an idea—for a candy. Fortunately, this has not happened often recently. After all, I’m 30.
Grad Life blog posts offer insights from current MIT graduate students twice a month on Slice of MIT.