Saturday, September 3, 2011

Welcome New Media Lab Students: Two Cents from a Current Student

This week marked perhaps the most important annual event at the Media Lab: our welcoming a new batch of students, an event that infuses new blood and talent into the Lab’s 24 research groups.

I met many of the new students earlier this year, in April, when they were here for their 'preview event,' and it was really nice to see them again. It seems like only yesterday that I spent my first day at the Media Lab, and I cannot fathom how quickly time has gone by. As I enter my second year, listening to the new students has forced to me reflect on my own experience here.

On our very first day, we visited every research group at the Lab to learn a little about what they were working on and how we might get involved. I was nervous and excited at the same time. Nervous because everyone I met seemed to be so intelligent. Excited because of the sense of creativity and the aura of coolness.

And what a year it has been! I’ve interacted with some of the most brilliant and thought-provoking academic stalwarts of our times. I've met with CEO's and executives from many influential companies. I've even been fortunate enough to have been invited to the White House.

For those just coming to the Lab this week, I want to tell you that you certainly will experience many ups and downs during your time at MIT. But overall, to borrow an oft-used American phrase, “You’re in for one heck of a ride.” And remember….

1. Feel proud and don't be intimidated

You did not arrive here by accident, and no matter how modest you might be, you must be very talented and gifted. You've been chosen from hundreds of smart people, and you deserve to be here.

2. Meet the polymaths

I've always been a huge fan of Albus Dumbledore and Gandalf. If you've ever felt that you wanted to meet a real-world similarity, it’s you’re in luck. You will, from time to time, watch many polymaths ambling through the Lab when you least expect it. Marvin Minsky, the father of modern AI is perhaps the most famous polymath here, but there are many others: Henry Lieberman invented garbage collection in programming languages, and is a pioneer in intelligent user interfaces. Rosalind Picard invented affective computing, and is a leader in autism theory and technology. Mitchel Resnick was involved in the creation of LOGO for kids, but is also a leader in inventing tools to the meet the information needs of information communities. Every PI here has deep expertise in at least a couple of fields.

3. You and yours only

In the Media Lab, there are no required courses, and no established curriculum. You can choose and pick any course offered through the Lab’s academic Program in Media Arts, other MIT departments, or even Harvard. Choosing what course to take is a bit like being a kid in a candy shop. My heuristic has always been this: take a course if it you need it for your research, and always attempt to write a conference-quality paper at the end of it. For me, this has resulted in some very long-lasting collaborations with other groups at the Lab.

4. Don't ever be away during IAP
The January Independent Activities Period, the month between the fall and spring semesters, is an excellent time to sharpen your creative acumen. You can experience anything from wine tasting to hummus-making courses. If you've never done pottery, or have had a desire to make your own glass sculptures, this is your time to try it. It almost always helps you to unleash your creative self when the spring semester gets underway.

5. Jump in and get involved

Last December, I was lucky enough to get involved in planning the end-of-year party. It was great getting involved in a Lab-wide event and I encourage you to jump in and do the same.

I still feel that same way about MIT as I felt the first day I got here. I'm inspired everyday when I walk to the Lab through the Infinite Corridor. From giving birth to modern-day information theory to discovering synthetic penicillin, this place has done so much for humanity. The coolest thing is that you are now part of this family. It's your turn to be unconventional.

Welcome to a most remarkable place!

Karthik Dinakar is a second year graduate student in the Software Agents group at the Media Lab.

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