Breakfast is optional, and other life lessons from SSP

If you’re like me, and the fact that you’re reading the blog posts tells me that you likely are, you are most likely scouring the SSP biochemistry blog posts trying to get some semblance of an idea of what this program is all about. Or maybe you are just cross-referencing the names mentioned in each post with the Universal Times, which is also something I did. If you are a member of the former case, worry not; in this post I will try my best to divulge all the nitty-gritty details about SSP, and if you are a member of the latter group, I will make sure to mention my name somewhere throughout the article (that’s called boosting reader-retention, people). 

The first day I arrived at SSP, I had no idea what to expect. The truth is, the only people that do know are your TAs, professors, and site director. I was actually one of the first people to get to campus—this can come in handy when trying to familiarize oneself with the campus—and did some exploring during the days preceding SSP’s official start. 

When the program finally did start, the first thing I noticed was the diversity of the program. One of the reasons I chose SSP was because, unlike most science programs, SSP goes out of its way to bring together people from around the world together. Everyone was from different places, backgrounds, and cultures, all of which made the program richer and fuller than what many other programs could have offered. I won’t lie, part of me was expecting the majority of the participants to show up in braces and coke-bottle glasses, but I was glad to be proven wrong.

Which leads to my next point:

None of the people at SSP fit neatly into a single box. Of course, almost everyone here is, in no uncertain terms, a nerd with a capital N, but there’s always more to it than that. Sachi, for instance, may already have all of the amino acids memorized, but in her free time, she tutors kids in Spanish, science, and math. Vishnu, when not running through lab procedures for SSP, works for various neurology nonprofits. 

If nothing else, SSP has taught me that everyone is more multidimensional than anyone might initially think. 

However, when spending time with people as accomplished as this, it’s almost inevitable that one may begin to feel imposter syndrome. We’ve all been there. For a while, I spent a lot of time wondering how in the world I ended up at a place like this. Honestly, just about everyone here is smarter than me, but that’s part of what makes SSP so worthwhile—I am able to be around people that push me to be better than I ever thought possible, and for that, I am eternally grateful. 

The day after arrival was, to put it kindly, hell. It isn’t that anyone did anything wrong per se, but I felt as though I had been thrown into the deep side of the swimming pool, and I wasn’t yet sure whether I would sink or swim. The problem sets were more difficult than anything I had seen at school, and the class activities stressed me out because initially, I hadn’t the slightest clue how to do them. I stayed up until 10:30 PM that night, which eventually became a habit (late nights are the norm here at SSP). 

When I got back to Goodbody, the dorm where participants lived, I made my way down to the basement, where I was greeted by a bunch of other participants all working on the exact same problem set. Here’s my other SSP pro tip: never work alone. None of the work was designed to be remotely enjoyable if you do it by yourself, and, truth be told, even if it were possible, you’d be missing out on a major part of the program if you avoided socializing like that. Initially, I was hesitant to ask for help, but in that collaborative atmosphere, it was impossible not to. 

Days after were easier. As they say, the first day is almost always the worst. The difficulty of the problem sets did not decrease, but the more we worked together on them, the easier they became. Everyone had different talents, too. Some people were better at Biology, like Eric, whereas others might have better enjoyed MOE, like Sanjay. Some of the brightest kids in the world—and I—were in the same room; there was no problem too complicated, nor a procedure too long for us to work through. 

Another thing I should probably mention about the whole SSP lifestyle before moving into what we do in the lab is that we all have roommates. My roommate,  Jonathan, is pretty chill. At the beginning of SSP, I was kind of concerned that I would come off as a little too type A, but we ended up getting along just fine. Additionally, it was pretty nice to immediately have a familiar face. One of the most important takeaways I have gotten from having a roommate is the willingness to compromise. I don’t sleep in my dorm, I sleep in our dorm, meaning that we have to work together to make sure that it is up to both of our standards. That means that, although my room at home might look like it got hit by a tornado, that’s not going to fly at SSP. Similarly, while I might not feel like doing laundry twice per week, I do want our dorm to smell somewhat acceptable, and in the middle of Summer in Bloomington Indiana, that makes laundry a necessity. Another thing about dorms is that the doors lock behind you. You’re likely not used to this, which is fine, but make a point out of trying not to get yourself locked out of your dorm. Always remember your key card. It is such a pain to have to go up to the front desk, let them know you have an issue, and then wait half an hour to get your dorm unlocked. 

Now, what you’ve all been waiting for: the lab. One of my biggest draws to SSP was that the program was primarily run out of a laboratory. On some days, my lab group would spend all day in the lab, and on others, only about half an hour, yet in both cases, our lab skills steadily improved. The amount of time spent in the lab over the first week was actually relatively limited when compared to the amount of time we spend in the lab now. Lately, we have been spending entire days in the lab; however, the privilege of being able to work in a lab comes with its fair share of downsides. There have been plenty of days when my team has spent many hours in the lab only to get unusable data. Today was one of those days. Such is the nature of science—trial, error, and trial again are one of the only ways to advance the field. Earlier today, we had a guest speaker discuss the prospects of Hachimoji DNA (DNA composed of the naturally occurring four nucleotides adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine, and four artificial nucleotides P, B, Z, and S). During that lecture, she shared that it took Dr. Benner 25 years to derive four molecularly stable artificial nucleosides. 25 years. There exists no doubt in my mind that Dr. Benner must have had at least a few unfruitful lab days in those decades. Now, the technology is being put to use for Covid19 testing. 

Another important life lesson I have taken away from my work in the lab is the importance of self-advocacy. At SSP, everyone is struggling and thriving in their own ways, and it is important to make an effort to understand the material presented to you. It may take you slightly longer to understand the content of a lecture, and that is okay. SSP doesn’t do timed tests; take the time you need. I remember one of the first few days of the program I had only briefly skimmed the lab procedures, and while that might have worked for some participants, I had trouble making heads and tails of what we were working on. So, as I would have at school, I asked Dr. Hollenbeck. She responded with:

“Did you read the procedures?”

And the answer was, no, not really. A major part of self-advocacy is doing yourself a huge favor and knowing what is going on during lab and in life generally. Another important aspect, though, is making sure everyone participates during the lab. A three-member research team may not seem that large, but in the hustle and bustle of the lab, it can be pretty easy to accidentally go through the entire lab day without passing the micropipette. Similarly, sometimes your partners will do likewise. Do not be afraid to speak up and ensure everyone gets the chance to engage with the lab procedure. The SSP experience belongs to each of the 36 selected participants, and it’s on all of us to honor that. With that being said, try not to use the aptly-termed pity pipette technique too often. Ideally, everyone in the lab should be able to operate semi-autonomously. Don’t just pass someone a pipette in the last five minutes of the lab; make sure that everyone is participating intellectually as well as physically. 

On a less serious note, when we aren’t in the lab, Mr. Chen, our site director, loves to take us on the most amazing field trips. So far, we have visited the second-largest theater in the country (which is conveniently located right here at Indiana University), downtown Bloomington, and the zoo in Indianapolis. I have no idea how that man pulls everything together, and yet every week we consistently have somewhere new to explore. So far, the zoo has been my favorite trip. The long bus ride, the good music, and all the wild exhibits combined with the time spent with some of my favorite people made the visit unforgettable. And, for the first time, I made it through the outing with relatively no sunburn. Pro tip: wear sunscreen, and reapply every 90 minutes. When you are 70 and look younger than all your retirement-home peers, you’ll be thanking me. 

The only downside to field trips, though, is the irregularity with which we have our meals. At the start of SSP, I quickly realized the only way I could make my meal plan last while at Indiana University was by skipping breakfast. Initially, I was terrified that I would be starving all day; however, the lunches here are fairly hefty, and the dinners are all you can eat. At this point, I am not sure whether I will ever go back to the most important meal of the day. On the off days when I am hungry at 6:30 AM, I have an assortment of Costco peanut butter crackers to tide me over until lunch.

Speaking of dinner, I would argue that the meal is central to SSP’s success. Every week, the participants are paired up with the SSP faculty. This week, I have been dining with Dr. Hollenbeck alongside six other SSP participants, and speaking to all of my tablemates has continued to be such an enlightening experience. Dr. Hollenbeck knows everything there is to know about college and put up with my incessant questions about what undergraduate research might look like. Above all else, I am thankful that she helped to quell some of my deep-rooted fears surrounding my undergraduate experience. Tonight, our table discussed the importance of being able to communicate the significance of scientific advancements to a public that may have a more limited scientific background. Communication in science is one of the cornerstones for progression. Many of the greatest minds of our time such as Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, and Richard Feinman were not only great scientists but also great communicators. 

During prior weeks, we discussed high school, jobs, and graduate schools. Personally, I have no idea what goes on behind the scenes in SSP admissions, but I have never had a silent dinner at Indiana University. Someone is always more than happy to update us on the state of their research, how they are struggling with a problem set, or how they are succeeding at a class activity, and on the off chance that conversation does die down, the TAs are always able to step in and redirect the conversation. 

The TAs at SSP are some of the few college-age people that I know, and I think it says a lot about their character that they chose to come to help a bunch of rising high school seniors figure out how to conduct research instead of doing whatever it is that 20 somethings would be doing in their free time. All of the TAs are very approachable, and I would highly encourage you to pick their brains a bit about college life while you are at SSP. They are about your age, and they have first-hand experience. With that said, the TAs are busy people, and their time is valuable. Try to make their lives easier when possible. One of the biggest ways you can help out your TA is by correctly naming the documents you work on within Google Drive, bolding and/or highlighting your responses to the questions, and making sure you store your documents in the proper locations. If you forget to do this, not only will you drive the TA grading your work insane, you may become the enemy of efficiency, and thereby Mr. Chen’s enemy. 

Also, if altruism isn’t enough to encourage you to help out your TAs whenever possible, remember that they will also be in charge of making the weekly chore list, and the last thing you want is for them to invent the new chore of SSP bathroom cleaner for your research team. In my personal experience, the chores at SSP have been all right. It is better to think of them more so as team-building exercises. In prior weeks, I have been in charge of setting up Movie Night and picking up after dinner with my team. The first night we were assigned to dinner clean-up, I might have totally forgotten about the chore chart and ditched my group. Pro tip: read the chore chart. It is not that hard, and it gets posted weekly on the bulletin. 

All charts at SSP are, in fact, important. The one exception seems to be the boys’ shower queue, which was written on a large whiteboard on the first day of SSP and has not been touched since. There is no order for the showers. The best advice I can give here is to try to shower sooner rather than later, optimally right after dinner. Most people try to fit their showers in at 10:30 and 11:00 at night, meaning that you will at best end up with the claustrophobic shower and at worst just not get the chance to shower that night and believe me, your lab partners will not be happy with you if you start skipping basic hygiene techniques like bathing. 

All in all, SSP has been one of those experiences impossible to encapsulate in 3,000 words, and, in all honesty, I don’t know if I could have described it in 30,000. I can only give so much advice, and after that, you will have to figure out SSP for yourself. This program means different things to different people, but in my case, I came for the novel research and have stayed because of my brilliant, complex peers that push me to be better every day. And that, in my opinion, is what SSP is all about: growing as a person through interactions with some of the most talented people you have ever met while on the precipice of major life milestones. Hopefully, when you look back on your experiences here, you will realize I was right. Hopefully, I will too. 


SSP ‘22