Participate in a UROP
Research experience, featuring an abandoned linear accelerator
The lights were dim, and the cranes cast weird shadows on the gritty concrete floor. Each step I took echoed a little. We moved slowly, past doors with bolded warning signs and metal double-doors. Behind us, the lights shut off one by one. When we left the “warehouse,” our feet hit creaky wooden boards, and I took my first breath of fresh air in hours. Leaves rustled to the left, and crickets chirped in the distance. We were free.
It all began about 12 hours ago. I had just sat down at my desk and tried to ssh into the lab’s login computer as I did every morning. While I waited for the login to go through, I pulled up my to-do list for the day. My supervisor was incredibly organized, and he guided my tasks through a shared document where he listed out what simulations I should run and what specifications they should have. Despite all that hand-holding, I didn’t feel underqualified or out of place. When I clicked back to the terminal, it took me a moment to realize that the login had failed.
The Course 3 lab I worked in during my freshman summer at MIT ran molecular dynamics simulations, so they had a large cluster of computers for this purpose. It wasn’t perfect, so it was no surprise if a few of the simulation nodes went down during the day, but I had never seen the login node (which lets users access all of the nodes) go offline.
It was moving day for the machines. Almost every day over that summer, my supervisor spent a few hours tending to the group’s computers, preparing to upgrade the cluster and get them a nicer home. I remember asking why he spent so much time on this; the old cluster was usable, after all. He responded that the group needed the resources, and despite having no interest in continuing with biological simulations (he now works at Amazon), he’d see it through.
And finally, the computers were getting transported from a dingy little room in the basement of the Infinite to the Bates Research and Engineering Center, a facility which once housed a linear accelerator that is now used for some miscellaneous MIT research tasks, including cluster-hosting.
My supervisor roped two other undergrads and me into helping with the move. A bumpy car ride later, we had gone from the friendly offices of 400 Technology Square to an obnoxiously loud, immaculately white room that looked like it was straight out of a sci-fi movie. There were slanted rows of giant black lockers, each with a knot of wires emerging from the top. We shoved in squishy yellow earplugs that barely blocked out the buzzing. It was like standing in a room with thousands of refrigerators, all humming away.
The other two undergrads and I were tasked with securing sliding rails in the designated lockers, sliding the computers into the appropriate shelves, and wiring them up. It took a few tries before I totally got the rhythm of it, including where to place my head relative to the fan so that my hair wouldn’t get sucked in. I’m not sure how many computers I placed and wired that day, but I know it was enough to last me a lifetime.
I marvelled at how my supervisor never seemed to tire and instead bulldozed through and even set up the software for managing all of the computers. At the time, I thought perhaps this was his duty as a graduate student, but when I think about it now, this project must have been a product of his own drive.
When we finally packed up to go back to MIT, it was already nearing 10 p.m. We padded slowly down the the concrete steps and into a warehouse-like area. Stepping out of the facility, I had a moment of realization: I had just spent hours laboring over something that I’d never use or benefit from, and this was merely a fraction of the months that my supervisor dedicated. To me, it was a fun field trip, but I wonder what meaning it held for him. Did he gain anything from it, or was it just a step in the journey? As we piled into the car, we laughed.
I attended my supervisor’s PhD defense last fall, and though I didn’t understand the bulk of it, I could pick out some familiar phrases and key terms. Most of the work I did didn’t make it into his thesis and was never published either, but the impact of that summer stays with me.
I’m a junior now, and thinking about grad school applications sometimes brings this memory back. My supervisor probably didn’t have to reassemble an entire computer cluster to complete his thesis, nor did such a task relate to his research, but he did it anyways. In five years, could I have the maturity to give my all to a project like that? Perhaps I won’t know unless something like that hits me, so until then, I’ll continue along my trajectory, per Newton’s First Law.
This article is part of the “101 Things To Do Before You Graduate” column, a series inspired by that titular list which is given to incoming freshmen. If you are interested in contributing to this column, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.