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2021 in Review: Part One

Updated: Jan 9, 2022

Entryway to McGovern Institute for Brain Research

Hello again! I can’t believe it’s been a full year since my last post, but it’s been a really busy year. During my last post, I had a break at the end of the year where I had some free to write time after a busy semester, and now I find myself at the same time of year with the same bit of time. Unfortunately, just like last year, I have decided not to travel during the winter holidays due to Covid, but that hasn’t been the case the whole year. Back when having a vaccine meant real freedom to travel, I took quite a nice road trip from Portland, Maine to San Diego, California and back to Boston this summer, racking up over 10,000 miles on the van! I’ll tell you all about it and the many other adventures I’ve had in 2021, but first, I want to explain how I’ll make the next few posts.

Although I have been quite terrible at keeping up with my Current Events blog in 2021 (let alone any of the other channels), I know that these entries will continue to stay online as long as I keep the site going. That means it doesn’t matter precisely when each entry is published if they are all being kept as an archive. So, instead of beginning with the events occurring now at the beginning of 2022, I’ve decided to create a series of four posts summarizing my experiences in the year of 2021 picking up where we left off at the end of 2020. I will keep this series in the Current Events channel even though the year has already ended, but doing it this way might be a nice way to keep the channel going and allow me to give some context to the events of today when I finally get around to posting real current events.

Here’s my plan: I’ll publish one post once a week for the first 4 weeks of 2022, beginning with the start of 2021 during the Winter semester, known as the Independent Activities Period (IAP), followed by a post covering the Spring semester to take us through to May. The third post will cover the Summer semester which will include my 10,000-mile road trip, and finally, I’ll wrap up the series with an entry from the Fall semester until the present time at the beginning of 2022. That should catch us up! I tried writing this as one long post covering the whole year and it was entirely too long, so I hope breaking it up like this will be better for all of us. It also means it’s already written, so we all can know for sure that these next posts will actually come out on time. With that explanation out of the way, let’s get started where we left off.

Independent Activities Period (IAP) – Jan 2021

After the challenging year of 2020, I was looking toward 2021 with a lot of hope. I had gotten through my qualifying exams and was ready to start getting back to a number of projects that I had put on hold as a result of the pandemic. One of the first things I got back to was the Stanford RF coil project.

It had been many months since I had last taken a look at my analyses from the summer of 2020, but even back then I realized there were a few things that were missing from my simulations. Just as a review, the Stanford RF coil project is about designing a new radio-frequency (RF) coil for MRI applications. It’s not just a regular proton imaging coil, but one that allows Carbon-13 spectroscopy as well. It’s possible to make two coils tuned to two different frequencies and have them overlap to obtain both imaging and spectroscopic information, as I have demonstrated with my first paper, but there is a real challenge in making a cylindrical array of several of these overlapping elements. The additional elements will start to interfere with each other and degrade their ability to send and receive RF signals. This is where computer simulations can be helpful. Rather than trying to solve this “coupling” issue by trial-and-error, a simulation program can be used to test various geometric configurations and see what the electric and magnetic fields would look like as well as determine the electrical properties of the coil array.

After taking a deep look at the literature, there were a few things that were missing from my simulations that I had not accounted for before, so in January, I decided to get serious about working on this project again and started by re-coding all of my simulation data. I needed to know exactly which variables I had modified in prior simulations so I would fully understand what simulations had been run before, but I also needed to have a more systematic method of testing variables. This may sound like something I should have done since the very beginning, but honestly, I didn’t know what I was doing back then. I am not an electrical engineer by training, only by practice, and that means I’m learning new things all of the time. The lesson for me at the beginning of the year was this: document everything precisely. Once I had re-coded my data and got a better understanding of what I had done in the past, I started making new simulations to fill in some of the gaps in my data. The coil project was back up and running.

My Coil Project: A Double Nuclear MR RF Coil

While getting back to that project was fun, it’s not a project that is working towards my PhD. I wanted to take a little break during the holidays from my PhD work, but after a few weeks I was back at it. One significant component of becoming a scientist is developing a firm understanding of the analytical methods most relevant to the field, and in cognitive neuroscience, the most widely-used tool is the MR scanner, which can provide data in a number of different ways. The key is to learn how to use this tool and develop statistical methods to test hypotheses about some theory linking the brain and behavior. After quals, my advisor suggested I should get familiar with some fMRI analysis before embarking on running my own study. He had some data from a study performed several years before where sixth-graders were tested in an MR scanner before and after either a mindfulness training intervention or a computer coding course. The hypothesis was that mindfulness should improve attention after training. Some parts of this study had been analyzed and published in 2019 and 2020, but there remained some unanalyzed data remaining. My advisor thought it would be good to start getting familiar with the software our lab uses to analyze brain data, FSL.

There was quite a thorough tutorial on their website, so I started from the beginning. It was a very long process of reading, watching videos, and running through practice problems, but it was very well done by the authors of the software. I must admit, it’s pretty amazing that they make the software free and are willing to show the world how to use it in such a deep manner. That is the true nature of science; collaboration towards a better understanding that will benefit us all. Well, nice as that is, analyzing brain data from an MR scanner isn’t something you can do one hour at a time. It would take me quite some time to get through these lessons, but I started them in January. It wasn’t long before something else would demand my time and take me away from the FSL tutorial. The first was a small grant proposal.

With just two-days’ notice, my advisor suggested I try to apply for a small local MIT grant. It was geared for studying workforce learning, and although I had no real interest in business, my recent qualifying exam topic involving loneliness could possibly be relevant. I wasn’t too pleased to be asked to submit a proposal with such little time before the deadline, but I managed to synthesize a decent research proposal that aimed to examine if loneliness would impact cognitive function in a workforce population. I thought of it almost as if it were an exam. Could I create a scientific study given these limited conditions? I didn’t expect much of it once I sent in the proposal, and they ended up rejecting it anyway, but it was also good practice. The better I get at grant writing, the more successful I will be as a scientist.

As we are on the topic of writing for funding, of course, my training here at MIT isn’t free. At last check, the tuition bill was $27,755.00 per semester, which is an insane amount of money. There would be no possible way for me to afford the education here if it were not for a commitment from the department to fully fund each of their students for the first three years. Operations are very “flat” at MIT, meaning there is a decentralized approach to running things at MIT, especially with education. That means each department has freedom to decide how to recruit, support, train, and ultimately graduate their students. The Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences receives a lot of financial support from donors who wish to support students during their training, which allows students like me to not only pay for tuition, but also receive top-quality health insurance and a monthly stipend. Without these donors, the department would either have to raise funds through other means, or ask the student to support themselves through external fellowships or direct payments, which would create a huge barrier to entry for aspiring scientists. I know I am quite lucky to be at a place like MIT which has such financial support.

After receiving several fellowships that supported me during my first three years at MIT, I was asked by the department to write a few thank you letters to the donors who funded those fellowships, and I was eager to do so. I couldn’t thank them enough for giving me this opportunity. Once I sent off these letters, I really didn’t expect to hear back from anyone, but two families reached out to me in January and wanted to connect. Facilitated through the department’s administrators, I had a few Zoom meetings with each family. Growing up, I never knew people who had a lot of money, and certainly I didn’t know anyone who would give their money to others outside of church tithes, so it was quite an amazing experience to get to meet the people who donated their money to financially support me and to learn their stories.

In speaking with each of the families, I realized that they had a few things in common. Both were alumni of MIT, did well in life after graduating, and had significant events in their lives that changed how they viewed research in mental health. They both wanted to support a student who was working towards a better understanding of mental health through neuroscience, and they chose me. It was quite powerful to hear each of their stories, and it was also quite liberating to share mine. After dealing with all of the struggles that I had after returning from Iraq, I had been quite ashamed about those dark years of my life. I wasn’t very excited about sharing those experiences with the wider public, but in speaking with these families who really wanted to support the future of research in mental health, I began to feel like I could validate some of my experiences by trying to help others avoid the same difficulties through my work. These families are truly investing in me. They have hope that I will someday come up with something that will really help other families in similar situations. Of course, I have that same hope, but it’s quite inspiring to see others have that same hope in me. I certainly hope I don’t let them down.

Coming to MIT has been quite a life-changing experience, but my time here hasn’t been without some consternation. Any person of color can attest to the fact that no matter how high you rise in society, you can’t escape the fact that race will always be seen first. In the past seven years, I have been at three major institutions of higher learning: UCSF, Stanford, and now MIT, each with their own police departments. Never had I been harassed by the police until I came to MIT. The first time was back in the winter of 2019, where I was sitting in my van in an MIT parking lot warming it up when some white guy walked by and looked at me in a strange way. I thought it was weird, but thought nothing more of it. A minute later, two MIT police cars came into the parking lot with their lights going and surrounded my vehicle. I thought this was going to be annoying. I was a student in a permitted parking lot. I belonged there. They approached my window, got my information, realized there was nothing going on, and they left. I couldn’t really blame the police, but I wanted to talk to that guy who thought I didn’t belong there. Why did he feel so compelled to call the police? He effectively used the police as a weapon against me. When I walked back to my building, I started to notice all of the emergency signs posted around the building. At the bottom: “See Something, Say Something.” Hmm. Seems like a call for all bigots to call the police on anyone they don’t think belongs at MIT. I really didn’t like that statement.

MIT's Emergency Response Guide

The Black Graduate Student Association at MIT was organizing an event entitled “Reimagining Public Safety” where students would speak about their experiences with MIT Police and ask if these are the types of interactions students should be having with the police officers who are sworn to protect them. Word about my experience got around to them and they asked if I’d like to speak at their event. It was a virtual event, so it would be an easy Zoom meeting. I agreed. I thought questioning the “See something, say something” statement may bring some awareness to the messages that we are broadcasting to each other in our community and ask if we want to encourage this fear-based type of messaging. Just as I agreed to participate in the event, I was harassed by the police again, and once again it was in a limited-access permit parking lot.

I was walking back to the van after a long day, and as I approached the vehicle, an MIT police officer drove around the corner towards me. He drove up, looked at me with scrutiny, and kept going. What would I have to worry about? I belonged there. I got into the van and started to drive out of the parking lot. Then the cop got behind me and turned on his lights. I thought, “WTF?”, and soon two more police cars showed up. I was surrounded. What was going on? Now I started to panic. I pulled out my phone and started recording. I didn’t know what they were thinking, but I felt like I was in danger. Why were the MIT police surrounding me? Eventually, one officer walked up to the window. “What are you doing here?” “What do you mean? I’m a student. I belong here!” “Well, we got a report of someone acting suspicious around here.” And what was I doing that was suspicious? Apparently, just being brown in an MIT parking lot. I let them check me out to find nothing wrong, and after about 30 minutes they let me go. I hated being at MIT at that moment. Nowhere else would I be harassed for being “suspicious” for no other reason than not looking like a typical student. I was so furious, and I was determined to make a powerful statement at the upcoming event.

MIT Police Pulling Me Over

"Reimagining Public Safety" was one of the most highly-attended virtual events of the year with over 700 attendees. After the murder of George Floyd and so many others, many people around the country started to ask themselves if the nature of policing in America is actually serving to protect its citizens. This event was inspired by this same line of questioning. What do we want from the MIT Police, and is there a better way to serve the students of MIT? There were some real powerful testimonies from other students during the webcast, and based on the responses I received from all over the Institute after the event, I think my message of questioning our biases before picking up the phone to call the police also had an impact. I was very clear not to blame the police directly for my experiences. They were, after all, responding to someone else’s calls; they must respond. Rather, my message was about thinking twice before “saying something” when it involves a person of color.

Being at MIT is quite daunting. Imposter syndrome is real for many, leading many to question whether they belong at a place like MIT. The very last thing this student needs is a biased person calling the police on them. Many people, including the MIT Chancellor, felt compelled to reach out to me after the event to talk about my experiences and see how they can make MIT more inclusive. I was astonished. Most of the responses included a statement along the lines of “I didn’t know people had these experiences at MIT”, and “I thought we were better than that”. I wanted to bring awareness to the situation, and it seemed to have worked! I’m so glad I participated in the event. If you want to check out the webcast, you can do so here. My segment is from 33:47 to 39:13, although I highly encourage viewing the entire webcast to gain a sense of the wide range of perspectives on this topic. Even the Chief of MIT Police comes on and speaks for a few minutes. I think it was a great discussion.

Finally, I started to become more involved with the MIT Student Veterans Association at the beginning of the year. It’s a student-led organization of veterans who were trying to advocate for veteran issues at MIT as well as build out a social community. With the isolation associated with the pandemic at the time, it felt like a good way to connect with other vets and not feel so alone. There were a number of issues regarding veterans’ benefits that were not being addressed by MIT, so there was a bit of a mission associated with being involved, and I enjoyed that. Vets helping vets. The group was really small, just six active members at the time, but they had hopes of bringing change to MIT.

I was really happy that they opened the group up to graduate students as well as undergrads. When I first arrived to MIT, I tried reaching out to the MIT SVA before, but they said they were an undergraduate organization only, which was quite disappointing, especially since there wasn’t a graduate veterans’ group. In 2020, they decided to include graduate veterans as well, so I was happy to join them after quals. In January, the leadership decided to include me in their executive board meetings, and I was delighted to become more involved in the operations of the group. This turned out to be the beginning of an interesting year with the MIT SVA. More on this in future posts.

Well, that’s my entry for the IAP of 2021, which upon review, was a lot for just one month. As I’m writing this, I wonder just how long the rest of the year is going to look. Well, lucky for you, I’ve broken those stories into a few more posts, so stay tuned for the next post covering the Spring semester of 2021. Until next week, take care friends.


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Jan 03, 2022

Thanks Omar for sharing your 2021 and I totally resonate with your critics along the line of "See something say something." Keep reminding yourself that your energy, contributions, and dedications to science and inclusivity are seen and acknowledged, and I'm sure it will continue to shine a light for many people like myself. Don't ever be defeated by those who lack the capacity to see your strengths.

Omar Rutledge
Omar Rutledge
Jan 09, 2022
Replying to

Thanks Kai! Your words are quite powerful and meaningful. Part of not becoming defeated is seeing one's own strengths for what they are, but it can become hard when others submit evidence to the contrary, no matter how wrong they actually are. Being strong within one's self requires a strength that I'm still building. I certainly appreciate your words of encouragement.

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